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.

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8 thoughts on “Ask Mr. Artist Guy: Should An Illustrator Work In Multiple Styles?

  1. It seems to me, Cedric, that the illustrators and cartoonists whose names are most known (to their colleagues, art directors and to the general public) are those who have a their own unique style. That doesn’t necessarily means those artists make the most money, but I can’t help but think that being known translates to getting more calls.

  2. I agree– I see the Cedric charm beneath all you do. And, I like how you’ve grouped your areas of expertise.

    As a working artist who outsources, I’d be comfortable knowing I’d get close to what your group of related styles predict. The art brief and concept rough would provide as few limits as needed to return commerce value to the client.

    In Los Angeles at least, the smaller studios, especially artist-run “boutiques,” put a high value on flexibility. Agencies of any size always wanted “one style to file.”

    I reasoned that the Account Rep wasn’t an artist, or a very practiced one, but a better manager or salesperson than I was. Several I met were from Public Relations or had marketing degrees.

  3. I really appreciated this post. I hear the message that Tom and many others send regarding a strong voice. It makes sense to me from a logical and business perspective. Yet, I can’t imagine only drawing one way all the time. It was good to hear your perspective that creates a little wiggle room somewhere in the middle between being an amateurish jack-of-all-trades (which is where I tend to wallow) on the one side and the extreme focus of one voice only on the other.

    Your work is awesome, and I agree with the others, though varied, still has a Cedricish charm. Keep it up!

  4. Very true, it’s tempting to always be a swiss army knife of styles but like you said, a jack of all trades is a master of none. I think having a personal portfolio with a cohesive style along with professional adaptability is a nice middle-ground for those of us that aren’t yet Nicolas Marlet. Thanks for the article and kudos on the great illustration work!

  5. You did a good job of spelling it out here Cedric. I had read Tom’s post and it too was good. As an Art Director, I would say you both are spot on.

    When I look for artists, I look for two kinds. One with a very specific style that works with what I have them illustrating for and I know what I will get. Second, an illustrator with a solid style of their own but shows the ability to flex a few different ways. This illustrator tends to be a work horse and gets a lot of jobs that fill in on projects that are missing parts and/or need to fit or match products in a line.

    Illustrators that do try to do too much or too many different styles, I shy away from because I’m not sure what I will get when they work on the project.

  6. Hey there Cedric! Thanks for your post!

    Personally I think artists need to grow in their abilities, so exploring different styles helps. But then again it’s hard to run away from the way one handles the pen (or pencil or brush), and the individual artist’s style in that sense can still show (though I suspect that less artistically trained eyes may not be able to tell the difference). Where I come from, a lot of people like anime style, but then everybody’s doing it, so I think it’s good to be able to do that style and at the same time be able to offer something different and fresh.

    I think you got it spot on in not being too diverse. No point trying to hit every possible market (fine art to cartooning?) and then missing them all. Better to target one market and be good at it 🙂

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