Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Thoughts on Illustration Style

Style is an important trait needed to achieve economic success as a professional illustrator. Illustration reps, clients and even fellow illustrators recognize, remember, and identify work by associating it, or attributing it to a particular style. Phrases are often used to describe the particular work of an illustrator like; “It’s sort of like…”; “It reminds me of…”; “It has the look of…”; It’s done with…”; and “It was for…”. These phrases are usually followed by; the media used; a technique; the name of a famous illustrator; an illustration genre, the name of a client, and/or a market. This is mainly done for the purpose of marketing or commissioning an illustrator by associating their work with the work of others that may already be familiar to a client or an audience.

© 2001 Don Arday

Three Schools of Thought on Style

Like anything else that involves illustrators and the marketing of illustration, there are differing opinions, or schools of thought on the subject of style and how style should be applied to an illustrator’s work. In addition to the three main schools of thought, there are also some fringe viewpoints such as the extreme belief that a style should be conceptualized before the illustrator creates any work at all. Much the same way a scriptwriter and director come up with a character’s role before it’s actually acted out. Another extreme belief is that an illustrator should define a restrictive color palette for their works and be confined to it. In other words, once a work in black and white, always a work in black and white, forever a black and white artist, or some other such visual tithing. A further view is that an illustrator should stick to one medium such as gouache, acrylic, or Adobe Illustrator. And yet another is that an illustrator should restrict themselves to one type of subject matter, such as automobiles, birds, pop stars, etc.

School One
The first school believes that every illustrator, and every artist for that matter, should display a commonality of style in their work. This could be one or more of the categories below or a particular attitude expressed in the work as a whole.

School Two
The second school believes that every illustrator should not only display an identifiable commonality of style in their work, but should possess qualities that are not only instantly identifiable, but are also unique, i.e., never been seen before.

School Three
The third school holds the opinion that an illustrator’s work should demonstrate a versatility of style, as manifested by the ability to execute a variety of techniques in several modes, and alternatively to produce works for a variety of markets.

Categories of Style

Style as interpreted by illustrators can mean several differing things. Illustration reps will often categorize bodies of work based on their ability to communicate and market a style. Clients will classify the style of an illustrator’s work based on their company's needs and desires. Although functional for marketing purposes, style categorizations made by non-artists, reps, and clients tend to be a bit basic and stereotypical in nature.

For some, style refers to the use of a specific media, such as scratchboard, watercolor, or pen and ink, etc. This happens particularly when the medium used plays a visually dominant role in an illustration. It also happens because it is an easy way to classify work.

A special note: At one point in time in the not too distant past, all digital illustration was simply known as digital illustration without regard to it’s visual appearance or any of the other categories below that serve to define an illustrators style. Digital raster paintings were not distinguished from hard edge vector works, montage, or dimensionally modeled imagery. The “shock of the new” regarding digital media overwhelmed any visual style that was apparent in the illustration itself. Happily, this is no longer the case, and digitally created works are classified by their visual traits and relative merits.

Taking it one step further, style can refer to a manner of mark making, such as the use of stipple or cross-hatch in pen and ink work; and for painting, the use of a palette knife, wet into wet, glazing, or spattering. Other methods include collage, vector art, etc.

This kind of stylistic categorization relates to the form and structure of compositional arrangements, such as geometric, organic, montage, dimensional, etc. Form, as a style, can also have identifiable elements, shapes and even color schemes such as the above example of the black and white artist.

Style can manifest itself as an artistic genre either past or present such as art deco, nouveau, constructivist, psychedelic, fantastic, street, urban, etc. Genres can also be regional or cultural such as manga or Japonism, etc. Stylistic genre can even be expressed in terms of “schools” such as the steam punk school, weird west school, and neo-Victorian school, etc.

Style can even be classified in reference to the purpose for an illustrated message. Examples of purpose categorizations are satirical, humorous, comic, caricature, scientific, botanical, medical, diagrammatic, or technical. Along with purpose, the markets illustration serves, such as high tech, fashion, children’s book, etc., are used to classify styles of work.


Perhaps the most important thing for an illustrator to know about having a style is that someone else will have to confirm whether the work has one. Unless of course, the illustrator deliberately attempts to acquire someone else’s style, and even this is a type of style known as pastiche. Although the determination of a style is more useful when referring to a body of work, it can also be attributed to a single work. Regardless of style, editors, art directors, publishers, clients, patrons, and fellow illustrators will attribute the desirability, and relevance of an illustrator's work.

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