There is probably no more frequent a question asked of professional artists than how did you develop your own signature art style? Some artists take it as an opportunity, or responsibility to explain with great care and detail how it happened. For other artists it’s difficult to explain consciously, and even more difficult within the context of social media DMs and tweets.
The question becomes so tiring for popular artists (understandably so) that they usually offer up the boilerplate answer, by drawing more. There is certainly a ring of truth to that. Yet, it can disappoint amateur artists who have a strong desire to develop their own art style, but don’t have a guided approach. The good news is that I’m going to give you one. That bad news is you’re still going to have to draw more!
Words Of Warning And Wisdom
A word of warning here, and one of brutal honesty. I don’t know much about fine art. It doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it, and I’m certainly not an art snob or critic. I only tell you this as a precursor because what I’m writing about I know only to be applicable to cartoons, character designs, comics and sequential art. It’s less likely to apply to fine art, or even production art (concept, storyboards, etc.). So if you’re asking yourself how you can become the next Michelangelo then this essay probably isn’t for you.
Now for a word of wisdom. Before you develop your own art style you need to take a deep breath, and realize you may not be ready. There are basic elements of drawing that everyone needs to understand before they concern themselves with style. If you don’t have a fundamental grasp of these then there is no point in continuing forward. I encourage you to first learn of, and practice these basics. If you’re having trouble with developing your own art style the cause may be that you don’t have a solid foundation to build upon.
These are the basic elements or principals of drawing you should first study and practice: shape and volume, perspective, human proportions, and light and shadow. To some degree you should at least know what foreshortening is (as it relates to perspective), and you should know the basics of a color wheel.
With that out of the way, let’s get started.
The Keyword Is “Develop”
The very first thing you need to do is realize is that you develop your own art style. You never find it. It wasn’t lost because you never had it at the beginning of your journey. It’s not accidental either, and it’s certainly not final. The artists who I enjoy, and who’s art I’m willing to pay money to collect, will on occasion tests themselves by trying something new. If you follow them over a long period of time you’ll also notice subtle changes in their style.
That should actually be encouraging for you to read. It means you’re on a journey of constant improvement, and the destination is simply wherever you decide to stop to look around. Promising artists often stop too short, set unachievable goals, think that they simply aren’t looking hard enough, or are looking in all the wrong places. The truth is you’ll enter seasons of life that slow you down. That’s okay. You can still develop your own art style using practical methods.
Remember that to develop a talent at an expert level takes time. Before you begin you have to make peace with the idea that this is a life long experience.
Choose Your Influences Carefully
The next thing you need to do is choose who is going to have an influence over your style. This is more difficult than you think. At first you may be inclined to list off the artists that garner the most attention, and who are the most successful financially. If you’re only interested in social media followers then you can certainly copy a style verbatim. Making a living selling art is also a worthy goal, but if it’s your only goal then it will shift your focus away from ongoing improvement.
Surprisingly, those two things will forever be at odds. Popularity means other artists are going to be trying to emulate that success. This builds up the competition, and you’re less likely to find work when what you produce is like so many others. Editors, art directors and publishers are always looking for a fresh voice and vision, regardless of how talented you are.
Instead, choose your influences based upon how you want to draw, and not what you think others will like – including yourself! I follow a number of artists who are extremely talented, and whose art I find aesthetically pleasing. However, I would never want to draw what they draw, or paint what they paint, or digitally something they digitally… you get the point.
It’s one reason why I finally settled on the title “Cartoonist” to describe myself. I like fun, somewhat quirky, not quite realistic characters. I’m more apt to draw for fantasy, which expands human elements well beyond the norm, and takes certain liberties with anatomy and pose. That means I need to find and study artists that exhibit those style aspects in their own art. You should go through the same discovery process.
As my father used to say, “Let’s get down to brass tacks.” You know the basics, you’re in the right state of mind, you’ve chosen your influences, and now you’re ready to get started drawing. I’m going to take the first three points and incorporate them into a tangible exercise as a result. Take one piece of art from at least three of your influences, and break them all down to the smallest elements. Identify the exact reasons why you like them, and write those down.
Don’t reach for an answer you think you should have. You don’t have to convince anyone that the art is good. It’s your favorite art for a reason. Is it the way the pupils in the eyes are drawn? Do you like how wild and crazy the hair always seems? Maybe you like that all of the characters are short with stubby little legs, and they all have big noses. Is it something like the way the hands are always so expressive? Maybe it’s something more subtle, like the characters are always holding, or interacting with a prop? It could just be a common theme like dragons or robots.
Only you can say why you like it, but if you can’t explain it to a five year old then you haven’t dug deep enough. You have to bring out a subconscious appreciation to a more practical consciousness. Now that you’ve chosen the things you like and wrote them down, you’re going to begin copying them all. A lot.
What? Wait, didn’t you say I shouldn’t just copy my favorite artists? No, I said you shouldn’t copy everyone else’s favorite artists. You should definitely copy your chosen influences. Actually, what I would like you to do is build what I call Frankenart. Take those elements from the different artists and art that you broke down, and create something. What you’re doing on a conscious level is exactly what professional artists do on a subconscious level every day.
What’s important here though is that you first draw how they draw. On some days it’s not going to be fun. It might even feel like you’re studying. You can’t get passed this stage though without intentional practice! This is the most important phase of your growth.
Getting Real About Real Life
There is a more popular norm that often supersedes practice by copying your chosen influences, and it’s the reason why I included this suggestion second. It says to practice drawing by copying from real life instead. Although I don’t discount this approach, there can be a strong contrast between the two. One will make you a more well rounded artist, and the other will make you a more refined artist.
If you want to draw sequential art (comics and graphic novels) then you will absolutely have to draw from real life influences. The best comic artists are consummate draftsman. They can compose entire scenes, and can pull any item out from the real world and put it onto a page with consistency. Consider though that they have a style to apply to the fictional world they are building, and real life has more to do with the construction or framework of that world.
In the end the two things do compliment each other, but don’t be fooled. You won’t develop your own signature style by only drawing from real life. Unless of course realism is your favored style.
Now Make It Your Own
The final stage after copying your influences is to make it your own. The more you draw the more you’re going to realize there are some elements of your Frankenart that you don’t appreciate so much anymore. You’re finally getting a sense that the pictures you’re drawing are missing something, or that they need enhancements. This is where the hard work pays off, and you start to develop not only your own art style, but your own passion for it. Start swapping out and interchanging elements. Make it your own on a conscious level.
After many hours, weeks, days and years of drawing in this stage you will begin to recognize a change. You’re making it your own on a subconscious level. It’s finally starting to become a natural process. Congratulations!
Although this is the last stage in the process you’re going to repeat the stages at various times in your life and career. If at some point an opportunity presents itself, but requires you draw in a different style altogether, then you’re going to have to start by choosing a different set of influences. From there you can decide how far you want to take it. You might find you’re content with your existing style, and are only interested in refinements. You might decide to pass on the opportunity altogether (gasp)!
Does this all seem too simple? Did I not give you the answers you were expecting? If you ask enough professional artists, and they are willing to reply, then you’ll find their answers all share a common thread. I’ve tried to articulate that here. The hard truth, and it’s a bitter pill to swallow, is that most amateur artists can’t ever develop their own art style because they don’t want to put in the hard work. Eventually some artists buy into the myth that they just aren’t talented enough.
Don’t let that be you!
Eventually you will develop your own art style by:
- Going back to the basics.
- Understanding that it’s an ongoing journey.
- Choosing the right influences.
- Intentionally practicing what you like.
- Drawing from real life.
- Making it your own.
Keep drawing my friends.