In the meantime, it's been a while since we did one of these but I had some thoughts on the good ol' Subject of Style. Grab a snack, this one goes down a ways.
An interesting conversation came up recently wherein someone mentioned the age-old adage, "style is in the mistakes that you make". I'd heard this 20 years ago when I first started taking stuff seriously, and I'm sure it goes back further than that.
I think the statement suggests that a "style" is made up of things that you do your own way, rather than the "right" way, and that making mistakes lets you create a unique style of your own. Which isn't wrong, exactly, but I don't think it's a very good way to talk about creating and maintaining effective style as an artist.
Just to clarify, by "style" I mean "a particular series of aesthetic design decisions made by an artist while creating a work". It's not just how the work looks (although that's a big part of it), but also how it "feels", and how it makes many different people feel and think when they experience it.
Creating a "style" is something that a lot of artists (especially those just getting started) tend to obsess over, because they see a unique, cool and appealing style as the path to fame, fortune and free fajitas. And while there's a lot to be said for happy mistakes and the unique aesthetic results that may be born from them, I don't know of any professional illustrator who makes a regular habit of screwing up a part of their "style".
Rather than say that "style is in the mistakes you make", I would say, "style is in the shortcuts that you choose to take".
Here we go, down the rabbit hole.
Say I choose to illustrate the human nose a certain way, with a little line and a tick (very Japanese). Someone else may choose to draw just a "c" shape, others will delineate the edge of every contour currently oblique to the plane of vision.
ALL of these choices are equally "correct", assuming that they all fulfill an all-important criteria: anyone who looks at those lines sees "a human nose".
In order to consciously control your style and make it your bitch, you need to fully understand what your stylistic choices represent and how they'll be interpreted by others. If you draw it "your way" but nobody else can understand it, you're not doing the job of communicating effectively. You may be able to work as a fine artist (good luck with that lottery), but working as a commercial artist will be... difficult.
Over time each of us builds up a library of techniques for handling whatever we're required to illustrate at a given time, whether that's expressions, or technology, or anatomy, or storytelling devices. I sometimes also refer to them as "shortcuts" or "tricks", because in my experience they're usually time-saving devices.
When we combine all these techniques in our own personal ways, people call that a "style". Every technique you create, copy or re-invent in order to feed the needs of the task at hand becomes one of the many elements that make up your "style".
When we do it in a way that induces someone to see and feel what we want them to, just by looking at the image or reading the story, they call that "good style".
If you make a mistake and it looks cool, it's still a mistake. If you do it on purpose because it's an effective way of illustrating something, then it's part of your style.
This is why it's difficult to copy someone else's style and really get away with it... because no matter how thoroughly you study someone's body of work, you're not likely to understand the reasoning and methodology behind whatever choices the artist is making unless you have a complete understanding of what led up to them (something only the artist is likely to know).
Likewise, you may have mastered a body of tricks that you use in order to represent anatomy or visual effects or emotions, whatever, and you might be REALLY good at using those techniques. And they're probably a hodgepodge of stuff you've seen and stuff you've done a lot and stuff you know "just works", but it's all based on some precedent that you've observed. It's a style based on other styles, and it can take you a long way, but it's ultimately hollow and will lead to tears when precedent fails to address the next challenge.
When you are Drawing To Get Paid, you must be able to function effectively when the game calls for you to draw something for which you have no stylistic precedents to rely upon. And in Work For Hire, this happens ALL THE TIME. Even if you got a kickass hold on your kickass "style" that you've been drawing in for years, in no time at all you're guaranteed to be expected to draw some goddamn thing you've never thought of before, in some way that's completely alien to whatever line of creative philosophy you've been currently tacked to.
This is also why it's important to learn all that incredibly tedious, boring shit that every art class everywhere attempts to cram down your throat. I hated drawing "realistically" when I was a student, and it took me a long time to understand the value of those basics back then because I couldn't see how they applied to the way I wanted to draw. I had "style", what did I need all that boring crap about grids and muscle groups for?
No instructor ever explained to me that if you master the basic, fundamental rules (rules of Composition, Anatomy, Lighting, Perspective, Storytelling, etc) then you possess a framework from which to consciously direct your style. And the more thoroughly you understand the basics, the more effectively you can work to create a style that suits your needs best, while simultaneously being able to improvise when you are forced to think outside the box.
You've must master the basics if you want to be an unbeatable illustrator. Without them, you'll always have a weakness. Something will drag you down until you fix it (I can't draw feet, I can't draw ears, I can't draw backgrounds, I can't draw cars or guns or cyborgs or interplanetary comet-dwelling space llamas). And the less you know about the basics, the more vulnerable you'll always be to a moment where you're expected to effectively, skillfully illustrate something that you have never seen, heard of, or thought about before.
It's in those moments that the basics, the damnable Basics, the stupid, boring, tedious BASICS will not fail you.
I'm not saying that you can't have a good-looking, effective style without a solid understanding of fundamentals. What I am saying is that without 'em, I don't know if you're really in control of your style, or if you're just relying on what you know and making it up as you go whenever you don't.
You can be stylish as heck, but if your style is reliant upon "happy mistakes" or the use of particular techniques to the exclusion of all else ("this is how I draw, this is the only way I know how to draw"), then sooner or later (barring a lottery-odds lucky break that propels your stylish-but-fundamentally-unschooled ass into the spotlight) you will hit a wall and be unable to do something the job requires. Actually, if you get famous BEFORE you have a full mastery of your skills, it can be worse because your embarrassing mistakes are going to be on display for a lot more people, and at that point you can really damage your reputation.
It's the difference between riding the tiger and holding onto it by the tail.
As an Editor or an Art Director looking for an illustrator to fill a role, I may decide not to offer you the job if your fundamentals are weak. I can't take a chance that you'll drop the ball if I need you to draw something you've never thought about before.
When you're a master of the fundamental principles, you will never (hardly ever) hit a situation where you don't know what to do or how to work around it effectively. You can always break it down to the basics, and then build it back up so that whatever it is, it's a part of your style that's entirely yours. Furthermore, every time you do you'll pick up a whole new host of tricks that vary your arsenal even further.
Best of all, you can more easily make up new styles that will be fundamentally attractive, well-rounded and capable of wide application. If you need to draw cartoony, you can do it. If you need to draw real, you can do that to. It's easier to break down any style that you study enough, and pick it apart for the good bits. This is why both Cho and Frazetta can (could) draw the hottest women and the goofiest cartoon critters with equal skill.
Anyone can be stylish by accident, but it takes work to do it on purpose.
If you're into the subject, this DA posting says many of the same things I just did, but more clearly and with pictures:
Well worth reading.
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Whew! Some news:
I'm animating again, hooray! The Joe is Japanese graphic novel goes on hiatus for a few months while Fates gears up on a new 2D short production. This means I had to pack up all my comics thinkin' and dust off the parts of my brain that focus on keyframing and timing and element composition, and actually I'm damn rusty. It's been almost two whole years since I've worked the lead on a production like this. The Nike spots last year were intense, but they were a trio of 30-second solos, and this is several minutes with lots of cool action and sci-fi elements. It's basically the stuff I'm always dying to do, so it's a welcome switch-up, but I've got to shake the squeak out of my gears because it is on, baby.
I'm wrapping up the final touches on a new cover for Crafty Games (not sure of the book title yet but I think they'll show the art at Gen Con in a couple weeks), it's the most intense painting job I've done since the last cover I did for them, back in late 2007. Color and I are wary acquaintances at best, but I'm getting over it with practice, as always. I'm feeling good about my current brush technique (basic additive/sampling process, though I think I accidentally reinvented the Flemish method) but I'm having a hard time consciously directing overall palette decisions and maintaining even values. Thankfully PS painting allows for easy manipulation of the color range and contrast, but it's a crutch. The sad thing about all that crap I wrote up there is that it applies perfectly well to me too, whenever I need to paint anything outside of a flat or 'animated' style. The only gratifying aspect of the whole mess is that lately I feel a genuine sense of progress almost every time I sit down for a good painting session. I think the new cover looks pretty nice, certainly better than the 2007 painting, and I can't wait to share it.
Last off, I've got six fully-painted (monochromatic) illustrations featuring in the pages of Brandon Sanderson's new epic novel The Way of Kings, coming out from Tor books at the end of August. Brandon is the author tapped to wrap up Robert Jordan's 14-volume fantasy series "The Wheel of Time" (totally separate series, but its given him a huge publicity boost this past year), and he's also the author of the "Mistborn" trilogy, which inspired several works you can find in my Fan Art gallery. I'm super-psyched about The Way of Kings, I've read it and I love it even more than the Mistborn books. Being an actual concept artist and illustrator for this new series is just pure sugar, and I hope it lasts a long time.
If you're attending Dragon*Con this September 3-6, I'll be on a panel with Isaac Stewart, Brandon Sanderson and Irene Gallo (art director at Tor) where we'll discuss the art in the book and the unique way that Brandon is approaching the visual development of his new fantasy epic. It oughtta be interesting stuff, I hope to see you there!
And that's about all I got for now. Lots of stuff keeping me busy, if you know where to look (and you should, 'cause I've told you before) you can follow some of it, but as always the updates here on DA will be unpredictable at best. I do check the messages frequently though, so don't hesitate to drop a Note or a Comment and let me know what you're thinking!