How to Find Your Style

How to Find Your Style

“Like it or not, a caterpillar must first live as a chrysalis before becoming a butterfly. Maybe I remember those days because I am going through a chrysalis stage.” ~ Isao Takahata, co-founder of Studio Ghibli

Before gettling into the discussion, I want to acknowledge the passing of Studio Ghibli’s co-founder, Isao Takahata. Takahata wasn’t known for his artistic abilities, in fact, that was his partner, Miyazaki, who was the artistic genius behind such works as Totoro, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Takahata was more prominent in the role of directing and producing animated films, where his belief was that the style of the animation must always change, slightly, to evolve and grow just as the artist does. 

I always admired that perspective, even though I was taught in school to have only one, specific style and stick to that style if I wanted to have a career. Well, I understood that perspective, as well, but in my career, I found that I HAD to have more than one style to survive in a highly demanding and competitive field, which for me, paid off. So, I’m grateful for the work Takahata produced, and his inspiration to never settle for any one way of doing things and to keep my artwork evolving and growing, just as I do. 

It’s been my experience, especially in the classroom, that the most common question I’m been asked is, “How do I find my style?” It may be one of the most difficult questions to answer, too, because there’s simply no easy answer. What I try and teach is how to enhance work ethics, develop good habits, and apply processes which will allow for a style to emerge. 

As a young artist, just starting out, I had no style – I just copied everything I saw, from coloring books to comic books. I wanted to draw like the artists I became familiar with, but my hands weren’t able to get the lines right. It was so frustrating, so, I just started just drawing the things I saw around me and whatever came into my head - which was sometimes pretty weird, or so my parents told me. But that weirdness was the one thing I had that would separate me from others, except I still didn’t have the skill to execute my artwork to look original. That came later. 

In middle school, I started taking art classes. I was taught that everything had been done, already. There was nothing new out there and nothing I could do that would be different. While there, however, I got to learn about artists I’d never heard of. I was introduced to styles I’d never seen before. And I met other students, similar to me, who had completely different ways of drawing and painting than I did. It was like stepping out of an egg shell and seeing the world for the first time, in full color! For the first time, I was able to look at the way other people were working - their habits and processes - and begin to apply to the way I worked. 

A few years later I bought an album by a band called Yello. I was a fan of their music, but it was the album cover that struck me because it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The style was called Post Modern, and it showed two figures painted with airbrush in basic geometric shapes, the same way I learned to draw figures back in my early art classes. In high school, my art teacher gave me an Iwata airbrush which jumped into learning with both feet. That album cover became the inspiration for a style I wanted to emulate and after high school, I took my newfound skills in airbrush into art school with me. Unfortunately, no one at my art school was doing airbrush illustration - no students and no teachers. I was the only one. 

I got some freelance work and even won a few competitions in this airbrush style I was working in. It was great and even though I really enjoyed it, there was another part of me that wanted to do more. 

Then, in one of my drawing classes, I had a professor who taught me something so valuable, that I still fall back on today. He told me that it was clear that I knew how to draw and what I was drawing was very good – BUT, if I wanted to grow as an artist and really understand my true style, I was going to have to UNLEARN everything and start from scratch, which meant going back to my childhood and re-learning how to draw. 

Now, when your art teacher tells you to unlearn everything you know about how you draw, there’s only two options to react: Politely say thank you and move on, unchanged OR take on the challenge and go back to start, and see what happens. 

I admit, it confused me, but I took on the challenge and decided to go back to start. What happened was, I began drawing like a child, ignoring perspective and proportion, scribbling on the page, and coloring outside the lines like I did when I was five! It was the most liberating experience in my entire artistic journey. On vacations, I would do whimsical, quick drawings of the places I’d visit. Sitting in coffee shops I was doing “urban sketching” 30 years before it was even a thing. And slowly, I began to introduce the old habits and processes I developed from years before, until finally, I began to see a whole new style emerge, completely different and fresh from the airbrush work I had done before. 

I still did freelance work in airbrush, but it didn’t take long before I gave it up and retooled my style with this back-to-basics drawing style, which is how I continue to work today. Of course, digitally, my graphic design work is another story. I continue to create fine artwork, like landscapes and still life, but it’s my drawing style that seems to interest people most. 

So, my question to you is, are you willing to look at your work and forget everything you know and start again? Or, if you’re just starting out, are you open minded enough to put some basic philosophies into action to watch your skills grow and see a possible style begin to emerge? Well, if you are, let me share some ways that I teach students how to find their style and their own unique voice when they as me, “How do I find my style.” 

I have a dozen points I try to make when helping others to find their style – and even to this day, I still refer back to these points myself, in my own art, when I feel like my art is being redundant or when I feel like I’m stuck in an old mindset of thinking. If you’re trying to find your own style, improve the style you have, or maybe just want to change things up, these might be just the thoughts to help: 


1. STOP IMITATING OTHER ARTISTS Most artists, especially those just beginning, often rely on imitating their favorite artists to help them learn and develop. And that’s fine and it’s how most of us begin our journey. But, too often, artists get stuck relying too heavily on the work of other artists, until there’s very little difference between the original and their imitation. I knew a young painter who loved the work of Mark Rothko, the abstract painter. She loved his work so much, she learned to create paintings that looked exactly like his. Once, when I visited her studio, she was working on a painting. On the tables around her, she had two large Mark Rothko books opened to paintings that she was copying. She was successful and people bought her paintings because they “loved her style,” despite the fact, it wasn’t actually HER style. Once we stop imitating others and begin exploring our own voice and way of communicating, that’s when an audience will be able to recognize OUR unique style, on it’s own.

2. STEP OUT OF THE COMFORT ZONE Living in the comfort zone means eating mac & cheese and mashed potatoes, wearing pajamas everywhere you go, and sleeping all day. For an artist, however, it means creating with a certain, limited process and never straying or changing from it. It means drawing or painting the same way, over and over, and never learning to try new things. It also means accepting mistakes, shortcomings, and lack of knowledge as passable. This is different from the artist who create the same way, over and over, who HAS developed their own unique style and can make a living from it or create a body of work. But for those who get locked in their comfort zone, never understanding that their growth is stagnating, it can be a terrifying thought to step out of that comfort zone. I posted a video on this exact point, which I’ll put a link in the description, if you’re interested to check it out. A former student of mine drew everything with black outlines. She didn’t understand why her work always seemed to lack depth. I suggested she try drawing with colored outlines, instead of black, and see what happens. She did, and it was like fireworks went off – she learned to see in a whole new way. I often say, “when you feel uncomfortable and anxious about your artwork, it means you’re stepped out of your comfort zone and are about to learn something new.” It’s okay to revisit our comfort zones and indulge in ways of being creative that we’re familiar with, but it’s important not to stay in that zone too long. 

3. RECOGNIZE YOUR SKILL LEVEL Maybe you think your artwork isn’t that good or you need to get better. Maybe you like markers but really don’t know how to use them. That’s okay. That’s normal. It only means that whatever your skill level is right now, is exactly your skill level we are supposed to be at right now. It’s important to recognize and embrace that level and find new ways to improve or enhance it. We all say things like, “I wish I could draw like so and so” or “I want to get better at such and such,” but we rarely hear people say, “I draw exactly like so and so” or “I can’t get better at such and such.” Giving ourselves the freedom to recognize our skill level allows us to aspire to higher goals and standards. It allows us to proceed with our development without being tentative, embarrassed, or frustrated. We all work at different paces and on different learning curves, so knowing that whatever level we’re at today will be far different from where we will be tomorrow. 

4. TAKE CHANCES I used to work as a cook in a chain restaurant in Boston when I was in college. I was in charge of the lunch specials. I often took the easy route and create staple dishes that every enjoyed. But, there were times when I’d run out of ideas and I’d try something new – and it was sincerely awful. Like the time I offered a cinnamon-honey stir fry and we didn’t sell a single one. It may have been the worst thing I ever cooked! Yet, another time, I made a sweet Mandarin orange soup with escarole that sold out within an hour. The point is that I had no idea what would work unless I tried it. The same goes for all creative outlets, whether it’s art, music, or yes, even cooking. Taking chances and trying something new – even something very minor – can have impacts on our creative direction that we’d never know about unless we take that chance. We should probably ask Jackson Pollock how his work changed when he accidentally dripped paint on his canvas. 

5. FINSIH WHAT YOU STARTED When a young artist starts a sketch that quickly gets away from them, they turn the page and start a new sketch. I challenge them and say, “stop, and explain why you gave up on the first drawing.” They usually say, “It wasn’t what I wanted to do” or “it wasn’t coming out right.” In the class, I have them go back into the abandoned sketch and see it through – and they get so frustrated, because it wasn’t what they wanted to do. However, after a little time, they find themselves immersed in working with the unwanted sketch, almost always turning it into something useful or worthwhile. It’s okay to abandon a drawing, but it’s important to come back to it and try to give it attention and bring it to a more full realization. Sure, there are times when mistakes or decisions cause us to start again. But, overall, it’s exactly those mistakes and decisions that are worth overcoming and correcting where we learn the most from. And it’s that discomfort and anxiety that warns us that we’re about to learn something new. 

6. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE A teacher I had in art school HATED my artwork. He’d tear it apart in public reviews, give me low grades, and criticize my style. See, I was an airbrush illustrator and this teacher hated airbrush, saying it was “a tool used to compensate for lack of talent.” In one review he wrote, “If you are your own audience, then you are successful; but, if you plan to work as an illustrator, you’re going to starve.” Back then, I thought he was cruel and his comments unnecessary. Yet, later, his words would be sage advice that would help me learn and grow and help in finding my style. Sure, I was salty about his comments, but also because he never actually taught us anything - he gave us assignments and critiqued our work, but NEVER offered a word of advice on how to fix or improve it. What I didn’t realize then was the message in his words. What he was telling me was that I needed to know my audience. That if I were the only one seeing it, I’d succeed; but, if I expected an art director, client, or publish to take me seriously, then I’d have to make some serious changes. After that last review, I never talked to him again. I regret that, because I was too upset by his comments and I missed the opportunity to talk with him more and learn. Looking back, he was challenging me to see my work differently. To change my perspective and understand what being an illustrator really means – to communicate simple images with a resonating message. He actually taught me to know who my professional audience was, and cater to them, but to keep my personal work at home, admired by no one but me. 

7. KEEP IT SIMPLE You can’t paint the walls of a house when they haven’t even laid the foundation yet. With art, you can’t add the details before you know the composition. There’s the old saying, “the devil is in the details,” which implies that while something could be made simple, it can become complicated with too many details. By reducing our creative efforts to simplified gestures and basic shapes, we can draft a basic layout for a composition that can be realized without getting caught up in excessive details that can exhaust time, energy, and materials. Details are important to finished work, but keeping it simple to start is important. The Beatle’s, “Sgt. Pepper” album is a good example, where they created basic song structures and layered over, later, with complex details and special effects. Strip them all away, and the basic songs still stand strong and clear on their own. 

8. CONSISTENT & COHESIVE The most daunting task of a fashion designer is to create a line of garments that is both consistent and cohesive. Consistency in the quality of workmanship, consideration of the project, and an understanding of the audience. And a cohesiveness in how each piece relates to the others, ensuring they all look like they’ve been done by the same hand. A body of work should not look like it was created by a group of people, but one person with one, unique voice. 

9. TWIST (perspectives) & STRETCH (imagination) I’ve been a fan of The Beatles since I was a kid. I’ve heard the song “Yesterday” countless times. But, back in the early 1980’s, I heard a band called The Fred Banana Combo perform a cover of “Yesterday” that changed everything for me. Instead of the sweet, charming voice of Paul McCartney, this band had a thunderous beat, driving bass, and shouting. They took the classic song, flipped it over completely, and made it their own. “Yesterday” by Fred Banana Combo: (Link: )It changed my perspective on how music could be written and eventually on how art could be created. I learned that twisting the perspective of a drawing or stretching my imagination was the key to developing my own style. I had a unique way of twisting my character’s bodies and exaggerating their features to create them in a style unique only to me. My favorite example of this is Tim Burton, who was able to twist his artwork to the point of obscurity, yet retain an amazing, alluring innocence. Just as in life, changing perspectives always allows us to see things in a completely new way. 

10. SEE WITH TWO SETS OF EYES A painter who only paints realistic bowls of fruit will only ever be able to see a bowl of fruit as realistic. Yet, a painter who has learned to see beyond reality – to see surreally or abstractly – can transform a realistic image into something much more simplified, yet which communicates the same ideas, effectively. Being able to create a piece with a set of eyes that sees in a more sensible fashion, while also being able to create a piece with eyes that can see in a wholly abstract fashion is not easy to do, but will offer possibly new ways to create and explore the endless options that can exist, but only if we open up both sets of eyes. 

11. EMBRACE WHAT’S BEYOND CONTROL Watercolors produce unexpected results. Graphite can smear across a page. And oil paints may not dry well in a humid location. How many times does a musician break a string or an athlete has an off-day? Often, things happen that are beyond our control and can make for a very frustrating experience. However, if we can embrace what is beyond our control, and relish the things that ARE in our control, then we can accomplish much more than hyper-focusing on what’s wrong. Sure, a minor mishap can seem like a huge setback, yet sometimes it can reveal a result or way of doing something that we’d never considered before. 

12. BREAKING BAD HABITS Bad habits are simply negative routines that keep us from being more positive and productive. Procrastination, making excuses, and being easily side-tracked are good examples or bad habits. We can’t get rid of bad habits, but we CAN “re-script” them. For example, if you have a few hours to dedicate to artwork, so you grab your gear and get right to painting, with no plan. After an hour, things don’t look so great. After another hour it gets messy and it all seems like a waste of time and supplies, so you give up and watch tv. The bad habit, or negative routine, is that there was no time taken to plan out the few hours, so it was used poorly. A re-script of that bad habit would have been to plan the painting out, do some sketches, make a swatch chart, and prepare before jumping in. Re-scripting requires time, energy, and a lot of effort - and in some cases money, therapy, and even medicine to help kick certain bad habits, like smoking cigarettes. But, when committed to, certain routines - when re-scripted - can produce some incredible results, both in our creative efforts and personal. 

I can’t pretend that finding your own style will be an easy journey. It can takes years to develop a style, and for many artists, they may never find theirs. But, with a powerful commitment and serious dedication and practice, and most of all, a DESIRE to find your own style, it usually happens. It’s not uncommon to go on YouTube, Pinterest, or Instagram and find work that will inspire and drive us to raise the level of our own work. However, I find that it’s more common to find work that does just the opposite - work by artists that is not original, has no unique voice, and looks like a thousand other artists out there, many of whom seem quite comfortable in their comfort zones. 

But, for me, as long as folks are being creative, expressing their own unique vision, and developing their skills to enhance that expression, then I’m happy! So, I hope this was helpful in some way. As always, I’m grateful for your time reading, so thank you for coming by today. Stay well and god bless! ~ Mark