How to Cultivate a Unique Illustration Style
This is what all of us artists want, right? To create work that’s never been seen before - work that is truly, and recognizably ours. I would argue that having a unique illustration style is what takes an illustration portfolio from good to great. All of the artists I admire have successfully accomplished this feat.
I’ve spent years trying to cultivate an illustration style of my own. As I’ve developed practices for honing in on my style, I’ve finally started to see results. In fact, I’ve seen such wonderful results that I’ve written an ebook on the topic. This article is the short version of my philosophy.
In order to cultivate a unique illustration style, we must first understand what style means. Style is defined in the dictionary as a manner of doing something, also as a way of behaving or approaching a situation that is characteristic of or favored by a particular person. To me, this says that style means consistency. It’s making the same predictable choices over and over again. Trust me, rules are the secret to happy creating. Nothing will squash creativity quicker than the idea that anything and everything goes.
I hope the term “rules” doesn’t scare you away. By rules, I simply mean “enforced preferences” - identifying what you like, and making the commitment to apply that knowledge to your work.
In order to create rules, we must first identify our preferences. This involves looking for inspiration, and making note of what we find beautiful. A lot of us are more clear on the style of clothing or home decor we like, than the style of illustrations we prefer. I find this surprising, because it’s all the same. All of our visual preferences should be cohesive.
For example, I love brass home accessories and jewelry. At some point, I realized that I like my illustrations best when I incorporate gold paint. This realization may seem obvious, but it actually took me a long time to figure out! Once I gave myself the "rule” of using gold paint in my work, I had to spend some time figuring out how and when to use it. Creating rules requires a some thought and experimentation. This is where your sketchbook will become your best friend.
My favorite sketchbook exercise is to illustrate something over and over again, making little style tweaks to each illustration. I then put a star next to what I like best, and apply the learnings to my future work. You can read more about this method here.
There many other factors that comprise an illustration - subject matter and color palette are two. By identifying our preferences and creating rules in each of these categories, we can create illustrations that are extremely unique.
Now that you’re aware of how rules comprise a unique illustration style, look at the work of your favorite illustrator. See if you can identify their style rules. You may notice that they always use the same color palette. Or maybe they always illustrate the same types of things. They may work with a really unique medium, or combination of mediums. Whatever these rules are, I guarantee its what makes their work special. These unique rules are probably the reason you love their work, and the reason they get hired by clients. They probably collaborate with brands that align with their style, allowing them to showcase their best work.
I could go on and on about this topic, but my main objective is to encourage you to think about your work differently. Us artists focus too much on how “good” our work is, and too little on if it looks like us. There’s no point in comparing ourselves to other artists. They are different people, with a different set of life experiences and preferences. I don’t believe that one artist is ever better than another. I only think that some artists are more in touch with their likes and dislikes.
Once I started to think about art this way, I finally found peace in my work. I’ve learned to enjoy the process of creating, and to see every illustration as an opportunity to get in touch with my inner self. I would love if every artist would stop beating themselves up about their work. Let’s start focusing on self-expression - on how much of our true self is reflected in our work. Imagine how much more colorful the art world would be if everyone was able to do this.
*For more on cultivating a unique illustration style, you can purchase my newly released ebook Illustrious: A Guide to Cultivating A Unique Illustration Style. It’s packed with 65 pages of insights, exercises, and worksheets to help you become a better artists.