Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Illustration, illustrators and individual 'styles'.

Does a professional illustrator need a 'style'? This is a question that was posed by Illustration Mundo a few weeks back, and, after considering it for a while, it's finally pushed me into writing a post that I've been meaning to write for a long time.

At uni, having your own 'style' was a really big deal. It was something that first years believed they'd never possess, and the third years who'd actually achieved this were fervently admired and slightly envied. It was something that some students just seemed to develop naturally, while others spent half their time trying to force one to develop. I remember in third year during a conversation with some friends, I commented on how I didn't have a noticeable style to my work - this was an issue that constantly played on my mind at the time. I felt that although each piece of work I created worked well as an illustration in itself, each individual image was inconsistent in style, and wasn't recognisable as being created by the same illustrator. However, my friends immediately interrupted saying that wasn't true at all. They said my use of hand-drawn typography, and also just my style of drawing, was consistent throughout my work, making it obvious that I created it.

Although this probably wasn't true at the time, or if it was I couldn't see it, I have come to realise that the children's illustration work I create is generally recognisable as my work. During the development of my children's book I'm a little bit scared of... I focussed a lot on character design, and the outcome was the development of a mixed media approach which combines collage with hand-drawn elements. Looking back over the children's book illustration I created during second and third year, I find it interesting to look at how my style developed.

At the time, I thought the more realistic, purely collaged characters I developed as part of the first book I created in third year, I Hate My Freckles, would be 'my style' - I was happy with how it looked visually, and truly believed I would continue to create illustrations in a similar way forever. Evidently I changed my mind; and this was not only due to the fact that I'd cut out so many eyes from the models in hairdressing magazines that I was starting to feel a little guilty. I still use cut-out eyes in my illustrations, but much more sparingly, and mainly when I want a character to look sinister or scary or just silly. Despite the bright, tactile appearance of the collaged characters, the intricate detail in each one made them incredibly difficult to recreate, and since character consistancy is vital in a children's book, I knew I needed to create a versatile method of working with a flexibility that allowed the creation of identical characters in varied positions and situations, and I also knew I need to find a way of working that was slightly (and in retrospect, it's actually probably exactly the same) less time-consuming. The very first character in the images above is part of a book I created in second year - I find it interesting to see how the style of my characters now are actually much more similar to that, then the characters I was producing at the beginning of third year. Anyway, in respect of my children's book illustrations, the style I developed a few years ago and the style I use now are very similar - definitely similar enough, in my opinion, for people to recognise them all as having been produced by the same illustrator.

Recently however, I have been dabbling in a bit of fashion illustration. It's very early days, and if you look at all the seperate fashion illos I've created over the past month, they're all very different - to me, there is no definitely consistent style. This in itself doesn't bother me as I am still experimenting in the area, but what has occurred to me is that the initial quesion would probably be better phrased as; Does a professional illustrator need a 'style' or 'styles'? Basically, even if I DO develop a recognisable fashion illustration style, it is never ever going to be anything like my children's book illustration style, as each area of illustration is so different, and each has its own set of expectations. Upon seeing an example of each, even placed next to each other, I'm pretty sure no-one would think that both pieces had been created by the same illustrator. Judge for yourself;

Most illustrators seem to have just one consistent style. Take a look at the work of illustrators such as Sara Fanelli, Lauren Child and Oliver Jeffers, and and you'll see what I mean; the minute you see a piece of their work, you KNOW it's theirs. You can tell who created the piece immediately purely because their work has such a strong, recognisable style. THEIR style. You might argue that they are all established illustrators with years of experience under their belt, and that such a strong style will develop with time and practice, but then look at the work of some of the amazing younger illustrators - some of whom haven't even graduated yet - that I've become aware of, mainly through Twitter. Abby Wright's work springs immediately to mind, along with Kate Slater and the lovely Kyoko Nishimura, all of whom are examples of illustrators whose work displays a very strong, consistent and highly recognisable style. Obviously, I'm not suggesting that you develop a style and then that's it, done; but looking at the earlier work of some illustrators, you can see how their style has evolved and how their earlier work has influenced the development of the work they create today. These three images of Sara Fanelli's work are a perfect example. Yes, her later imagery has a stronger and more polished appearance, but even though the illustrations were produced at almost five year intervals, they are all still clearly recognisable as Fanelli's work.
I guess really, in synopsis form for those of you who have just skipped to the end, I'm just interested to hear people's opinions on this. Do you consider an individual, recognisable 'style' to be important in becoming a successful and well-recognised illustrator? Do you think a single illustrator can have a number of different 'styles'? Is it possible for an illustrator to have just one 'style' which covers all areas of illustration, even those at different ends of the spectrum?

I also often wonder whether my work does display a recognisable style, and whether it's just me who can't see it - I'd definitely be interested to hear your opinions on that too. :]


  1. Hey Madi! Really interesting post! When we were doing all those fashion illustrations for Amelia's Mag I looked through the articles and I could easily spot which ones you had done. You have a really lovely style and even though the work was different from your children's stuff I could still recognise them as yours. I think the way you use lines in your drawings stand out as yours and the way you do your collaging.

    It's strange because when I look at my work I know myself that I don't have a style. One day I will use acrylic, the next day watercolour and the next just simple pencil, I have no consistency because I'm still trying to find myself in my illustrations. My boyfriend says he can tell something is mine but maybe I have different styles without realising? It would a lot easier on myself if I had one definitive style!

    Kerri-Ann xx

  2. Oh great post I always think about this myself, I don't feel as though I have a definite style and it does worry me that I may not ever.

    I agree totally with Kerri-Ann about recognising your work in Amelia's. I instantly recognise your illustrations and the way you use collage in your work, likewise I recognise Kerri-Anns'work too. I always love skimming through Amelia's mag articles trying to guess who did what illustration.

    I now sort of think also.. who cares if you don't particularly have a definite style. If you do different types of illustration such as fashion, childrens' books, editorial, portraiture.. they all are completely different and unique so why not have different styles to adapt to each topic.. why not? It's versatile and gives us, the illustrators, a chance to try something new to develop our style and evolve our skills.

  3. Thank you so much for mentioning my work!

    I think continuing to experiment and adapting and improving a style is important too. At uni, they're also talking about the importance of finding a personal style but also continuing to experiment and not becoming restricted or find yourself getting bored. I think this is so important.

    And I agree with Avril, different areas can have a different approach because they are so different! I can't remember a name right now, but we were talking at uni about a guy who gives himself different names for each field and has completely separate portfolios.. I say why not?! Keeps everything fresh and exciting for you and allows a bit of dabbling in all areas hehe!

    Like you say, you're still experimenting in the fashion illustration area and I think when you find an approach that you love, you'll probably want to re-visit it often and a style will fall into place. But yes, I must say I do find myself recognising your work when I see it! :)

    Abby xx

  4. Thanks for your comments guys - it's ace to hear some opinions. This is something that's been going round in my head for a while, and it was good to write it all down and get some perspective and some other opinions on it.

    I'm quite surprised, but also pretty pleased, that you all recognise my work. Kerri-Ann, I could always spot your fashion illustrations in Amelia's Magazine too, and Avril you are another illustrator whose work, like Abby's, has a very strong and consistent style - I always recognise your work, so you have nothing to worry about. :]

    Abby, our tutors at uni were the same - there was an emphasis on the fact that having your own style was important, but this was balanced with the need to continue to experiment and evolve your work, so it doesn't become boring and out-dated.

    It's interesting that someone would have different names and portfolios for each area they works in, because that's kind of how I feel about my work - each area I work in, the illos created are totally different and separate from each other. I definitely agree with Avril in that having different styles and being able to adapt to different types of work makes us more versatile as illustrators - although I love children's illustration, I have really enjoyed experimenting in other areas recently, and it's made me realise it's important not to type cast yourself too early on - when I left uni, I mainly thought of myself as a children's book illustrator, but that completely shuts out so many illustration opportunities. I still really enjoy experimenting with different materials and ideas, and I'm still developing as an illustrator, so I should probably stop worrying about it so much, and just enjoy it, and if I develop a style then so be it! Still, it's definitely good to hear that you guys all recognise my work!

    Madi xx

  5. Hey Madi, i actually went to the same uni as you but graduated the yr before, i can relate alot to what you have written, along with probably most other illustrators. i actually wrote a reply 3 times but every time accidentally clicked a link and lost everything, so for the 3rd time here is what i think lol....

    .... i think the 2 most important things about having a 'style' is having confidence and knowing your strengths. if i can reffer to some of our old lecturers... Amanda once said to me, dont be a Jack of all trades, because a person who has mastered one areas will get the job. those words a so true and that really relates to knowing your strengths, all the illustrators you have mentioned do, they have got their work from similar areas 90% of the time not from across the board, I.E Sara Fanelli mostly works in editorial and publishing ( the same i would say goes for you) . Now, take Joel, the guy is a legend, but, ive neva been a fan of his work. i think it lacks a definitive style and isnt recognizable, but check out his client list, you cant knock it. the guy is full of confidence and knows what his strengths are when it comes to finding work. so to respond to you summary, i think it would be very hard to have one style that fits across the board and isnt often done until you are very established, having a style you are known for is about knowing your strengths and i think if you want to take it a step further you should look at it from the point of view of an art director. they want someone who can do the job for their area to the highest level, if your flicking between different ends of the spectrum your going to find it hard to show that. get confident in one end of it and once you have that confidence you can take the methods further and further. other wise you'll be going round in circles. thats what i think, and from the advice i have been given from people like raul allen, oliver Kuglar and jasper goodall. there's no reason you cant have a crack at the other end but if your coming up with 2 very different outcomes it probably means your trying to fit your work to a style rather than do your own. i hope that makes sense, if so YEY! if not, the first one i wrote was much better lol

  6. Hi Madi, this is very interesting reading for me as I don't have either an art degree OR a style! I think too you have a consistent style that goes through the different genres of illustration you do, there are some variations obviously, but also similarities so you can see a stylistic "thread" as it were. Which I think is entirely appropriate and OK. Now, I'm off to find my style!! probably not going to get an art or illustration degree however so I'm doing my learning in the university of Life or maybe that should be the uni of Twitter!


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