As artists and illustrators, we constantly talk about style. It seems the most coveted aspect of our practice. We consider it the most important goal when we want to be known or recognized. Well-known artist’s portfolios are cohesive and consistent.
We rarely see the steps it took to get there.
It’s advantageous, no doubt. A distinctive and attractive style makes it easily identifiable. People will hire us for what we are known. Our name could suddenly be in high demand.
All this sounds great if you want to be a commercial artist.
Your style is your calling card if you work with clients, brands, publishers, and art directors.
But is the visual style the only thing that counts? As a non-commercial artist, style seems a bit of a looser concept.
You Don’t Need To Find your Style
In this case, I would argue that you don’t need a unique style. Instead, you want “subject matter.”
Subject matter makes your work interesting, though maybe not beautiful nor saleable. The subject matter and your interpretation are what make it unique.
Subject matter is made of the themes you explore; they are an aggregation of everything interesting to you; I can almost be sure it hasn’t changed much since you learned to read.
These themes are magnets; you aren’t even aware that pull you again and again to read more about the topic that fascinates you. There is a collaboration between that topic and the way you feel and talk about it.
Suppose you are a person with an independent mind. In that case, you can never get enough of the subject and everything you discover, every new author, artist, musician, interview, movie, article, etc. you will take it in.
With subject matter, you want to say something, and you reach for the medium that best conveys it; you don’t have to fit a square peg in a round hole, which is what many artists find they have to do when their style is so recognizable they can’t step too far away from it.
Many of the classes and articles about finding your style I’ve encountered have you do exercises to help you know yourself. That’s OK; they are helpful. But I find it a bit sad that you have to do that. Most of these classes make you cobble together pieces of yourself, seeking the relationships and patterns superficially. Some focus solely on graphic and visual execution to build a portfolio.
So before you go down the rabbit-hole of finding your style, ask yourself:
What is your work for?
If it’s to make a career in illustration or commercial art, then yes, you need that consistent, unmistakable style based almost on a formula.
But if you are an artist who has a fundamental need to create and this need is a non-negotiable part of your life and well-being, focusing too much on finding a “Style” ignores the powerful ways you can tackle the subject matter you want.
How did I come to this conclusion?
For years, I created single image artworks: botanicals, animals, abstracts, portraits, landscapes, and I kept searching for a style. I explored different mediums; I took many classes with well-established artists and ended up absorbing their technique and look; But I was never happy with what I made.
I didn’t find my work interesting in the least. It was pretty to look at, but it seemed boring. I wanted my work to have more narrative. I tried comics and graphic novels, but that wasn’t it.
I wanted my work to have lots to look at, and I wanted to talk about complex topics, one of which is the theme of solitude. It’s a theme that stretches far and wide in everything that interests me: the movies and books about solitary characters, the landscapes where there isn’t a soul, the coziness of a room with someone sitting by a lamp without being disturbed, etc.
I wanted to distinguish between the solitary and the lonely. I tried to uncover why solitary people are usually stigmatized; why is the word loner used with such contempt? What does it mean to be a Latina if I’m not at ease in the collective? What consequences are for the non-joiners?
So I began to draw what represented this theme. The medium didn’t matter. I felt free to experiment with everything at my disposal.
Both of the InFlow residencies helped. I work side by side with the participants, and by having a project in mind, a sort-of-plan and direction, I was able to break free from the single image and begin to expand in many directions: in paper size, in mediums, in mark-making, in drawing and within my imagination.
I was not thinking in terms of colour or style at any point. It was until I had a good stack of drawings, I put them on the floor and found patterns in shape, colour, line, texture, etc.
I took note of things that I wanted to repeat and cut up drawings that I didn’t like. This was unthinkable a couple of years ago.
I love to draw in many ways. On Patreon, I share the different approaches I have to tackle a drawing. Materiality became more important, rubbing, scraping, using my whole arm, my hand to rub large areas. Before I was too exact, too precious, and now I can lift colour, or bits of line, and redraw on the same page as many times as I want.
What also helped me was the conversation with participants during the InFlow residency. We don’t talk about the tired old topics: social media, the dreaded word “creativity”, “style,” etc. Instead, we talk about our work, we reflect, we work with intention and purpose. We don’t splatter or faff about. Instead, participants in the residency are seeking to take their work further to make it interesting.
I continue to take classes, mainly on Domestika, although now, when I take a class, I usually ask myself, how will I use this in my new approach? I listen for the almost imperceptible tips the teachers give throughout their demos. That’s where the gold is.
In my e-book, The Guide to Creative Independence, you will find an in-depth roadmap to reflect and find your subject matter. To understand the themes that obsess you and create from them. It’s also a window into freedom, especially if you feel drowning in social media’s visual ocean.
It’s challenging to find our paths. I’m guilty of following trends and styles, but the result was always the same, the initial wow faded and dissatisfaction set in.
It hasn’t been easy. Some people arrive to their subject matter quite fast, and so a style emerges with it. For me, it’s been an uphill road. My number one activity is learning, and so: give me classes, books, tutorials, new concepts, and new ways, but at one point, I have to use what I learn
I’d love to know what you think! Please send me an email, or contact me via IG!
Also, if you want to see this imperfect, messy but oh so satisfying process, join me on Patreon. Take a peek into the sketchbooks, watch some of my drawing demos and once a month co-create with me.