Lessons in style: how to create an original aesthetic

Although a creative style may seem like a natural ability, in the case of most artists it’s an aesthetic they’ve worked to hone.


Over the coming months, It’s Nice That will be partnering with Skillshare, an online learning community for creatives. In the third article of our series (read our previous pieces here and here) we get to know the creative journey and growth of illustrator, Jing Wei.

When looking at the work of a successful creative, it can feel like their style was something they were born innately with. But while the brilliant ability to draw, design, animate or photograph can seem like a natural talent, we’re of the firm belief that the development of a creative aesthetic is one that takes time and effort – not to mention plenty of mistakes along the way.

One of our favourite benefits of Skillshare’s online classes is how it demonstrates just this. Through what feels like one-to-one classes with famed creatives, students are able to see into the tips and tricks of how people create the work they do. One such teacher is Jing Wei, a Chinese-born, California-raised and Brooklyn-based illustrator, whose work has followed a long-winded journey to land at the admirable point we can see today.

When initially deciding to take a creative path in her career, Jing admits that “I really didn’t know what illustration was when I chose it as a major,” she recalls. But in reality, the methodology behind this particular discipline’s approach appealed to who she was as a person. At school Jing “was the type of nerd that loved assignments, because I always needed parameters or a prompt to get started,” similar to the process between an art director and illustrator. Jing also gravitated towards “the problem-solving aspect of illustration”, as an attribute in-line with her personality. The career choice was also influenced by the idea of freelancing which sounded like a much more suitable way of life than trucking into the office every day. “I basically mashed together all the things I knew I liked: drawing, problem-solving and staying up late, and hoped that I could find a career that included those things. Miraculously, I did!”


Jing Wei: Tictail

Choosing a career that genuinely suits your natural habits appears to be the ideal initial step when figuring out who you are and who you want to be – after all, they're attributes you can’t fake or force! However, settling on a style is a much harder puzzle to solve. In Jing’s case, at first, she made work totally different to how she does now, making only “woodcuts of animals and anthropomorphic objects,” she tells us. “To this day, I have no idea why that was the combination of things.” From there it was printmaking the illustrator largely worked with, a process she now admits was possibly a technique she was hiding behind “because I was afraid the work would fall apart if I tried anything else,” she says.

This is a very rational fear for any creative. Trying something new in this industry is often encouraged and mostly a very good thing in the end, but it doesn’t make it any less daunting, especially as an independent artist worried about possible loss of work if a new direction is the wrong one. However for Jing it was actually the fact that her printmaking work “was not sustainable for commercial projects” that led her to open Photoshop. Ultimately “surrendering myself to the clutches of digital illustration” – which is now her primary approach.


Jing Wei: Loneliness for New York Times

At this point, she was working in a style which combined the approach she had learned from printmaking with a digital context. The next question however, was what aesthetic her work would take. In Jing’s case, this again was formed by natural interests, but by diving deep into why she found certain styles inspiring, rather than just lifting it derivatively. For instance, it’s the early cartoons Jing divulged when she was young – classics like The Simpsons, Doraemon, Moon and Miffy to name a few – that fed the basis for her creative interest. Then, in college, “when I was at my most sponge-like state”, it was graphic novels that caught her eye. “Even though my work doesn’t look like any of those artists, I think it’s more about seeing something that expands and extends your idea of what a certain format or medium can do,” the illustrator explains of her experience. “Then, that inspiration can hopefully be brought into your own approach.”

Combining each of these factors has now led Jing to a place where “I’ve settled into a bit of a groove,” she says. Getting here however hasn’t been one big leap into the creative unknown which landed safely, but rather various different and small, incremental steps of creative growth. As a result, “I can hardly think of any times when I intentionally made a design decision for the sake of changing or improving my style,” she says. “It’s a collection of small course corrections that all add up.”

Based off her own experience, Jing’s advice to any creative currently feeling lost in a sea of varying styles and creative identities is, “and I know this has been repeated to death, but you really just have to make a lot of stuff,” she advises. While the easiest route, or the most instantly gratifying might be to lean on the styles of those you admire, or what clients seem to love most, “Taking shortcuts and lifting things from other people’s progress will never be satisfying in the same way,” adds Jing. “The goal is always to make something interesting and in fact, apart from the status quo. The less you focus on what’s trendy or hireable, the more you’ll be on the right track.”

Attempting to find your own creative aesthetic to then run with will also be a bit of a slog. “A lot of it,” as Jing points out, “will be terrible.” But, in making more and more work, with time, “you’re increasing your chances of making something that is not terrible. Then, you take things that are working, and build on that until you end up with something that feels right,” the illustrator continues. “You do that for a while, until you inevitably become bored with the thing that works, and start the cycle all over again.”

After going through this, and speaking from a place of experience too, the fact that now Jing can look at her work and see herself as a person, sort of sounds like the best creative achievement possible. “When I look at my drawings now, I can see the history of past awkward characters that evolved because I got better. I can also see the variables – my environment, certain phases and events in my life – and how that has influenced the work I’ve chosen to make (or not to make),” concludes Jing. In our book, this feels like what all creative endeavours, no matter what discipline, should be aiming towards. To be able to look back on previous work and not see not a number of likes or shares, but just yourself!

To take part in Jing Wei's Skillshare class head here. For further classes on developing a creative aesthetic we recommend Laci Jordan's class on “Discover, Cultivate and Share Your Unique Personal Style” and Rick Berkelmans' class on “Using Creative Constraints to Find Your Style”.


Jing Wei


Jing Wei

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