I don't usually have time to write detailed answers to questions I get from students by e-mail, but I thought this one might make a good blog post. So I've answered this letter to someone going to university in September to study full-time illustration, who asks two questions:
1. How did you find ‘your style’? As that is something I really struggle with. Any tips?
Keep experimenting. Style isn't something I really think about that much, I like trying out new ways of working. I think style is often something other people notice about one's work, not necessarily something we strive for, or notice, ourselves. I wouldn't recommend focusing on your style at the beginning of your career, it's best to keep pushing what you can do. You can choose arbitrary rules for yourself: you might try a whole book in, say, a carefully chosen limited colour palette, and that will set a style for that particular book. Often these 'rules' will make an artist's work very distinctive: for example, David Roberts sets a rule for himself that he doesn't ever use solid black. (Whereas Chris Wormell relies on solid black very heavily with his wood engravings and lino-cut prints.) But if you keep trying different techniques and ways of drawing and image making, you might surprise yourself; looking back on your old artwork, something you thought several years ago should be your style, now looks rather naff to you.
Story first: Don't forget that with illustration, the story almost always comes before the artist; we want to tell the story in the way that best suits the story itself, not something that draws attention to our artistry by itself, particularly if we didn't write the story. Our artwork should enhance and add to the story (even if that involves deliberate tension between the pictures and words), not distract from it. You you might draw one chapter book that has a dark, haunted theme, and it will look very different to a sunny baby board book set at the seaside, or a nostalgic historical memoir. That's okay, they don't all have to look the same or use the same materials. Or as you figure out what you like doing, you may prefer to keep a very narrow focus you love, say, only illustrating dark spooky stories, in charcoal, and get known for that kind of work. But don't miss opportunities at art college to try out things you might not be able to afford or be able to access when you get out of college; it's not so easy to set up an etching studio or screen printing area in a bedsit. And even if you don't go on to use, say, etching, in your professional illustration, working in one media can often give a whole new dimension when you go back to the medium you're more familiar with. Trying out sculpture may help you understand negative space and shadow better in your drawing. Or experimenting in lino cut might make you re-evaluate your thickness of line when drawing in pen. Jump at chances to do life drawing sessions; you may end up drawing figures in a completely stylised way, but drawing from observation will give you tools for your mental tool box that will come in handy.
Fashions change. When I first started illustrating picture books for Scholastic, my editor was adamant that I only use dots for eyes. This was considered classy, and anything showing whites of eyes they rated as 'down-market'. But gradually this changed (possibly due in part to the popularity of books such as wide-eyed Dirty Bertie), which was a huge relief, as it's VERY hard to have a character give side-eye when they don't have actual sides to their eyes. (Sometimes we could get around it by having characters wear glasses!)
Breaking out: As you get more and more commissioned jobs and deadlines, you may find yourself falling into a pattern of working that begins to define to clients and readers what your style is. If you look at Axel Scheffler or Shirley Hughes' drawings, they are instantly identifiable. But in many long careers, an artist will get weary of doing the same thing and break out and try something completely different, like David McKee did with his big abstract oil paintings. Some artists love working the same way forever and others feel pigeon-holed. Or you may even run up against physical challenges, such as fading eyesight or motor coordination. I know artists whose bodies have forced them into having to work differently and, while I never would have wished it upon them, it added new and interesting dimensions to their work.
2. How did you start off to get to where you are with your work?
Drawing! Drawing all the time. Keeping a sketchbook, drawing challenges I found on the Internet, copying paintings at art museums, sketching from art books, making comics. On Twitter, we have a daily drawing challenge at @StudioTeaBreak and it's fascinating to see differently people approach the same challenge. And there are lots of other daily challenges on the Internet; follow a few of the participants at StudioTeaBreak and you'll see them taking part in other challenges, too.
Making lots of little books. I wanted to write and illustrate, and writing stories and drawing pictures isn't the same as making a book. When I had to think about the way a book is constructed, it really made me think about what needs to go into it. And the format of books - say, 32 pages for picture books - can give limitations which are actually quite helpful; I know exactly how many pages I need to fill, the project has some shape before I even start. I took my little photocopied books to comics fairs, where I could get a table and sell them, and it was the most useful thing I ever did: I got to see book projects go from idea to book to hand-selling, the whole package. If you're submitting work to publishers, there's a lot of waiting around; that's why making self-published little books is great, you don't have to wait, you can just get on with the next project. And even if you do submit books to agents and publishers, don't wait around, they might take ages to get back to you. Be working on the next project, and if you're able to, blog about it, so the publishers can see you're busy and creative and if they don't get on board soon, they'll miss the boat. (I've been blogging since 2006, so if you have time, you really can go back and see where I started!)
Not sitting around. You want to appear to be a whirlwind of creativity and ideas, someone publishers get excited about. You often get writers and illustrators who will peddle one book idea around for a decade or more, and they whinge about unfairness and being misunderstood. Most people want to tell them that the idea looks old and tired, and to put it aside and move on, but everything they have is invested in flogging that one dead horse, so they get angry if anyone points that out; they never really draw anything more. A project won't die if you put it aside and, when the next project (or the project after that, or the one after that) gets picked up by a publisher, you might be able to show them that earlier one, too. I made a picture book for my art college degree show that never got published; I worked so, so hard on it, and I learned a lot doing it, but looking back, I got a lot better after that; I can see why that book didn't get picked up. I had a bit of an artistic breakthrough after that, but it never would have happened if I hadn't put so much effort into that laborious, not-very-good picture book.
Being confident as a professional. If you make pictures, you're an artist or illustrator, not an 'aspiring' illustrator. Sign your work so it doesn't get loose on the Internet with no connection to you. Make sure publishing clients credit you by name for the work you do, so you can build your name in the business. (Find out more about this at picturesmeanbusiness.com, a website designed by illustrator Soni Speight.) Make a point to credit other illustrators for their work, we can all support each other.
Getting help, joining organisations: first the British branch of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, then the Association of Illustrators, then the Society of Authors. All three of these have their strengths and weaknesses, but I've found that each has very valuable things to offer, and getting involved is one way to meet people and figure out how things work in the industry.
Edit: If you're illustrating books, the Society of Authors is a union, and when you're a member, will help look over your contracts for you. (If you don't get professional help with your first publishing contract, you will almost certainly get burned.) They're trying to reach out more to illustrators, not only writers and translators, and the more illustrators get involved and show them what we want, the more they'll be able to help us. Follow Woodrow Phoenix (@mrphoenix on Twitter) who's an illustrator/tyopographer/designer/writer on the General Management committee and he might be able to answer your questions or point you to the right person. He's also on the #PicturesMeanBusiness team, a campaign focused very specifically on credit, showing people how everyone benefits when they credit artists for our work. Illustrator Soni Speight (@sonispeight on Twitter) built the website and she's active in SCBWI, if you have questions about that. If you're focusing on editorial illustration, advertising and product design instead of books, the Association of Illustrators is more knowledgeable about those fields than the SoA and you may find their advice is well worth the subscription fee. The SoA, AOI and SCBWI all publish quarterly magazines (The Author, Varoom, The SCBWI Bulletin) with helpful articles. The Author has just had a redesign to bring in more illustration and deals with issues facing people already in the industry; Varoom showcases illustrators you might want to find out about; The SCBWI Bulletin provides illustrated articles about issues that face illustrators who are just starting out in children's books, and published, but has much more of a focus on the USA than the other two organisations who focus on the UK. SCBWI has chapters in the British Isles and Ireland.
For more tips, check my Frequently Asked Questions page on my website (and scroll down) for more details.
. . .
Good luck with the illustration course! It's a very, very hard business to get into - I won't lie - but if you work harder than everyone else on the course, and then some, you might stand a chance. Hope that helps!