From Quentin Blake’s scratchy, smiling faces to Camille Walala’s tribal pop patterns, a signature style is what makes an illustrator unique and distinguishable. It’s also what helps them earn a living, with art directors hungry to find the perfect style to answer their particular brief. But while having a strong hand in one style is commercially savvy, education can sometimes interfere by encouraging students to prove their versatility. While there is no doubt you have to learn to walk before you can run, too much experimentation can make it harder for students to find their voice and the style that comes most naturally to them. So, can being versatile ever get you work?
Whether at school or university, art students are very often discouraged from going down a narrow path too early on. Before Weapons of Reason editor James Cartwright got his first editorial job (at It’s Nice That, no less) he studied illustration at Camberwell. He started the course with a strong sense of style and felt confident about his black ink and brush work, but his tutors encouraged him to push in different directions. “In year one, it seemed like they were trying to break you down,” he explains. “If you had a signature style that you were good at in foundation they didn’t want you to just stick with it. Personally, I lost my way with that kind of education. By the middle of second year I had no idea what I was doing.”
By contrast, London-based illustrator Lauren Mortimer didn’t study illustration at university. She realised during her fashion degree that she could turn her love of drawing into a career and so after graduating, created a body of work independently. Her vintage, realistic style has since attracted commissions from Ted Baker and Viktor & Rolf, and brought to life two cocktail recipe books. “I wonder if I’d be where I am today if I had done an illustration degree,” she says. “Because I didn’t have anyone tell me what direction to go in, I was able to do it on my own and develop my style for myself.”
Lauren also finds that clients need to feel confident about what they are going to get from an illustrator before they part with their cash. “Somebody who has got a really mixed portfolio is going to be difficult to commission,” she says. “They’re going to make the client nervous about what to expect.” And with tight deadlines and budgets, editors and art directors usually can’t afford to take any risks.
Weapons of Reason, created by design studio Human After All, needs to be made very quickly and has strict visual guidelines. Illustration is used throughout the magazine to help communicate complex and abstract issues, from artificial intelligence to geopolitical power struggles. “We tend to go for illustrators who are a finished product that stylistically we know can deliver very quickly,” says James. “Consistency is really important when you’re commissioning illustration.”
Likewise, having a consistent style also helps illustrators win briefs from brands and agencies. “Having a clear vision about what your practice is about, even though it’s commercial, can help clients make better sense of where to place you,” says Nicky Field, head of illustration at Jelly London, who helps the company’s roster of artists get work from clients including Nike, Absolut Vodka and adam&eveDDB.
A client’s desire for consistency can also be driven by the fact that the art director is only looking for someone to quickly execute their own idea. If they already have a concept in mind, they may want nothing more than someone who can bring that vision to life to a high standard.
The best art directors, however, will try to invite illustrators to collaborate with them on the concept. In these cases, an illustrator’s ideas might be more important than their style. “When we’re commissioning other stuff outside of Weapons of Reason and if we’ve got a longer lead time, I’m always keen to find people that I think would be interesting to work with and have good ideas, rather than necessarily a signature style,” says James. So being stylistically versatile isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you are conceptually strong.
It all depends on the brief. In some cases, being able to do multiple styles can be just what a client is looking for. For example, advertising agency BETC Paris commissioned Louie Chin to illustrate its book Cantine Générale precisely because of his versatility. “We wanted an artist who could change his style and techniques from ‘childish drawings’ to very clean vector, in order to illustrate all the stories featured in the book,” says Julien Pham, founder of Phamily First, which partnered with BETC Paris on the project. “The idea was to work with only one artist with an evolving style.”
The project was the first time Louie has been commissioned for his ability to tackle different styles. “Usually, I draw in the style that I feel reflects their idea. If I want to go cartoony with the project, I’ll sketch out how I think that approach would look,” he says. “No one has ever encouraged me to be more consistent with my art style. I have at times thought about it myself, though. I feel like it would be easier career wise if my work was easily recognisable. But that thought doesn’t linger for long because I get bored drawing in one way for an extended period. If I’m inspired by something, I want to express it in a style that will let out that creativity.”
For Alva Skog – who It’s Nice That picked as one of our Graduates last year and who has since been commissioned by The New York Times and The Guardian among others – this couldn’t be further from the truth. “A particular style doesn’t need to be prohibitive; it can be the opposite,” says the Swedish illustrator who has a highly recognisable style, particularly when it comes to portraiture, with her subjects’ oversized hands and simply drawn faces. “The creative ‘restrictions’ of my style help me to stay focused on what I’m exploring. As I explore, my style evolves and changes, so I very rarely feel pigeon-holed.”
Yet it does seem natural that illustrators would want to play with different mediums, techniques and aesthetics; after all that’s what being creative is all about. And no one wants a career that’s static – it’s healthy to try new things and develop as an artist. If you’re an illustrator with more than one style or want to experiment with your practice, one thing you can do is market different styles as distinct products. Berlin-based illustrator Sam Vanallemeersch has separate names and websites for his two styles. His detailed, comic-style pen and ink work sits under the name “Sovchoz”, but he can also work in a bold, vector-based style, which he’s branded “Kolchoz”.
Recently, Lauren Mortimer also wanted to channel her creativity in a different way, and decided to paint some new artwork for her house in her spare time. With its bold colours and graphic shapes, the work she produced is worlds apart from her usual intricate pencil drawings. “Because my regular style is so meticulous and detailed, it’s nice to do something quite quick, fun, playful and colourful too,” she says. The designs were so popular with family and friends that she is now developing the style into a separate body of work under the pseudonym LaMo. “I’ve had to rebrand and completely separate this work from my usual style,” she says. “It’s about marketing and putting yourself on the shelf.”
Making a success of multiple styles comes down to where you are at in your career, and whether you have enough work in each style to assure commissioners that you’re not a loose cannon. “If you can demonstrate that you can do several different styles to the same high standard, I don’t think that would be a problem for anyone,” says James from Weapons of Reason. “But if you’re fresh out of college, that would probably be an alarm bell for someone who is commissioning.”
If you’re a recent graduate and haven’t quite found your niche, don’t panic, though. There is a lot of pressure on illustrators to get work straight out of art school but for many people this isn’t realistic. “This stuff takes a really long time to develop,” says James, who says some of his most talented peers spent several years feeling derailed before they found their niche and got more established. “You mustn’t get disheartened if your portfolio isn’t the complete package yet, and shouldn’t worry about taking a few years to get it into shape.”
Dan Woodger believes that the fact his degree at Brighton didn’t focus on developing a signature hand was a huge benefit of the course. “The course’s focus on ideas freed me from the pressure of creating my own ‘style’, which came later,” he explains. “University is absolutely the time you should be trying new things. It’s the best time to do so.”
Even illustration agencies don’t expect you to graduate as a finished product. At Jelly London, Nicky loves helping new illustrators hone their talents. “The thing that I enjoy the most about working with artists is really unearthing their ‘thing’, really supporting a uniqueness in style or voice,” she says. “In finding and driving towards that point of difference, you are really discovering that extra special bit that makes their offering so much stronger.”
The bottom line is, it’s best to be patient if you’re still working out how to make money from your craft. Focus on what comes naturally to you and what you enjoy, rather than anxiously trying to pull yourself in too many different directions. After all, the chances are that if you love what you’re doing, commissioners will love it too.
About the Author
Kate Hollowood is a freelance journalist covering a range of subjects — from mental health and female empowerment, to art and design — for titles like Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, the i paper and It’s Nice That. Based in London, she also creates copy and content for brands like Flo, Nike Run Club, Laced and Ace & Tate.