Unleash your creative voice!
If the School of Illustration were agony aunts, our number one reader letter would read something like this:
Dear Frances and Nick,
Help! I’m just starting out as a freelance illustrator, and I don’t know where to turn. My family and friends all say I’m good at drawing, but I don’t feel like I’ve got a recognisable style and my portfolio is a creative mish mash of different stuff. I’ve tried lots of different ways of working, but nothing feels like ‘me’. I know I should be contacting clients and trying to win commissions, but I feel like I can’t till I’ve found my creative voice.
How on earth do I find it?!
Illustrator without an identity
I’m guessing everyone reading can relate to this imaginary letter writer? I definitely can!
For aspiring illustrators, one of the biggest worries is often how to find a distinctive creative voice.
The first step to building an authentic visual language, and this may seem counterintuitive, is to actually stop trying to find one. The word find suggests that it is something outside of yourself, that you have to go on the hunt for and track down. In reality, it is something already inside of you that needs to unfold organically, through a conscious process of experimentation.
A creative voice is a made up of two distinct elements. The first is the physical media and processes you use. The second, more intangible element, is your unique interests, experiences and passions.
So first let’s look at the more obvious part of this puzzle - media and processes. The crux of this piece is finding out what your ‘handwriting’ is, e.g., how you would typically draw something, and what is second nature to you. As a child, my favourite tool to draw with was an Edding 55 fine liner (the black and white stripy ones that look like humbug sweets!). As a result, I now find that when I draw something the line is my starting point, always.
Following my natural affinity with fine liners also led to a commission to write and illustrate a book ‘Pick up a Pen’, a how-to guide on drawing with pens. However, I still experiment with different mediums and formats to shake things up, like getting the easel out and painting with a thick brush and ink on A1 paper or creating Risograph prints of my drawings. This experimentation then naturally feeds into my professional work, keeping it fresh and evolving.
Also look at the artists who inspire you and break down and analyse what it is about their artwork that you like. What this doesn’t mean is copying elements of their visual language (e.g., how they draw noses) but rather looking at how they handle formal elements – line, shape, colour, texture and space. So, you might like the way that they use flat, opaque blocks of colour with sharply defined edges, or how they use a dip pen and ink to draw a line than has a variable thickness.
You can then experiment with these approaches, combining them with your existing natural ‘handwriting’ to create something new. This fancy word for this is synthesis, and this process will enable you to master your chosen mediums and develop your own distinctive illustrative style
Now let’s look at the second puzzle piece - your interests, experiences, and passions. When I was studying for my MA in Illustration, I received an excellent piece of advice from my tutor. This was that whatever work you have in your portfolio, that’s what clients will commission more of (yes I know this sounds very obvious but I hadn’t really considered this before!) Therefore, it’s important to like what you’ve got in there! If you’re going to be drawing for a living, being interested in what you are drawing makes it a lot easier to stay enthusiastic and motivated throughout even the most demanding projects.
A good exercise to start reflecting on this as an element, is to write down the top 5 things you are most passionate about outside of art and illustration. For example, my top 5 would be:
Once you have identified these passions, you can then get to work on creating portfolio pieces around these topics and locating suitable commercial outlets for your work. All of mine fall into the ‘lifestyle’ category so a natural fit would be editorial, specifically magazines aimed at women e.g Vogue, Elle, Happiful and Breathe.
Whenever I teach this exercise in a workshop, it always amazes me that everyone has such interesting and idiosyncratic collections of interests, and also that no one’s list is ever the same! I think this is a good reminder that we’re all unique, and that by just being fully yourself, you can stand out from the crowd. Remember, as a professional illustrator, clients are not only paying for your image making skills. They’re also paying for your ideas and individual perspectives, which are yours and yours alone.
Developing an authentic and nuanced voice as an artist won’t happen overnight, but if you stick at it, you’ll be surprised how quickly a strong creative identity begins to emerge. So why not have a go at applying these principles, and see where it takes you?