Ask Mr. Artist Guy: Should An Illustrator Work In Multiple Styles?

Recently my friend and fellow illustrator Tom Richmond posted a very thoughtful article about this question on his blog. Tom specializes in caricature illustration and made a good case for having one unique look or style in your work that art directors can always count on. I have a lot of respect for Tom and he makes some very valid points in his article. However, I have a somewhat different take.

I think that to some extent the answer to this question depends on the industry you are working in. Tom does a lot of editorial work (i.e. magazines, books, etc.) and I think that in those industries having a unique style is indeed a huge benefit. But there are other industries in which having a specific “look” to your work carries less weight. Most of the work I do is in the fields of advertising/marketing, toy design, and animation. In those industries the ability to work in multiple styles is often just as much of an asset, if not more, than having one consistent style. I recently attended the Animation Expo in Burbank and one thing I heard repeatedly from studio recruiters is that they are always looking for artists who can adapt to a wide range of styles. The more flexible you are, the more valuable you are to a studio.

I also do a lot of work with advertising agencies. For many advertising projects, often by the time I get involved the overall look and style of a campaign has already been established. The artwork I create has to mesh with all the other elements that are already in place to complete the larger picture. Since deadlines in advertising are very tight and there is usually a lot of money invested in a campaign, more often than not there is little room left for an artist to express his or her “voice”. Art directors will often pay a premium for someone who can jump right in and quickly create something that blends in seamlessly with the rest of the campaign.

Yes, you can build a reputation on having one strong, distinctive look or style. But I think you can also build an equally solid reputation on being fast and flexible. It all depends on the project. For some projects the former is of more value, for others its the latter.

Tom makes a good point when he says that a big downside of working in multiple styles is that does make it harder for you to stand out from the crowd with a unique look or voice. When I send out an email blast or a postcard showcasing my latest work I sometimes think my message gets a little muddled. My portfolio is a bit of a stylistic jumble, something that doesn’t always work in my favor. So instead of emphasizing a particular look or style, my advertising strategy lately has been to emphasize my speed, my quality of work, and to draw attention to some of the bigger names on my client list (Disney, Walmart, Hasbro, Target, Hewlett-Packard, etc.) which communicate to an art director that I am an experienced professional. So far it seems to have worked since I have stayed busy even in the down economy.

Having said all that, there is a big danger in being TOO diverse. Early in my career I had pieces in my portfolio ranging from realistic oil paintings all the way to wacky cartoons and everything in between. I was all over the map and looking back I realize it made me appear unfocused and amateurish. No matter how talented you are, no artist can be excellent at everything and the best art directors understand that. Over the years I’ve narrowed my focus to a “limited range” of styles. I can do a variety of work but I focus on things that are more cartoony, with softer curves and geared towards a young kid-friendly look. I rarely do “realistic” work anymore (other than an occasional storyboard or marker comp). My portfolio has some variety but there is still an overall unity in the work. It might not scream out at you but it’s still there. My spectrum of styles is broader than some but not so broad that it looses all focus and meaning. It really is true that if you try to be everything to everyone you wind up being nothing to nobody.

What do you think? If you are an art director, which is more important to you–a strong style or the ability to adapt? If you are an illustrator, which approach do you prefer? Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.


Packaging Art: Bags On Board

Recently I was hired by Launch, an ad agency in the Dallas area, to create some artwork for a new packaging project. They were developing a new logo and packaging for “Bags On Board”, line of pet waste disposal products. They came to me with some concepts already fleshed out and hired me to do the final packaging illustration across the top. I wound up doing I think six different variations on this illustration, one for each product that was being showcased.

CTN Animation Expo Recap

This past weekend I attended the first annual CTN Animation Expo in Burbank. What a fantastic weekend! Hundreds of animation artists descended on the Burbank Marriott for three days of workshops, seminars, networking, and hanging out. There were dozens of artists exhibiting their work and some top people in the biz giving incredible lectures and interviews.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the many highlights

Throughout the Expo several top artists were stationed out in the lobby doing live demos. Here Tony Bancroft (former Disney animator and director of Mulan) does a demo animation of Pumbaa from The Lion King. An overhead camera projected his work on large monitors.

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Poppycock Packaging Art for Orville Redenbacher

Earlier this year I was hired my the good folks at RPM Connect in Minneapolis to illustrate some Christmas canisters for Orville Reddenbacher’s “Poppycock” brand. The snacks are now available in stores. I picked up my first few canisters in Target but I’m sure other stores will be carrying them as well.

The folks at RPM Connect were great to work with. By the time I was brought onto the project the general concept had already been decided on but the exact style of illustration was still under discussion. They wanted a series of vignettes around the bottom of the can. Something flat, graphic, not very cartoony, and probably monochromatic.  Also, the client had incorporated some snowflakes-and-trees clip art into the mockup and I was asked to try to incorporate those elements into my final illustration. Whatever I did couldn’t deviate too far from that “look”.

Given those parameters, I worked up a few samples to try and nail down a possible style for the illustration:

Normally my work is very cartoony so it was a lot of fun to push myself in another direction and play around with styles and colors I wouldn’t normally use. Ultimately the client chose Option #2 (the one in the upper right) and that’s the style I went with. Here’s the final illustration:

From there the agency added in the logo and other graphic elements. The final result is now available in stores:

Ostrich Concept Sketches

A few months ago I was hired by an independent film studio in Hollywood to work on some concept sketches for an animated feature film they are developing. They had brought in an artist to do some concept work but that artist was no longer available. I was asked to do some sketches of one of the characters (a young ostrich) and, if things worked out, I would be hired to design all of the remaining characters for the movie.

It was a fun project but unfortunately things didn’t work out. Sometimes that’s just the way it goes. The studio asked me to design a character in a similar style to what the previous artist had done, and I did my best to match that style. I also played around with other shapes and designs to explore different ways of thinking about the look and personality of the characters.

Here’s a few of those rough concept sketches I developed.

Animator Phil Nibbelink

A few weeks ago I attended the Motion ’09 animation conference in New Mexico where I gave two presentations on character design. One of the mainstays of the conference is animator Phil Nibbelink. Last year he taught at least three sessions relating to animation and this year I think he gave about a half-dozen presentations including a panel discussion with three other long-time Disney animators. Phil really knows his stuff and I’ve learned a lot from listening to him expound on various aspects of filmmaking.

Phil worked for ten years at Disney and was a directing animator on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Then he spent another ten years working under Steven Spielberg as an animation director, working on such films as Fivel Goes West (which he directed) and Casper. In recent years Phil has turned his attention to independent filmmaking, cranking out not just one but three full-length animated features single-handedly.

Phil does a lot of freelance work these days. He’s an experienced animation pro who really knows the ins and outs of the business. Give his website a looksee.

CTN Animation Expo Just Around The Corner


I’ve been looking forward to this for months. The CTN Animation Expo starts Friday in Burbank, CA. To my knowledge this is the first-ever event of its kind. Artists and creatives from all over the Hollywood animation scene will be gathered under one roof for three days of inspiring seminars, workshops, and networking. Lots of artists will be exhibiting their work and some of the big studios in town will be scouting for talent. There’s going to be a lot going on and the event is generating a lot of buzz. Highlights include:

  • Panels and Presentations…click here for schedule.
  • A tribute to legendary Cartoonist Ronald Searle.
  • Spotlight Booksignings and Exclusive Sketchbook Releases.
  • Speed Talent sessions—show your portfolio, ask questions, meet a mentor.
  • Screenings: “The Secret of the Kells”, “Banjo The Woodpile Cat”, and a surprise late night screening 11pm on Saturday… sshhhhhh!
  • Live Demonstrations hourly by the creators of some of the highest grossing films in the history of animation.
  • Exclusive Spotlight Interviews: (in alphabetical order)
    Peter de Sève
    Gary Goldman and Don Bluth
    Mike Mignola
    Paul Young and Tom Moore the makers of “The Secret of the Kells”
  • CTN-X@nite Networking Parties sponsored by Animation Magazine, The Marriott Hotel and Walt Disney Studios.
  • Reunions: Don Bluth Studios, Walt Disney Florida and Rowland Animation and more.
  • Live Demonstrations all weekend.
  • Recession Buster Raffle $1000 cash and prizes. One winner a day.
  • ToonBoom:  Presentations and Software Raffle
  • Z-Brush: Presentations and Software Raffle
  • Corel/Wacom Artist Contest: Win a Painter and Intuos 4 tablet.

You can still get tickets, starting at just $25. Hope to see you there!

(The CTN Expo is sponsored by the Creative Talent Network.)