Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Stigma of Style

Perhaps the biggest debate in the illustration field is over the importance of having a style. Strangely enough, the real question doesn’t concern whether an illustrator has a style or not, but whether an illustrator has an individual style. That all illustrators have a style is without a doubt. Even whether they have their own individual style is also without question. After all, every illustrator is an individual artist. However, the questions are: Is one illustrator’s individual style like other illustrator’s individual style? And, what exactly constitutes a “style”?

Lets explore the latter question first. The following is an abridged amalgamation of definitions according to several dictionaries for style and several synonyms. It is abridged for the purpose of sticking to those aspects that relate to illustration and the visual arts as the word has a number of definitions that pertain to a variety of uses since style is both a noun and a transitive verb.


1. The combination of distinctive features of artistic expression, execution, or performance as characterizing a particular person, group, school, or era.
2. A quality of imagination and individuality expressed in one's actions and tastes.
3. A particular mode or technique by which something is done, created, performed or expressed.
4. A fashion of the moment.
5. A distinctive quality, form, or type of something.

1. A particular form or variety of something.
2. A possible, customary, or preferred way of doing something.
3. Form, arrangement, or condition.
4. A particular form or manifestation of an underlying structure or substance.
5. A distinctive or peculiar and often habitual manner or way.

1. Method of artistic execution or presentation.
2. A body of skills or techniques.
3. A kind or sort.

1. Way, technique, or process of or for doing something.
2. A body of skills or techniques.
3. The quality of being well organized and systematic in thought or action.

1. The visible shape or configuration of something.
2. Established method of expression.
3. Manner of coordinating elements of an artistic production.
4. Arrangement in an artistic work as distinct from its content.

Modifying Terms
Fashion, buzz, chic, craze, dernier cri, enthusiasm, fad, flavor, rage, sensation, trend, vogue.

As you have read the definitions above of style and those of its derivative words, I’m sure you reflected upon those aspects that might align with the opinion you have regarding your own illustration. If you did, you might have overlooked the fact that the majority of the definitions apply both to an individual as well as a group. It is indeed possible for a group to have an individual indivisible style. In the art world this is called a “school” e.g., the Pre-Raphaelite school of painting, even though it isn’t a school of instruction. In the illustration field a school is more of a way of looking at a variety of illustrated works that share a common trait. And sometimes that school is summed up under the identity of a single prominent illustrator, e.g., for Maxfield Parrish it’s the Magic Realism school or for Shepard Fairey, the Guerrilla Pop school. These designations were determined after the fact, i.e., after the work was created and disseminated. It was most likely not the intention of either artist to deliberately invent a style. And in both cases it came about by way of a volume of work executed over an extended period of time.

It takes a while to achieve or be recognized for a style. Many young illustrators who feel they don’t have one, are tormented by the stigma of having their work quickly reveal a unique style. For those that are at the beginning of their career, this can come down to having to formalize a style in the first 20 illustrations they’ve ever been assigned. The important thing is for an illustrator to just do what they do, like Maxfield Parrish and Shepard Fairey.

Magic Realism School

Illustration by Maxfield Parrish.
Illustration by Christiaan Bos.
Illustration by Hernan Valdovinos.
Illustration by Arlene Graston.
Illustration by Michael Park.
Illustration by Tomek Setowski.

Guerrilla Pop School

Illustration by Shepard Fairey.
Illustration by Joey Machete.
Illustration by Rigel Stuhmiller.
Illustration by Greg Bunbury.
Illustration by Tyler Stout.


Simply put, illustration, like any other commercial enterprise, boils down to economics and marketing. In fact, it’s basic marketing 101. As illustrators, we either produce a product, or provide a service. And, in order for our product or service to be distributed, we must market it, or in the case of providing a service, market ourselves. Illustrators must produce a product or offer a service, make the market aware of it, have it be identifiable, create a desire for it, deliver it, and meet the expectations of the customer/client. In other words apply marketing theory. Style, although it can be important, is only one among several other traits needed to achieve economic success as a professional illustrator.

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