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.