The Style Problem for Artists By Kyle T Webster

KTW Medium

By Kyle T Webster

I have been fortunate enough to support my family as a freelance illustrator for the past decade and I have seen my business grow with each passing year. But when I stop to think about one of the biggest secrets for my staying power in a famously shaky business, I am frequently wary of sharing it with students or new artists in my profession. Why? Because it goes against what nearly every working artist or teacher advises young artists to do, if they want to be ‘successful.’ I’m talking about style consistency.

I strongly believe that my illustration business thrives on offering clients a range of visual styles in which I can work confidently. In school, through books, and at illustration conferences, I was instructed to create a portfolio in a singular style and with a consistent “voice” so that art directors could easily understand how I would approach an assignment. This makes perfect sense, and I see the logic in this instruction. However, I was never happy drawing only one way, and I suspect most artists feel the same. Sometimes you want to be quick and messy, and sometimes you want to be slow and steady. Sometimes it’s all about shapes, and other times, it’s about line, or perhaps texture or color. Or sometimes, and perhaps most importantly, you just get incredibly bored with the same old thing.

So when I was ready to start my own business, I created a website for my illustration work and put stylistically varied images in the gallery, against the advice of peers and instructors. At first, there were only three distinctly different looks to the samples of work I shared. However, given what I had been told about the importance of style consistency, this already felt daring and dangerous. Would art directors decide that I was reckless and not dependable? Or fickle? Flighty?

No. Calls and emails came in from new clients and it was never a problem. Not once. These clients simply referenced whichever piece(s) they liked in my portfolio and asked for something similar. And that was that.

Emboldened, I started adding everything I liked to the gallery, whether or not it bared any resemblance to my other work. Now, I sometimes think my portfolio reads like that of an illustration agency that represents a dozen artists. And though some might disagree, I think this is a really good thing.

KTW 2So, why all the hubbub about style? It could be that we are confusing it with quality. Certainly, if you work well in one style, but are not as confident working in another, then it makes sense to leave that less confident work out of your portfolio. Showing good work is, without a doubt, a top priority. But many artists I know do many things well; some ping pong comfortably back and forth between completely different techniques with ease. And yet, they only focus on presenting one of these techniques to the masses. This is a tragic missed opportunity. If the potential is there to accept twice as many commissions, then why not take advantage of this? Last year, I illustrated three advertising campaigns (with excellent budgets, it should be mentioned) in three completely different styles. Had I only presented one style on my website, I would have only had the opportunity to produce one of these campaigns. The other two would have gone to different artists.

I am well aware that many commercial artists have built strong, lasting careers on a single way of working. This model is proven and it can certainly be done. I just don’t think it’s the only way, and I think educators and institutions do aspiring artists a disservice by insisting that it is.

Three benefits of working in more than one style:
1. More jobs. If an art director works on several different magazines and knows you work comfortably in different styles, then you have just made their job easier by allowing them, in a pinch, to assign multiple jobs to you in a single week for different titles. Additionally, you increase the chances of an art director liking your work by giving them a menu, rather than a single dish. Not everybody likes beef.
2. New markets. Is your current style working well for spot illustrations in magazines, but useless for book covers? Create some new art samples in a completely new style and bust down the doors of the illustrated book cover market. Or, how about opening up some passive revenue streams with the art that just doesn’t “fit” into your portfolio? Make prints, make shirts, make comics, make wallpaper, make stickers …
3. Play. Allowing yourself the freedom to try new mediums and approaches will not only open up new business opportunities, but it will allow you to grow faster as an artist and have a lot more fun in the studio.

If it were not for the enjoyment I get out of experimenting with new looks and new ways of making marks, I never would have created my Photoshop brush business. It was born out of my love of mixing media, but having little time to break out the paints, especially with deadlines looming. Now, that business accounts for a considerable portion of my annual income. I think this case alone is a testament to the value of playing with style.

Artists: have a look around your studio. Are there sketches or experiments that you love madly, but have never thought about sharing publicly because they are so inconsistent with the work you are known for, as a professional? Take a leap and share them now. Somewhere out there is a person who wants to pay you for it. And if your regular clients don’t like it, what harm can come of this? They already know you can work beautifully in a style they like, and they will still hire you.

Originally posted on Medium. Reposted by permission Kyle T Webster

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Categories: business

Author:Mark Kaufman

Mark Kaufman is a partner at Vivitiv, an issue oriented design firm providing creative services for organizations involved in housing, technology issues, education, the environment, and the arts. His illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, The Progressive, National Lampoon, The Stranger, and The Oxford American. Mr. Kaufman writes and draws the comic strips American Affairs Desk and I Drew This Thing. Mark is Vice President Communications, ICON9 The Illustration Conference and is an editor at Illustration Age. Mark Kaufman's Illustration Site ///// Vivitiv Issue Oriented Design

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19 Comments on “The Style Problem for Artists By Kyle T Webster”

  1. January 22, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

    Yes, a million times yes! thanks for

  2. January 22, 2016 at 1:21 pm #


  3. January 22, 2016 at 1:46 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this, a confirmation that you don’t have to present just one style all the time.

  4. January 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm #

    THANK YOU for speaking the unspeakable! I (almost) never met an art medium I didn’t like, and I have several I love and am good at, so why do I have to pretend I only do one thing? P.S. your brushes are awesome!

  5. January 22, 2016 at 4:48 pm #

    You might want to fix that author credit, IA.

  6. January 23, 2016 at 3:53 pm #

    Yes! It’s always been an asset of mine to be able to create art in many different styles.

  7. johnison1969
    January 24, 2016 at 2:50 am #

    I agree totally. I have found the people that say its important to stick to one style, are usually the one trick ponies themselves. Illustration by its very nature, evolves constantly, if an artist is truly an artist, they can produce anything a client may wish for.

  8. johnison1969
    January 24, 2016 at 2:51 am #

  9. January 24, 2016 at 5:51 am #

    Thanks for that post, you break a taboo !

  10. January 25, 2016 at 6:47 am #

    Thanks for saying this for all the artists who don’t have one style. I know of one online teacher who seems to push finding one style, but she also does licencing that is known mostly for one style.

  11. January 25, 2016 at 8:46 am #

    Well said! I couldn’t agree more.

  12. January 25, 2016 at 12:10 pm #

    I’ve been struggling for months about my non existing style consistency and my portfolio website. You are so right. I love to switch between soft and rough, delicate and bold. I can do all kinds of style. Why should I not? I do feel jealous when looking at websites of illustrators with a strong style. It always makes me feel a bit inadequate. Your blog is a life saver! Thanks a million.

  13. Joanna
    January 25, 2016 at 1:15 pm #

    Great subject! I think that can be true if you’re an already an established illustrator, but I would be suprised if an newcomer would make a breakthrough with an inconsistent identity. Almost all working illustrators I’ve heard of and seen their work get published , stick to more or less one style. I have the same problem , I get too bored to stick to one thing. But I’ve been to the Bologna Book Fair three times and met with quite a few publishing houses from all over Europe, who’ve said “your style is inconsistent and we can’t see clearly who you are” . So it seems the industry does look for consistency, at least when you’re a new artist.

  14. January 26, 2016 at 9:08 am #

    I am grappling with being 75 years old and having a media experience that moves from hand tools all the way through electronic, e-books, and tablets. Consistency in page scale, layout and movement also demand attention.

  15. January 27, 2016 at 6:24 am #

    This was just what I needed to read! Thank you for sharing your insight.

  16. j8w7
    January 30, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

    That was a very interesting post, Mr. Webster.-JW

  17. September 2, 2017 at 9:17 am #

    Thank you so much for posting this. Was having a bit of a “how do I let go of my different styles” crisis today. Feel much more confident now. Onwards and upwards!

  18. May 1, 2019 at 11:37 am #

    Great article! I do also have multiple styles – thanks!

  19. Dee
    November 28, 2019 at 3:31 pm #

    Thank you for this Kyle.


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