As an illustrator, I am often asked how I developed my unique and expressive style. My goal in my own work has always been to have a strong voice and for it to overflow with personality.
The style question is a huge one for anyone serious about illustrating, but the answers are elusive. In this article, I hope to demystify developing a style a little bit and give you a few actionable steps that should point you in the right direction.
What’s tricky about this topic is that the precise definition of style and its importance varies from artist to artist. Some swear by having a very strict style, whereas others consider that too limiting. For instance, illustrators like Jing Wei or Magoz have a very consistent style and technique and they are very disciplined in sticking to it. On the other hand, illustrators like Kyle T. Webster or Stephanie Wunderlich, who have a lot of variety within their own body of work, whether through style or technique, but somehow still have a strong, identifiable voice through all of it.
Personally, I tend to admire illustrators from the first group, but I identify more with the second group. I’ve often thought I should be more disciplined and consistent throughout my work, but it turns out I enjoy mixing things up too much to be that strict about style.
All this to say, I have thought a lot about style—about what it means, and how to develop it. The most important things for me in my own pursuit of style are authenticity and enjoyment. The themes, techniques, and graphic elements that go into any given piece should be appropriate to the subject and should be an outpouring both of my own perspective and my joy of creating.
Developing a style comes with practice, trial and error, and, you guessed it, patience. But you already know that part. What else can you do? Here are ten tips that I have found helpful in my own work.
1. Define your goals
No matter where you are in your illustration journey, it’s important to have a sense of direction. When we have goals, we have something to aim at, and thus a clear direction. If we don’t have goals, we tend to meander or never really commit to any one thing long enough to see if it will work.
What kind of goals should you set up? I think it’s less about picking any specific techniques, tools, or qualitative aspect of your work, and more about looking at the kind of space you want to be a part of. Who are your favorite illustrators? Where does their work end up? Who are their clients? What kind of illustration do you want to make? Where or how would you like your work to be used? Who are your dream clients? If you can answer these questions, you can start to get a sense of direction.
I strongly believe that these are very important questions to ask at first, and if you don’t, your progress as an illustrator will stagnate.
2. Put more You in your work
You probably follow a few illustrators and would be able to identify their work in the wild, even if it didn’t have their name on it. What is it about an illustrator’s style that makes it so easy to identify? Is it simply how they use color or line quality? That’s part of it.
But there’s something deeper going on. Have you ever noticed how top illustrators have recurring patterns throughout their body of work? I’m not talking about literal patterns like checkerboard or zig-zags, (but that could be part of it too).
Look at the way they handle subjects, the symbols they use, whether they use the human figure a lot, or perhaps use machine metaphors—it’s likely these decisions have little to do with the brief and everything to do with the illustrator’s personal obsessions. Stephanie Wunderlich returns again and again to expressive, stylized figures.
What are you likely to return to again and again in your work? Think about the objects and symbols you use over and again or a certain graphic that for whatever reason end up in your doodles. Think about how you can incorporate these natural, subconscious tendencies more into your work.
Sometimes it can be random, and other times it can be very purposeful. Every now and then, look at a bunch of your own illustrations and see what patterns emerge. You can then identify what your signature moves are and lean into these more confidently over time.
3. Identify your heroes
Identify artists whose work you would define as having the kind of personality you’re looking for. Study them, be inspired by them, and, at first, emulate them. Over time, your style will drift away from emulation, and you will start seeing innovations and adaptations that are uniquely yours. Because you likely have more than one hero, your own work will probably mix in a variety of influences.
4. Draw from life
It may sound silly, but many illustrators don’t like actually drawing—especially from life. But drawing from life is one of the best ways to grow and progress as an illustrator. When I talk about drawing from life, I mostly mean drawing from direct observation. It has nothing to do with the skill in which this is done.
I think a lot of people are discouraged from drawing from observation because they struggle to draw realistically. More important than drawing realistically, more important than what actually ends up on your page, is the process of drawing.More important than what actually ends up on your page, is the process of drawing.
When you sit yourself down, commit to drawing something for as little as five minutes, you start to see your subject in a totally different way. You begin to really look at the object and notice things about it that simply never occurred to you before. The superpower of all artists, whether it be writers, painters, or illustrators, is their ability to see what others don’t. Drawing from life trains you to see more.
5. Draw from memory
For some, drawing from life or drawing realistically comes easy. Their challenge is to do away with any semblance of realism and to draw more intuitively, the way a child naturally does. Here’s a creative prompt for you: on a blank page, draw as many things as you can from memory. Whatever object comes to mind, just draw it and then move onto the next thing. No peeking at any real objects or references!
Another exercise is to draw a handful of objects from real life or reference images and then try drawing them again from memory (again, no peeking at your references or your first drawings). I love this exercise because it forces us to draw from the broken up bits of information we remember in our heads. The way in which we fill in the gaps in our memory or your natural way of handling things like perspective become clues to your natural drawing style.
6. Interpret, don’t imitate
Generally speaking, it’s easier to draw something literally as you see it than to draw it in a more interpretive way. For adults, I think it’s easier because it’s safer. There are fewer creative decisions at play when we’re simply taking cues from an external reference. Thus, we cannot be judged for what we draw as there’s no original content. It’s far more risky to take liberties, to intentionally distort form, to use the wrong colors, to allow natural, undisciplined marks to happen under our supervision.
The hallmark of a good illustrator is their ability to transform a common idea or object into something more symbolic or spiritual.The hallmark of a good illustrator is their ability to transform a common idea or object into something more symbolic or spiritual.
To do this, these illustrators set aside a certain degree of realism or correctness and allow their intuitions to run free. Such illustrators don’t just copy what they observe in real life and put it down on paper verbatim. The value of illustration is the spiritual or emotional layer—in art terms, the effect they bring to a subject.
A crude example of this is in caricature, where something true about the subject is emphasized or distorted while their overall likeness is preserved. It is an interpretation. For an even higher degree of interpretation, look at modernist book covers or jazz album covers from the 1950s and 1960s. The artists seem to reject direct representation in favor of more abstract elements of color and shape to express the intangible.
7. Check in with your feelings
Since intangible feelings are so important to style, it makes sense that we should be more aware of our own feelings. Pay attention to your emotions while you are drawing. Do certain feelings relate to specific ways of drawing? Do you feel notably confident in certain situations?
For me, there is a very specific confidence and joy I experience when drawing in a certain way. When I draw from this mode, I do my best work. In the same way that a seismograph records movements of the earth beneath our feet, drawings chart out the movements of our souls. When we draw, our hand, head, and heart are all connected, and this is visualized in the qualities of our art.
Practically speaking, when you’re sketching for an illustration project, the first sketches you produce will be the truest charts of your emotions, and that is why there is always a freshness in early sketches that cannot be repeated in further iterations. Over time, we can learn to anticipate the qualities of our most intuitive drawings and even summon them forth on command.
8. Resist the temptation of perfection
As both an illustrator and a designer, one of the hardest things for me to learn has been to trust in my intuition. I can spend hours arranging and rearranging layouts, obsessively and fruitlessly trying to achieve the perfect visual solution. With illustration, I still easily get lost in tiny details; I could spend hours trying to draw the most natural feeling stroke in a character’s arm pit, for example.
The truth is, after a certain amount of experience and training as an artist, there’s a hard limit on how good anything I do will be. In fact, the harder I try, and the more I abuse the Undo function, the worse things tend to get. The ultimate worst thing, however, is how such a pursuit chips away at my confidence in anything I’ve tried.
I’m not saying you won’t improve in skill over time, but in any given moment, you’ve got what you’ve got and that’s it. What you lack in perfection or precision, you must make up for in some other way. This is where intuition comes in. Intuition is part gut feeling, part trust, and part experience. I’ve learned how to let go of trying to draw in an exact certain way and embrace the kind of drawing that just naturally comes out.
In fact, over time, I’ve learned how to lean into it and even throttle it up on demand. Knowing that the only other option is wasting half a day getting lost in the weeds, I have to trust that what I made in my first few sketches is probably going to be better (and certainly not worse) than anything else I do in excess.
I said earlier that I’ve had to learn to trust my intuition, but I must acknowledge this is a muscle that needs training for most of us. Paradoxically, our intuition must earn our trust in order to be of use. When we’re just starting out, we don’t have enough experience to say whether something is good or bad.
Over time, we learn what works and doesn’t, and we also better understand the limits of our abilities. At first, we probably do need to spend more time aiming for perfection. But there should come a time when we know when we’ve reached max perfection and need to move onto the next thing.
9. Exude confidence
People who are early on in their artistic journey tend to draw very tentatively. They hold the pencil lightly and build up what they are trying to draw with short, light strokes, eventually building up to the full form of the thing they are drawing. To me, this is the mark of an underdeveloped illustrator. Drawings made this way look over-thought and lack confidence.
If you want your illustrations to stand out, they must exude confidence. What does confidence look like? It is sure of itself. It has a sense of direction. There is an intention from start to finish—a sense of purpose. Rather than a series of short, shy strokes, confidence is a continuous, unbroken line, curving in undulations or turning sharp angles with a strange mix of precision and abandon.We often look at brilliant work and imagine that it must be so easy and natural for the artist. That’s what they were hoping.
But here’s the secret: even experienced illustrators often start new drawings with less than confident strokes. Usually, a sketch must go through multiple iterations before it starts to look purposeful and confident. The sense of direction that lends to this feeling comes only by more roughly charting it in earlier iterations.
Your first sketch might be tentative as anything, and it might take you many iterations, to get to the final, but the final should look as though it was made as effortlessly as possible. We often look at brilliant work and imagine that it must be so easy and natural for the artist. That’s what they were hoping.
10. Expose yourself
The whole point of being an illustrator and having a successful style is to communicate and connect with others. If our work fails to resonate with others, there is no point. However, failure to connect in your art today should not be the end of the story. We grow by sharing our early work with others and getting feedback. Sometimes this feedback comes because you’ve asked for it—perhaps inviting your partner to take a look and say what they think.
My point here is that in order to develop your style and voice as an artist, you need to test it on actual, real people. This makes you vulnerable, and sometimes it’s really hard to get feedback you were hoping not to get, but this is exactly what we need to grow. When getting better at anything, our natural, comfortable abilities only get us to a certain level. Pushing past that level always hurts—and sometimes hurts to the point of tears. But being tough and brave and teachable is the only way to become stronger. This is as true in developing your style as in anything else.
So these are my top ten ways to develop your illustration style. It all boils down to having a sense of direction, lots of practice and experimentation, and looking for ways of injecting yourself into the work. When you do this with an open heart, sharing with others, you start to get a sense of who you are as an illustrator. At a certain point, you start seeing the patterns and can lean into them more intentionally. This intentionality will shine through in your work, and others will be drawn to it. They will recognize your voice, and then, they will be asking you, not me, how you developed your style.