How to develop an illustration style

There is no one right way to develop an illustration style, it involves experimenting and imitating, trial and error and a lot of patience. It can take a long time to develop a truly unique style. Agents and commissioners are always on the lookout for something fresh and new. You should try and set yourself apart from the crowd.

How to develop an illustration style

Show clients something they have never seen before

Starting out in illustration involves a lot of taking inspiration from other artists work. It’s normal to try out different illustration styles, but the goal should be to take that inspiration from different sources to inform something completely new.


You don’t have to be better, you have to be different

A lot of artists make illustrations that fit with current trends because that’s what’s popular and what the market wants. If your work looks like everybody else’s, it will be put on a pile with a hundred other artists doing exactly the same thing. If you are new to the industry and relatively unknown, you will find it very difficult to stand out. You are putting yourself in competition with far more people than you need to. Faced with 20 illustration portfolios that all look the same, a client will likely go with an artist they have heard of or worked with before, or… the cheapest option.

Trends change, don’t do what everybody else is doing.

Illustration of overgrown farmland

Content is just as important as style

When people talk about your work, they talk about what you made, not how you made it. Styles can be imitated, but the choices you make about content and composition are unique to you. The style is only a vessel for your unique vision and the messages you want to communicate.


Don’t try to please everybody

If you try to please everybody, you won’t please anybody, including yourself. You don’t need everyone to like your work; The Directory of Illustration have almost 5000 art directors in their network in the U.S. alone. Your unique style only needs to resonate with 1% of those to be off to a great start.

Often when you find an art director that likes your illustrations, it’s not just about the work, it’s that you are communicating on the same level. These kinds of clients will return again and again for your unique vision. The more of yourself you put into your work, the more you will attract great clients that you love working with. In the process, you have to accept that it will make your work less appealing to others.

You don’t need every client to like your work, you only need the right ones.


Don’t stop developing

Once you find your style, make the most of it and work hard, but don’t stop learning. Nothing lasts forever; illustration styles go in and out of fashion just like anything else. What’s popular in 2018 might not be popular in 2020. If you want to have a long career in illustration, you need to be prepared to adapt and change and never stop developing.


Illustrations by James Gilleard and Karolis Strautniekas