What Is Style?
Someone asked me a question the other day that got me thinking: What are you without your style? What makes you unique if your unique style is taken away?
My first reaction was that as an illustrator, I am my style, I am my portfolio. When art directors are looking to work with an illustrator, it's mainly style they're browsing for. There's not much left of me or my portfolio if you take away my style.
Or is there? Style is just a vessel for an idea. Style is just an illustrator picking a certain direction to offer a convincing portfolio to art directors who have about a minute and a half to pick a portfolio from among their recent bookmarks. Style means an illustrator can work efficiently because a whole lot of trial and error has already taken place. It also means the client gets a pretty clear promise of the end result. The more narrowed down a style is presented on a portfolio, the less of a risk the illustrator is to the art director. Now if we take away that special style of yours, the sauce, the flavour, what then remains of you the illustrator?
I think what remains is the ability to have ideas. Not just ideas about how you see the world in general, by observation and experience, but the actual skill of coming up with an idea whenever you're asked to. This isn't a skill that can only be found in artistic people, it is not some magic gift that some have and some don't. It's the result of wiring your brain to work that way: you train yourself to make your brain come up with ideas. Some ideas are better than others, some ideas come faster than others, but there's always something because that's how you've trained your brain to work. What you are without your style is a trained professional idea maker. Your style comes into play to translate that idea into an image. Your style allows the idea to be realised quickly enough to make it before the deadline and within the expectations of your client. But it's the ability to create ideas that makes you an illustrator.
For some illustrators style isn't even of importance. To them, it's just whatever brush is closest at hand, whatever pencil is best suitable for the job. The job in this case being the visualisation of an idea. Artists like Kyle T. Webster, Roman Muradov and Christoph Niemann. Pure idea making heavyweights who wouldn't find it difficult at all to answer the question: Who are you without your style? Why, easy: I'm an idea vulcano, that's who!
For others – like myself – who have narrowed down their portfolios showing only one style, it's easy to believe that you are your style. Try out different styles on the side and keep working on what really is the basis of all illustrators: ideas.