“…but how long did it take you get your STYLE?”

I do a lot of talks and seminars for schools and colleges, and one of the questions I get asked the most is “how important is it to have a ‘style’?” — followed by “how long did it take you to get your own style”?

My answer to this is not straightforward. Have a quick scan down the sample images in this post — they’re all from the same period of about 7 years, from graduation onward. You can see what was going on; I’d graduated with a portfolio of wildly ambitious 3D work, built pieces for the stage, costumes and models as well as poster designs and storyboards and illustrations full of lettering and ink. I basically wanted to do Everything — and, I would pretty much go on to do that, but for a young illustrator starting out the resultant folio was what clients described as ‘exciting but confusing’.

Created in aper and polystyrene for Arjo Wiggins Fine Papers, about 1997/8.

How would I get this (pre-internet) 3D work to them? It would all need photographing — would the client pay me for that? If they give me a brief, how do they know what they’ll get back — will it look like this, or this?

A magazine editorial from about 1998/9. This one actually got me a LOT of work.

I liked to build stuff, I loved to work on a large scale with pastel pencils (you can see an A0 example of that in the slides) AND with my inks, and I loved lettering (I won awards for it and was one of the earliest to posit hand lettering as a ‘thing’ you could commission in its own right — more on that in a separate blog) but I was also fascinated by digital; check out the work I did for the panto dames!

The Panto Dames! I did not know how to use layers properly.

Clumsy but wildly energetic, I was quite literally laughing as I drew them; they were real panto dames. What made people like this image is the energy and the humour — those things eclipsed the lack of sophistication (and lack of Wacom tablet) in the rendering. I only had a mouse then, so you can see that the work here was created with an ink drawing which was then digitally coloured.

I don’t get horses, at all, but at one point found myself doing a monthly slot for Your Horse magazine. Woah there.
And this was one of a series for a bestselling gardening magazine. I had about a week to do each one, and regular income was very welcome at that time! They looked the same as the flyers I was simultaneously creating for the pirate radio station I was working on.

I went on to have multiple magazine series in that style, so I suppose it could be argued that was ‘a style’ for a while — but running simultaneously, I also illustrated a magazine column once a month with built, almost set-like pieces which were photographed, like this (yes, this one involved baking real bread; real baby clothes and a real self-made poppet doll. I ate none of them afterwards, and the illusatration actually lasted for years).

All of these images are very ‘me’, but it isn’t one style and it’s definitely not one medium.

In fact, I’ve always viewed this multi-medium thing as a blessing, not a curse. It means I’ve been able to turn my hand to a vast array of opportunities that, had I favoured one style, medium or way of working at the exclusion of all others, I would not have been willing or able to tackle. It’s made me flexible, adaptable and, in a lot of cases, bold — the ‘sure, I can do that!’ approach (say yes now, worry about it later). A 15m mural in paint? Check. A 3D piece to illustrate a spoken word poem? Check. Detailed pen and ink drawings for a ghost story? Check. Fast digital pieces for an urgent editorial? Check. A set of animated GIFS? Check.

You get the idea.

Some people use pseudonyms to identify their different styles — an example is Toby Leigh who also works as Tobatron, or Tim McDonagh who also works as Avril15. Those identities exist to make sure you know which of their worlds you’re in, and that’s definitely something I’ve thought about over and over again — I even have the names worked out. But I’ve never actually done it…maybe I still will, though, and it could work for you, too, with careful consideration and enough work to hang under each banner — this is important, as clients will need to see that you’re well-versed and a ‘safe pair of hands’ in all of the styles or identities you put forward.

Personal work from a book project that I shelved. I might un-shelve it — though the artwork would look very different today! (the toddler in the picture is now a post-grad).
These two lettering pieces were created in an Edinburgh hotel room, in the middle of what felt like a little breakdown. I was creatively stuck, feeling at a dead end, and really upset, but was away for the week teaching degree students about illustration — so feeling like a massive fraud. My partner suggested combining some of the lettering I’d been doing for years with flowers and plants, and some of the darker stuff I liked to draw. Thank god he did; the work that nervously emerged that week saved me, and set me on the path for the next decade.

Over time, my ways of working all combined to create a body of work that utilises several different media, but hangs together as a look which is definitely ‘mine’. And the ‘mine’ comes via the movement, the energy, the content and the vibe, rather than the equipment I used to make it.

So I say, DO NOT worry about ‘style’ — if you see someone who looks to have a really strong visual language or colour scheme or way of working, they’ve likely had a long time to develop that. Maybe they don’t actually HAVE other ways of working — maybe they can’t! — or maybe they just don’t feel comfortable offering more than one look. And what you probably won’t see are the mountains of work that led to what you see in front of you.

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Sarah J Coleman

Sarah J Coleman

Artist + illustrator of over 800 books and owner of the same amount of pens. Enough to write you a picture AND paint you a story. inkymole.com / inkstagram.ink