Finding Your Illustration Style

Thursday, 2 July 2015

When you think of Graeme Base or Stephen Michael King, Shaun Tan or Dick Bruna, I’m sure an illustration style immediately pops to mind. Each of these talented people have a particular style they’ve honed over the years. It’s become a sort of ‘trademark’—instant recognition {also called visual branding} that’s highly beneficial in a marketing sense.

Illustrators often say they don’t ‘see’ their own illustration style, yet others can readily pick it in an illustration line-up. Less experienced illustrators say they have a dream style, yet they’re either not sure exactly what it is {lack of focus} or feel they’re not capable of it {lack of self-belief}.

I’m one of these people. I’ve watched and admired many illustrators over the years. Each time I’ve admired their work, a thought goes through my mind:

‘Oh my, how I wish I could do that.’

… followed closely by …

‘I could never, ever, not in a million years, do that.’

… followed by a combined sense of resignation, sadness and quiet acceptance.

One of the reasons I began the 52-Week Illustration Challenge was to eliminate the above scenario. I no longer wanted to feel those things. I wanted to be able to reconnect with illustrating and to re-learn how to draw really well—to work hard and develop a style I adored.

The Challenge has been instrumental in not only developing my style but in improving my work exponentially. The resultant style I’ve managed to hone is absolutely inspired by other artists, but it’s also completely my own. See the image at the top of this post. On the left is Week 2 of the Challenge … and on the right is Week 46 {both images done in 2014}. The second image is around eight months old now, so I've come even further in that time!

Discovering You

Finding my own style has been a combination of three things:
  • accepting my artistic limits
  • doing what I love
  • practice
When I say accepting my limits, I don't mean I don't want to improve. While I can thoroughly admire fine artists or illustrators who produce photographic-style imagery that takes days if not weeks to produce, this is not the style I'm good at. My style is naive and this is what brings me pleasure. And on top of that, I simply don't have the patience to complete long or finely detailed works!

So, no, I do not have the skills of a fine artist, but the important thing is--I don't want them. Actually, let me rephrase that--I would love the skills of a fine artist--who wouldn't? But I don't want to produce fine art. I want to produce naive style illustrations--that's the style that makes my heart sing.

When we work in styles that we love, we produce better work, I really believe that. My suggestion is to spend a lot of time LOOKING at works in the style you love. Frequent Pinterest and read picture books and admire artworks that epitomise your dream style. Spend time studying and looking at them. Keep a folder on your computer with images that inspire you. Then practice in that style.

From there, it's just a matter of 'letting go'. And of course, practice practice practice.

When reading up on the way our brains ‘develop’ our capabilities and talents, I found it fascinating to learn that you can actually become a better artist with consistent practice. Sounds obvious, right? Not really. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always seen artistic talent as something ‘innate’. You can either draw, or you can’t, and if you ask any non-drawer, they’ll tell you the same thing—they ‘can’t draw’.

Actually, we can all draw.

Children are by far the best artists. They know they can draw—they never question themselves when creating an image—not till the critical brain kicks in, around age 7 or 8 {sometimes earlier}.

Below you’ll see a series of images by kids from the 52-Week Illustration Challenge. None of these children were bound by inner or outer constraints or self-criticism. None of them compared their work with others during their creative process.

They just did it. And what phenomenal results.

When we practice, each and every line we draw, each and every colour palette we access, each and every squint-and-shade, becomes part of our inner paint box. That paint box becomes a ‘tool’ and the more we use it, the sharper and faster and more skilled we become.

When we let go of comparisons and expectations, and give our left brains the afternoon off, we can create brilliant works that flow from our creative core. We can do this is by drawing with our non-dominant hand, and with blind contour drawing.

For non-dominant hand drawing, open a page in your journal or drawing book. Using your non-dominant hand, sketch several different heads, allowing your hand to freely move—not attempting to control the lines, but rather allowing them to unfold. Now do the same with your dominant hand.

Compare the two. Which ones do you prefer? Can you see the freedom and styling of the lines your non-dominant achieved?

Accessing the less ‘conscious’ side of your brain in this way can produce some startling results. Our dominant hand is more skilled and so creates an image in parallel with what we already know—that in our mind’s eye. Using the non-dominant hand forces you to really ‘see’ rather than ‘know’. When drawing still life, a great artist spends more time looking at an object than actually drawing it. If you are looking at your drawing more than your object, you are blocking that innate creative flow and the result can suffer.

Here are the results of my non-dominant hand sketches. I was convinced they would be woeful, but was astounded by how much I loved them!

For blind contour drawing, find some pictures of an animal you love. Holding your eyes on the image, begin drawing. DO NOT look at your work until you're done. If you feel nervous, you can do the drawing in one continuous line, though it’s often more interesting to see the result when you do lift your pencil from the paper.

Take a look at your finished product. Revel in the freedom and beauty of the lines, that effect so much movement and emotion. Revel in the absence of self-consciousness. This is how children draw.

Here are my blind drawing giraffes. They’re no Magritte, but they make me smile to bursting, and I absolutely love them.

I hope you love what you create.


While you're honing your skills and developing your style, think about the mediums you're using. It's astounding how dependent the quality of our work can be on the mediums we use. I've seen many an illustrator or artist work in one medium and do quite well, then work in another--and really, really shine.

We all have our preferred mediums but it's great to explore others. Whether it be pastels, watercolour, oil or digital art, think about ways you can complement and extend the look of your work by combining mediums.

Right now, for my first illustrated picture book, I'm combining digital art with monoprinting, watercolour and fine liners. The result sounds odd but it's proving to be the ideal toolbox for the 'look' I want. I'm achieving results I would never have been able to achieve with watercolour alone, because I know my 'limits'.

The Right Way

There's no right way, in my opinion!

The funny thing is, I've always thought there was a right way (and I'm sure there still is for the purists), but after speaking with many artists these past 18 months, I've learned that the only right way is your way.

Most certainly, there are techniques to get the best out of certain mediums, and we should all explore those. But if you need to use mediums in kooky ways to achieve the results you have in your mind, I say go for it.

I actually LOVE hearing about the ways illustrators manipulate mediums in creative ways. The results can be utterly stunning.

Does it really matter?

Does having a set 'style' really matter? Although many artists work in one recognisable style (think Freya Blackwood, Stephen Michael King and Bob Graham), there are many who work in varying styles and mediums (think Sue deGennaro, Emma Quay and Bruce Whatley).

I think perhaps we get really hung up on having a style that can be recognised, when what we should be focusing on is a style (or several styles) that bring us delight. When we love what we do and when our work brings US pleasure, it's far more likely to bring pleasure to others. When we try to manipulate it to look a certain way or to fit a certain market, it loses its soul.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's okay not to be so defined. Art is about telling stories through image. It's about passion and doing what we love--what calls to us. When we do this, a generic style naturally develops through our work--perhaps via the use of specific colour or character dynamics--and people can 'see' it even if we work in varying mediums or styles.

I hope you have fun exploring your own style. Don't be afraid to 'copy' the style of other artists while you're developing and practicing. Everything anyone ever does is influenced by the outside world and the work of others, and is a mish-mash of all we have seen and experienced in life. If you consistently practice and explore the styles you love, a natural, unique style of your own will come to the fore.

Have fun--I know I am!

Be sure to check out my author illustrator resources page for many more tips to help your creative journey. My Fantastical Flying Creator e-book is also crammed with 25 years of experience, and over 70 exercises. Click the poster below for more.


Anonymous said...

Love this post Tania, and all the work is so great.

Sheryl Gwyther said...

A very interesting and enjoyable blog post, Tania. I love this thoughtful and practical documentation of your journey into finding your own style. :)
xx Sheryl
PS Especially love the giraffes too.

Nicky Johnston said...

A fabulous post - I found myself nodding, nodding, nodding....thank you for sharing!

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