Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Style Thing

One of the comments I got early on when I started posting my own artwork was something to the effect of "Wow, you've got a lot of styles..." Which I guess I do, but I am leery of them all. While I pretty much enjoy the act of drawing for it's own sake, I have always had a personal aversion to locking in to one signature style. That's because on some innate level I just dread the thought of doing one thing one way forever. Perhaps without meaning to I have developed a default style anyway at this point, but even if that's true, I'm no less leery.

Style is important in drawing and sometimes in cartooning it seems like everything. But to me, style can become a kind of mannerism that gets carried away with itself. It can be a straightjacket as much as a hallmark. I get nervous about the limitations of a single style and the expectations that can set in. One has to be very careful not to let a style devolve into a gimmick. Or worse, start out as one and stay that way.

Which is not to say that it always does and often even the most established stylists let their styles evolve naturally, rather than calcify.

Starting out as kid, of course I always had heroes to emulate, who all had distinctive styles of their own. I would copy someone as best I could until I could mimic their style with my own drawings for a season or so. But soon I would get the itch to try something else and learn a different style.  Let me quickly say, like most kids, I didn't master any of these styles by a professional standard; (hey, I was a kid!). But the influences to one extent or another crept into my toolbox. The up side was that this kind of self-teaching helped me as an animation artist, where learning various styles is important. The downside was that I was really just clumsily copying surface tics of each artist without really understanding them, let alone fully grasping the basic drawing principles that were so well integrated that they seemed subordinate to style.

Needless to say, in hindsight, I had it completely backwards. If there was one thing I would encourage young and beginning artists to do it would be draw who and what is around you, with less emphasis on graphic style and with more intention on capturing likeness and understanding of the things you are drawing. By understanding I mean several levels of understanding :

1. Structual understanding; knowing anatomy, architecture, perspective, proportion - the inherent STRUCTURE of things.

2. Historical understanding: costume, architecture, furniture construction. WHY things look the way they do.

3. Human understanding. If you are not sure why you are drawing something it will show. If you don't like it, that applies even more. If you aren't even sure what it is, you are even worse off still. But stay curious and force yourself to draw what you don't excel at from time to time, don't rest on your strengths. I am guilty of that and I find that when I trying to fake something new it won't work. I have to make the effort to understand the actual thing involved and then trick myself into enjoying it. When I can do that, it's most often successful. Otherwise, I miss the mark. 

No one can draw anything and everything of course, so it is important to figure out your niche. But any time you have an advantage to get an understanding of something new, make the most of it.

It is of course very important to have a unique mode of expression, and graphic style is one of the main ways people will recognize you and seek you out. No mistake, recognition is a big deal. But be patient with yourself and allow time to develop fundamental abilities that will be the backbone of your work. If you do this, over time an organic style is more likely to develop that is even more useful and unique than if you just copied everybody else to the exclusion of the basics.


kellie said...

I share your restless reaction to the idea of a fixed style. As well as the drawback in terms of recognizability that you mention, I think it's also had a downside in leading me into reinventing the wheel too many times, and on short deadline jobs too. Creatively stimulating, but stressful!

SparkyMK3 said...

Blessings to you for offering this timeless advice, Will! I myself am stuck in the circles phase and am trying to use the Preston Blair book to break out of these crude drawing habits of mine!

Thatguyjames said...

I definitely agree about not wanting to be locked into a single style for fear of stagnation. I think it is important, though, to do whatever you feel inspired to do, even if it's more or less a repetition on a theme.

And I wouldn't call your initial efforts a waste. There are some theories of skill acquisition that almost require we do just what you did as a kid. If you look at the Dreyfus model (, you'll see exactly what you talking about.

I've seen the same thing in the martial arts. When a student is brand-new and wants to learn a new kick, they start by imitating a veteran as best they can. Eventually they get to the point where they can imitate the motion well, but they're still not kicking. It's only after many repetitions of the veteran that the student is able to have the "Aha!" moment, where they break the move down into its component pieces and begin to assign real value to what's actually going on. Then, and only then, can they perform the kick.

Will Finn said...

Wow, these are really thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. Many thanks kellie, Sparky MK3 and Thatguyjames. I will ASAP look at the Dreyfus model-thanks for the reference/link.

I have wanted to tackle this topic here for a long time but it is huge and I had to settle for scratching a tiny patch of surface here for fear of never getting a post launched at all. Glad it connected with you. There's much more to say about it of course, here and elsewhere. Cheers!

vitalik shu said...

Great post! Thank you Will !!

Stephen Worth said...

Great post, Will! I linked to it on Animation Resources. Every kid animator should read this advice and take it to heart. Thanks! Steve