«How to find my style ?»
This often asked question encapsulate a lot of ideologies around what is it to be a creative today’s economy. Style seems to be something to be found, as if it was pre-existing in a vacuum waiting to be finally discovered by the hard working artist. It is believed that it is only after considerable and genuine efforts that an illustrator will «find» their style, which will be unique, coherent, and a reflection of their personality.

This normative idea about what our art is supposed to look like comes directly from decades if not centuries of fetishization of creative work as an inspiration-based rather than labor-based activity. As illustrators, we already know that this impacts our lives as freelancers, people contacting us to work for exposure and not understanding why an illustration costs more than the number of hours put in it.

But too often we overlook how this ideology around creative labor has an impact on our very work as artists and how conceptualize it. Style is a good example of how we began to accept market expectations as a natural aspect of what our work looks like. What if style wasn’t related to personality, craft or even creativity ? What if style was an invention of the market in order to make cultural industries’ job easier to use illustration as a profitable tool ?  That’s quite a statement, I know, but bear with me, if only for the sake of the argument.

So, I’m a young illustrator and I’m frantically looking for MY style because I really need to express myself in a unique, coherent way... but also to get work. We all know that art directors and agents are looking to find people they can count on and won’t be surprised every time they contact them, which is fair. So already the coherent aspect of style is a market demand, not intrinsic to artistic practice, but we already knew that. But my style has to be unique right ?
Yes and no, of course you want to be recognized to be you and not your competitor, but at the same time, a style is always part of something bigger, a sort of family let’s say. I know the aesthetics of punk concert posters illustrations and I understand that the «look» of it, or their style, is different from the illustration on Facebook for example. Does this mean that flat colours are intrinsically corporate and rough edges naturally underground ? I don’t think so, like any other semiotic device (like language), we project values and expectations on styles, and with time, those values become naturalized, meaning we forget that they were arbitrary in the first place.

And since we’re on the topic of what aesthetics does on the market, here is an interesting case studies of how style is linked to economy more than just creativity. In a recent twitter post, an AD of a leftist magazine was asking why illustrators with a «cutesy/friendly utopian flat aesthetic» were contacting her. This comment implies that certain aesthetic features in my illustrations grant me access (or in this case forbid) to certain market sectors. Using flat colors or round edges doesn’t necessarily mean I’m, as an individual and as an artist, am cute and friendly, it just means that I’m probably gonna attract clients who use this aesthetics (like big online service companies).
So if my style’s uniqueness, consistency and even just the mere appearance of it are all driven by external forces, economic for the most part, what does this mean for me ?

Well, to me at least it means freedom. Because if finding a unique, coherent and beautiful style is more about understanding the market and less about finding my true self, it lifts an enormous pressure off my shoulders. I no longer equates failure to «find a style» with personal failure and ultimately my own self worth but rather with my business skills that need to be strengthened. »Building up a style for myself« is like building up my business, I have to consider with whom I want to work, what are the expectations of this sector and to what lengths I’m willing to go in order to work with them. And of course some sectors will feel more «natural« to work with, and that’s great, and some others will ask of me much more stretching and bending and that’s fine too.

Let’s see it this way, style is an mix of semiotic elements that allows my work to be turned into economic value in a given market. As an illustrator, my job is to craft one of several style in order to find a healthy balance between expressing myself while having fun and landing some sweet jobs with people I want to work with.

I don’t know about you, but this definition has helped me cope with self-worth as a creative in an healthier way while having much more fun working for clients. And I hope it does for you too, or even to create your own definition of style ! After all, style is a cultural construct that has tremendous impact on our lives, so might as well have a say in what it means.