One of the greatest challenges of any young artist is finding a unique style. Many of us try to craft a style, brainstorming over and over in an attempt to come up with a new distinctive look that no one has ever used before. These efforts usually, as I’m sure you can confirm, end in failure. Then we read more and we learn more about how the successful artists got to where they are and they all tell us that a signature style isn’t something you sit down and make – a signature style is something that naturally grows out of your constant and continued efforts to get better at doing what you love to do.
This advice helps us not in the slightest. It’s akin to being told that the only way to get fit is to eat healthy and exercise – and then keep doing that, forever. It’s not what we want to hear – we’d much rather discover that nonexistent magic pill that will fix everything in an instant. Our heads fill with uncertainty. But what if I want to work in more than one style? What if my creativity cannot be contained in a single look? What should I start from? When will I finally grow into this style of mine? What if it never happens? What if I find it and it’s the same as someone else’s?
The questions are natural and unavoidable, as with any endeavor in life that requires long periods of faith and dedication before showing any tangible results. But I’ll try to answer them in a way that will make things feel less uncertain.
1. What if I can’t contain myself to a single style? It’s totally natural for artists who are starting out to want to experiment with many different styles, materials, subject matters and moods. It’s also incredibly useful and important. If you don’t try out all sorts of different things, how will you ever know what feels like the best fit? Try to resign yourself to the fact that in the beginning your portfolio won’t look very coherent, since your results will be both hit-and-miss in terms of quality and probably quite disparate in terms of style.
2. But how will I achieve my recognizable ‘brand look’ then? As time goes on you’ll find things that work best for you, and it may well turn out that you settle into a few different styles that work for different applications – you could end up making, say, gorgeous florals that work great on wallpapers and other home decor items on the one hand, and charming children’s book illustrations on the other. I’d suggest though that trying to focus on more than two distinctive styles is too much if you want to create rich and tightly curated portfolios for each. You’ll always have time later to add new styles, or switch tracks completely if that’s where inspiration takes you.
3. Can I show off different types of art in one portfolio? You can, but it’s best not to. If you have your own website, you can make separate tabs or pages for your different types of work. You could even present them under two different artist names. But working in distinct, coherent collections is important. First, each piece for some reason looks better when it’s backed up by a series of similar or complementary pieces. It’s a psychological thing – we like seeing things in groups. It makes us feel happy. That’s why so many hobbies revolve around collecting things, like postage stamps, napkins, coins, wine bottles, tea cups, beetles. Also, seeing your art tell one single story helps people buy from you.
4. Why would buyers or clients want to see me make similar things? Isn’t it better for them if I’m showing a variety of skill? Yes and no. In theory a client should be happy that you have a wide range of skills you can bring to the job. But again we run into human psychology – say you work in the art sourcing department of an advertising agency, and you’re looking for an artist to illustrate a project for you. You’re trawling through hundreds of great portfolios online. You know what you need and your deadline is tight – you give each portfolio a minimal amount of time. The one that’s gonna ring your bell is the one that shows a bunch of pieces that have the same look and feel as the piece you need made. If you see a portfolio that is a cacophony of different styles and moods, you probably won’t have the patience to look through all of them and determine whether there’s something in there to suit you.
Commissioning art is difficult, because the client has a vision of the sort of artwork he wants, but he has to have faith in you to bring that vision to life. The only guarantee they can have that your vision will align with theirs is your previous work. So showing a portfolio dominated by a unified theme, that tells a single interconnected story through each piece, will give your client the ability to predictably imagine the piece you will make for them. People will buy from you more if they know exactly what you’re selling. People will follow your work if you’re consistently producing things they like. People will remember you and go back to look for you when they have a project that would work with your style – if they can remember exactly what your style is.
5. What if my style is too similar to someone else’s? It won’t be. When you’re starting out you look to other artists for inspiration and every time you see a style that resonates with you your first thought is ‘OH GOSH I WANT TO DRAW EXACTLY LIKE THAT!’ Every new beautiful style feels like ‘it’ – the one perfect style that you wish you had come up with first. But the great thing about artists – and humans in general – is that in the end we all have to be ourselves, since everyone else is already taken. As you keep working on your art and improving your technical skills, you will naturally start to take bits and pieces from the art that inspires you, without copying its essence. You won’t need to, because the reason you got into art is that you have an essence of your own that you want to express. You just need to let yourself learn how to dig it out.
6. What if I never find my style? You practically can’t avoid it. It’s like handwriting – if you have learned how to write, you have some sort of handwriting. If you don’t use it much, it probably looks kind of messy and all over the place. But the more you practice, the more you find out what your ‘real’ handwriting is actually like. Your art style is the same – it sits somewhere deep inside you, waiting patiently for you to fish it out.
7. Ok, I give up on looking for shortcuts – I’m willing to put in the years of work it takes to find out what my style really is. Where should I start from? Start from the things you love. Look at everything you can find around you – both online and out in the real world – so that you can better discover what you love. Strive to make things that you would want to own, or wear, or look at every day. And in next week’s post I’ll make a little quiz that can guide you through that initial process of determining where your love lies.
Feeling any better? How are you doing with discovering your style – are you one of those lucky artists who immediately knew what sort of art they wanted to make, or are you one of us wanderers who are still trying to find their way? Let me know in the comments!