Your Style Is Your Style….Or Is It?

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“Your image reminds me of Maurice Sendak.”

“That character is very Peanuts-like.”

“The way you draw reminds me of another artist, I forget who…”

“Have you seen Jarrett Krosoczka’s work? Your work kind of reminds me of his.”

I used to cringe when I heard these words. Not because they seemed uncomplimentary, because clearly, people were comparing my work to great illustrators! But because I thought it meant my illustrations had no discernible, individual style. This made me anxious. If my work looked too much like another illustrator’s, I worried that I was doing something wrong, or not doing something enough, and that I was borrowing too heavily from other artists.

Years ago, I received great advice from a professor: “Just do your work. You will develop a way of drawing things that is uniquely yours.” I’ve used this idea over the years, hoping that my “style” would come, trying to dodge or neutralize any comparisons people made of my work to other illustrators.

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But recently, I read a speech by YA author John Green that somehow both eased these fears and put this notion of style and “borrowing” into a different light. My takeaway from his talk was that, as authors and illustrators, we (our books, our images) are in a constant conversation with not only the books and images that came before, but the ones out there now. Novels are based on hundreds of previous novels. Picture books are based on hundreds of previous picture books. IT’S OKAY, it’s supposed to be this way. It’s even integral to the creation of them.

This notion suddenly widened and softened my point of view on style. Many people say that art and writing is a solitary pursuit, but John Green says that we are all having conversations with each other through our work all the time. We are creating a cultural conversation. We are part of it. We don’t have to be separate from it and strive to be something outlandishly different. We just have to, as Jane Yolen, Kelly Light, and almost anyone who is giving great creative advice would say, put your Butt In Chair and Do Your Work. If it has some Dr. Seussy/Virginia Lee Burton/Robert McCloskey stuff going on, it’s okay.

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Not to get too mushy, but this idea reminded me of a folk song/spoken song by Utah Phillips that I have always liked.

“Time is an enormous, long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you’re standing in it. My elders are the tributaries, and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down flows down to me – and if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, and if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs. I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world.”
― Utah Phillips

I’ve always thought of that quote in relation to family and culture and getting through life’s struggles, but never consciously related it to art or children’s books. John Green’s speech made these two ideas come together for me.

While I was thinking about this Borrowing Style topic for this month’s post, the Boston Globe made this stunning tribute to a Dr. Seuss book. In an article about overfishing the Gulf of Maine. On the front page.

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Even people outside the book world want in on the conversation!

People borrow all the time, they use what is in our culture to create new images and stories for our culture. They use what has come before as a language to make a new story more understandable.

While you develop your own illustration and writing style, let it pay tribute to the work that came before, don’t panic about resemblances to other work, and have faith that it will be adding something of you, your time, your life, and (dare I say) your soul to a conversation already in full swing.

20 comments

  1. I really appreciate this post, as someone who’s currently trying to find my style. I’m practically on hiatus with art and am focusing instead on writing. Who knows what might emerge later? My problem is I love a variety of styles and my art tends to fluctuate depending on what I’m interested in at the moment.

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    1. Hi Cindy! So many great illustrators have and had multiple styles — Dan Yaccarino and Paul Zelinsky come to mind as current illustrators with multiple styles (Please forgive another inspirational quote here) Sister Corita says: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.” Whether it’s writing or illustrating — it all leads somewhere. Best to you.

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  2. Thanks, Diana! Everything we read and see affects our personalities on and off the writing/illustration stage. While we want so much to have our own unique voice, it is hard to deny that experience creeps in to make us who we are.

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  3. Thanks for this post, Diana. One of the other reasons for these comparisons is that part of human survival depends on being able to categorize things – to recognize what is familiar, or dangerous, by association. While that was once useful for identifying the difference between animals good for food and animals that would make food of us, the trickle-down is that now we still unconsciously want to group things into familiar categories by identifying similar characteristics. We can’t help it – it’s instinctive. But just because an orange and a tennis ball are both spherical doesn’t mean they are the same. Only you can be you.

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  4. Thanks for this, Diana! I was always told I had NO style….and now I’m constantly having people tell me they can tell my work is mine…..”but the eyes kind of look like Garfield…” 🙂

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  5. Diana, thanks so much for saying it so well. Early on, someone said to me about one of my ideas, “But hasn’t that been done before?” Yes, of course. All stories have been told, all art has been rendered. We’re adding to the conversation. We build on the shoulders of giants, and our work wouldn’t look like it belonged if it didn’t have some resemblance to what it’s standing on.

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  6. Thanks for this refreshing perspective. Not long ago, I offended a friend in this manner. It hurt because I was trying to give her a compliment she would actually believe (like most of us, she is overly critical of her work.) But more recently, a stranger compared my work to my all-time hero. What surprized me at the time was how I reacted. I wasn’t sure if the person was trying to compliment me or not. Thanks for laying those thoughts to rest.

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    1. Hi Joanne! Thanks for sharing your story, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks about this. Your work is your work. The more you do, the more like you it is. Even someone so iconic and seemingly unique as Norman Rockwell was not the only one working in his “style” during his era.

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