From the earliest age, we’re taught to strive for perfection. We’re supposed to attend the best schools, get straight A’s, and win Olympic gold medals while we’re at it. To achieve this, we need to have impeccable grades, flawless technique, and unmatchable skills. Once in a while, our society makes a half-hearted attempt to say, “be who you are,” but it’s usually within the context of a winner’s story — someone who wasn’t pitch perfect on paper but still ended up on top anyway.
Talk to career artists and art directors, however, and they’ll tell you that the key to getting commissions and hired full-time isn’t artistic perfection — it’s artistic expression. Those that hire creative talent want, and pay handsomely for one-of-a-kind voices that shock, provoke, scream, joke, and wow — even if they are a little messy at times. Speaking in your own voice is the smartest thing you can do to distinguish yourself from the crowd. And let’s be honest, it’s much more fun. Someone can always come along and be a “better” artist than you, but no one can take away your style. It’s defensible, something you can lean back on regardless of trends and something you can sell that others can’t (one-of-a-kind = more valuable!).
We asked some of our Behance members why style is so instrumental to success and, more importantly, how they developed their own unique voice. They agreed that it wasn’t something as straightforward as a race with a start and finish line, but an ever-evolving process.
Greek illustrator Alexis Marcou, cops to starting his career by drawing very straightforward, mirror image sketches of subjects. Italian graphic designer Jonathan Calugi says he churned out doodle pattern designs until his mind was numb to appease the market demand. Meanwhile, Danish artist Maria Grønlund chased whatever was cool at the moment. Each creative was trying to fit in by adhering to well-traveled forms or copying hip trends, and, by doing so, they were conveying their point of view using someone else’s voice.
That works as a jumping off point, but to truly make your creative mark, you must chuck the road map and explore unchartered territory. “I was good at copying reality, but that is as good as copying a camera,” Marcou points out. “It’s soulless.” He began combining polygrams with his drawings to make futuristic images lit by flashes of neon. This blend of traditional shading methods with the latest digital applications has caught the eye of clients.
Nike commissioned Marcou to make a collection of its pro athletes that is now displayed on the company’s executive floor. “Your work has to look completely original like Picasso,” says Marcou. “It has to have your dirt in it.”
Developing a personal style signals growth and maturity — a strong grasp of the fundamentals, a confidence in your ability, and a desire to advance in your craft by saying what you want to say, on your terms. “When you realize it’s more important how unique your drawing is — and not necessarily how beautiful — you go to the next step in your career where you are really free,” says Calugi. He had his style epiphany when he realized that a smile — a single line and two dots — was as simple and as powerful of an image as anyone could draw. So Calugi set out to do more with less. Now he uses a single line to create his signature woven shapes that are spare yet vibrant and alive. Calugi knows his technique is not perfect, but he looks at the problem from the glass half full perspective. “My work is full of errors,” he says, but, “your errors identify you.”
Style shouldn’t be forced. It often develops organically, akin to vocabulary, based on your interests, personality, and influences. “The director of my MFA program, Marshall Arisman, made life infinitely better for me and my classmates when he said not to worry about style. Style is just what each of us does naturally, the same way we all sound different when we talk,” says New York City-based cartoonist Andrea Tsurumi. Arisman’s advice to his students is to devote themselves to meaningful work, because the enjoyment factor will allow a person to make their best stuff. This might mean that you have to spend time working outside of your studies or job because what you love and what you’re getting paid for or earning a grade from might not always align.
Grønlund switched careers at age 35, going from a classical musician to graphic designer. She got her first job at a package design firm. The work was stable, albeit a bit creatively dry. So she spent her nights making doodles awash in bright, happy colors for fun. “Personal projects can be a great way to do some self-exploration,” she says. “I’ve had many a-ha moments during them that have helped shape me as an artist.” One of those was to open her own firm, which she did earlier this year, and fully focus on her specialty.
Even though there is a natural element to style, it doesn’t magically appear fully-formed the first time you draw something. It must be worked out, the result of taking many artistic reps. “When you get to a place where you are really absorbed in a process, you reach points where it is really easy to get up and go distract yourself,” says Rhode Island School of Design president Rosanne Somerson. “But, if you push through those moments, then often at the other side of that is a breakthrough.” How did Somerson, who also runs her own furniture design studio, know when she had arrived at her style? “When I could carry out the picture I saw in my head,” she says.
Since your artistic persona is an accumulation of gut feeling, point of view, and the ideas that bring you joy, it is something that collects moss throughout your career. Your style is never “finished.” Once you develop your voice, you can’t lose it, even when you take on a client assignment outside of your wheelhouse. “When you do commercial work, you lose your personality from time to time, but you don’t lose your style in any type of work,” says Calugi. “Right now I recognize myself in everything I do,” he adds. “That is really important.”