“How to find my style” : A (short) critical history of an illustration myth
When I try to remember the first moment I formulated the idea of becoming an illustrator it seems impossible to separate it from the realization that I would need a “style” first. Almost as if understanding what style is was a pre-requisite to understanding what illustration is. But today I have to confess, even though I think I know what illustration is, I’m not sure I understand style very well, what it is made of, what it allows and what it forbids and why, even at the beginning, did it feel like an intrinsic aspect of the job. Yet, my first question about style was not “what is style?”, but “How do I find my style?”. So it seems appropriate to start here.
This question is very contemporary, after all, for most of art history, style was a retrospective category applied to a body of work after it was created, and most often by someone other than the artist. For illustrators, the issue of style, in part because of the commercial nature of our work, appears before the first pencil stroke and is crucial until the end, whenever that may be.
In the question “How do I find my style ?”, I see a shift from style as a category applied by the spectator of a body of artworks to a situation where it is up to the artist to come up with a style, define it, refine it, stick to it, sell it, and so on.
But what if style is more complex ? what if my style was not up to me after all, or at least not only ? But instead, a complex social construction involving a multitude of actors across a long chain of events ? Bear with me and let me start at the beginning.
The (not so) romantic birth of style
I am no historian, but I’ve had a couple of art history classes at university and the notion of style strongly reminds me of the romantic idea of the genius ; the idea that certain persons are gifted with some sort of exceptional singularity. As the anthropologist Eitan Wilf wrote, these “[romantic] ideologies conceptualize creativity as the solitary, ex-nihilo creation of products of self-evident and universal value — most emblematically in the field of art — by highly exceptional and gifted individuals.”(Wilf, 2014).
Later, attempts to conceptualize style and creativity did expand this self-centred idea to a certain extent. Ernst Gombrich talks about how style, while being produced by personal choice, is limited by cultural constraints. The philosopher Richard Shusterman developed the idea of a «self stylization», seeing it as a process of negotiation between the self and socio-cultural resources.
Yet, these definitions are still very much individual-centred, leaving all the work (even is subconscious) to the artist, with a double bind of being “authentic” to themselves while being “culturally aware”. But before trying to see things differently, I would like to make a detour to understand how romanticism is actualized in today’s era.
The neoliberal illustrator
These romantic ideas about creative practices of stylization are the favourite food of neoliberal ideologies today. Neoliberalism encourages the idea that each individual artist is responsible for tapping into this internal pool of creativity to «find their style» and that it is also their own responsibility if they fail to do so (Wilf, 2014). All of this creative work done while occupying one of the most precarious positions in a very, very competitive industry. But the beauty of neoliberalism is that not only does it makes us work twice as much as previous versions of capitalism but it also encourages us to be proud of it !
I’m working two jobs, one of them is creative so it makes it ok to be underpaid, and unreliable, I understand that I have to come up with a certain style to attract clients, but it is hard to focus, be reflexive and authentic sometimes, does it mean I’m a bad illustrator, or even worthless person ? maybe, but it is ok, it is worth it because deep down, I know that if I make it, it means I had it in me, and I’m being recognized for my own style, my own self.
By now I might sound like an angry union worker, and truth be told, I kind of am. We know the violence of neoliberalism for freelance workers, but somehow, creatives have it even harder than others because of ideologies around creativity and the value of our work.
Few hands but many eyes
At this point you may be thinking that it’s a cute story but at the end of the day, it IS up to me to create style, I’m the one with a pen in the hand. I think seeing things in a more collaborative and interactional way can help us come up with a new definition of style, a healthier one.
Think of it this way : style is about what an artwork looks like, so it is as much about who makes it as it is about who looks at it. Illustrations get created by illustrators who have looked at other illustrators’ work. These illustrations have been looked at and selected by art directors and designers before being published. Agents propose certain styles to clients before reaching out to an illustrator. Teachers in art schools give feedback on student’s work based on certain criteria. Spectators might follow some artists rather than others on social media, impacting research algorithms, and the list goes on.
These actors all have an impact on what one’s style might be, as style is neither created solely by the neoliberal genius nor it is only applied a posteriori by onlookers, it is made through long back-and-forth chains doing and looking and involves tons of actors. And like any social dynamic, it is also mired in power dynamics. For example, an art director might pick samples of the work of an illustrator in their portfolio to guide them in a particular direction for a new piece. This is a practice of style production, as it reinforces certain features and put aside others, it just takes place in the eyes of the looker instead of the hands of the maker. Figures of authority in the creative industry can work as gatekeepers, arbitrating what work will be seen or not. And in considering the gatekeeper’s role, artists may pre-emptively alter their work to align with work they know the gatekeeper is likely to appreciate. In this scenario, style exceeds the individual. It becomes an intersubjective process where people create things thinking of how other people are going to look at them and vice versa.
Dear reader, I do not mean here that illustrators don’t have any responsibility for their work, let alone that the impact of others on our work is harmful, quite the opposite. Thinking of style as a “distributed” (Gell,1998) process allowed me to consider my relationship with art directors and other gatekeepers as truly collaborative for example. It also has a healing effect since in the past, I’ve felt deep anxiety because I thought I was the only one who was responsible for the creation, success or failure of “my style”. And my self-worth was becoming a function of these professional ebbs and flows. Deconstructing my own vision of style and creative work by investigating its origins and contextualizing it into a broader historical, cultural and economic context, has really helped me cope with this anxiety.
It is a work I found cathartic and motivating, and I hope sharing it with you through this letter will have a positive impact by igniting stimulating conversations within our creative community.
Gell, Alfred. Art and agency: an anthropological theory. Clarendon Press, 1998.
Gombrich, Ernst H. Style. 1998.
Shusterman, R. “Style and lifestyles: Originality, authenticity, or the splitting of the self.” LITTERATURE 105 (1997): 102–109.
Wilf, Eitan. “Semiotic dimensions of creativity.” Annual Review of Anthropology 43 (2014): 397–412.
Copyright, Market economy and the awfully unromantic flip side of style
This is the second letter dealing with style, but this time, instead of focusing on where style comes from and what it is, I would like to talk about what style is for and what it does. Often times, it seems that finding a style and sticking to it can be a daunting task for a creative, so what does this incentive of coherence and uniqueness in style aim to achieve, what is its social role for the actors of the illustration world?
Style and Copyright
I should acknowledge that deconstructing a concept like style is a tricky endeavor; the more I talk about it, the more I attribute some particularities to it; the more I end up reifying style as a “real” thing, existing in itself. This is part of the nature of style too, it is called a style ontology, meaning that “the cultural and legal notion that things such as styles exist and have specific properties”(Wilf, 2014). According to Wilf (an anthropologist working on creativity), the flip side of the style ontology is copyright. An idea that we can find during 18th century debates about whether copyright should be a fundamental right of the author, ” […] the proponents of copyright responded that the property claimed was neither the physical book nor the ideas communicated by it but something else, an entity consisting of style and sentiment combined.” (Rose, 1993 : 109). Before diving deep into this statement, let’s briefly define copyright.
Today, we tend to think of copyright and intellectual property as a natural right of the author, but as Mark Rose (1993) explains :
“copyright, the practice of securing marketable rights in texts [or any type of artwork] that are treated as commodities is a specifically modern institution, the creature of the printing press, the individualization of authorship in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and the development of the advanced marketplace society in the seventeenth an eighteenth centuries.”
The nature of copyright is first and foremost economic and the XVIII century debates I referred to mostly involved booksellers, who had much to lose from a limited copyright and broader rights for authors. Style became a proof of authorship, and therefore, a way for authors to make money from their work. Like two sides of the same coin, style and copyright create the possibilities for the existence of each other. Copyright gives a legal framework through which style can create value (by allowing to sue plagiarists for example), and the idea of a style provides the artist with a legitimate proof of authorship (“this is my work, this my style”).
Quick recap dear reader:
- Discourses of style and copyright emerge roughly at the same period;
- they build upon romantic ideas of creativity in order to grant economic and legal rights to authors;
Since copyright and style are so linked, it may be worth talking about style in economic terms rather than artistic ones. A bit of a disclaimer here, looking at the economy of style doesn’t mean to reduce style as an economic transaction. My objective is merely to shed light on another side of style.
The market of style / the style of market
As we just saw, as early as the XVIII century, style was presented as a tool to prove the authorship of an artist and therefore secure income from his/her artwork. But style is linked to the market in many more ways. I would like to talk here about two of them, (1) the constraints of the market of illustration onto aesthetic features, and (2) the way certain styles become naturalized as belonging to certain economic niches.
Illustration is a commercial art, we deal with clients every day and are getting paid (most of the time) in exchange for the use of our artwork. These clients have an agenda of their own — time and budget constraints that stem from the particularities of their industry. A weekly magazine will have shorter deadlines than a design agency working on an ad campaign for example. These constraints are not anecdotical parameters that only affect our work life balance as freelance workers, they also permeate the qualitative aspect of our work, by allowing or discouraging certain practices.
If I’m used to work on short deadlines, with potentially a lot of rounds of revisions on the final artwork as is often the case in editorial work, can someone who has a very intricate and detailed style be as competitive as another illustrator whose work is made of simple, digitally drawn shapes? The changes in the printed magazine industry have moved a lot of content to online platforms, which allows, for example, the use of animation in more and more illustrations. Inevitably, this creates a gap between illustrators working with traditional media, and the ones working fully digitally in terms of possibility.
The second link I see between style and economy is the one created through what we can call a process of naturalization. Naturalization occurs when something becomes so very often associated with something else that, overtime, we come to believe these two things are and have always been related.
The best example is probably the recent tweet of an art director about her bemusement upon receiving “cutesy/friendly utopian flat aesthetic” illustrations portfolios for their leftist magazine. In this statement, we can clearly see the naturalization of certain aesthetic features into being part of, or in this case, being excluded from a particular political orientation. And we humans do that all the time, we do know that there is nothing intrinsically neoliberal about flat shapes and bright colours, nor is there anything naturally radical or punk about a shaky lines with dark colours. But somehow, we expect certain environments to use certain style of illustrations. But beyond the mere expectations of what certain market sectors look like, these environments, whether it is a punk concert or a big social media company, come with different budgets.
In that sense, your style becomes a key to access different market niches, some being very lucrative, other less. And your work can look like a certain market, just like a market can look like it was illustrated by the same person’s style.
Selling out/Styling out
By now I start to feel like I’m depicting an artist’s worst nightmare, a world devoid of creative freedom, where creatives are highly pragmatic marketers strategizing every aspect of their work in order to maximize profit. This is not what I’m saying. I merely want to reframe the discussion around style by incorporating these deeply economic aspects that to me, are part of the fabric of style, and have always been, for worse but also for better. What I find damageable is the idea that we, as commercial artists, can exist in a capitalist world without understanding how this economic model impacts our work.
The pressure we put on young artists’ style is enormous, I remember discussions in art schools about some artists “selling-out” as if art and money were opposites. But these romantic expectations about creative work are completely unrealistic in our contemporary society and eventually can become toxic to illustrators trying to navigate a new economy with outdated conceptual notions.
Thinking of the economic bearings of style, or its distributed nature like discussed in the previous letter, can help us increase our agency as main actors within our own industry. Illustration is a fundamental player in the creative world and it’s only through developing a solid critical and reflexive understanding of our practice and its history that we will be able to stand for our rights and create even better work. And I believe defining our own tools, like “style”, in more complex, inclusive and healthy terms, can help us do that.
Rose, Mark. Authors and owners: The invention of copyright. Harvard University Press, 1993.
Wilf, Eitan. “Semiotic dimensions of creativity.” Annual Review of Anthropology 43 (2014): 397–412.
Woodmansee, Martha. The author, art, and the market: Rereading the history of aesthetics. Columbia University Press, 1994.
Do illustrators need to talk about ethics ?
I’ve recently been asked by the Québec association of illustrators (Illustration Québec) to coordinate an ethical committee that would come up with recommendations about a vast array of topics, from inclusive communication to the stance regarding free labor through the power of representations in our work as illustrators. Before even saying yes, I had to ask myself (and the internet), what does it mean and why is it important to care about ethics as an illustrator?
The internet has taught me two things:
- The most vocal actors of the creative industry when it comes to ethics are the designers. Often working with big clients, most of what they have written on the subject is related to the ethics of accepting or not to work for terrible companies.
- Meta discussion about what ethical choices have on the industry is either framed as something helping creatives to strengthen their sense of purpose or as a way to capitalize on values perceived as good for corporations.
These are important aspects of ethical concerns in the creative industry, but in this text, I do not want to focus directly on what is and is not ethical for illustrators. I’m more concerned about the ideological background of ethical work for illustrators and its impact on how we are perceived in the industry.
Is working ethically a privilege? How does it shape our relationship to our clients, to our audiences, and to our peers? How talking about ethics can empower us to claim a more authorial role as creatives? The following constitutes a non-exhaustive and very loosely ordered list of thoughts about these questions.
1. Ethics = Community.Living an ethical life is about acknowledging that we are part of a bigger picture, that we are connected to other people and that our actions have an impact on them. Thinking about ethics in my work has helped me grow a sense of community within the creative industry. When we say no to an underpaid job, it is not only about us, it is about every other illustrator that this client is going to contact afterwards.
2. Ethical labor in a freelance world. Historically, professional ethics is related to professional orders, meaning an organization comprising all members of a profession and regulating different aspects of their work. Illustrators and other creatives do not have a professional order, we have associations (many) that we may or may not decide to join. Working ethically is wonderful and of course we should all thrive to achieve such a goal, but in the absence of a common definition of what is an ethical creative work, it’s often up to the individual to do the ethical labor.
3. Beyond the DO’s and DON’Ts list. One of the issue with ethics is that it can be very prescriptive, without too much concern for the bigger picture. The bigger picture for us is that we’re part of a long chain of creative actors with whom we work, and we often are at the very end of this chain. It would be unfair to require from illustrators to always make ethical choices (meaning “good” choices for the whole world), since if we have to make such choices, it’s probably because someone higher up in the industry didn’t bother making them.
4. Survival > Ethics. I’m always outraged to read or hear illustrators feeling guilty about having accepted a low paying job – knowing that it’s devaluing everyone’s rates on the long term. For freelance workers, making an ethical choice is never just that, it’s also what could make the difference between getting or losing a contract, and ultimately paying rent or not. Encouraging freelancers to think ethically is one thing, forgetting that they are some of the most precarious and isolated workers in our industry is another. Sometimes ethics is not a choice, it’s a privilege.
5. Accountability should be distributed. One classic ethical issue in our profession is plagiarism. And most of the time we see the conversation being held between illustrators alone, as if our work and its value was not regimented by external actors. I once read a cordial message on Instagram by an illustrator addressing the art directors concerning hiring illustrators who were obviously copying their work. This is what needs to happen more often. Shifting the blame from individuals (who are not always ill-intentioned crooks) to the gate keepers who regulate the value of our work.
6. Ethics = Responsibility = Power. Engaging meaningfully with ethics as an illustrator is the key for valorizing our profession. Illustration have a tremendous power over viewers, and especially so because we live in societies where people are seldom being taught about how to understand images, making them even more dangerous. As professional image makers, we participate in shaping the reception of information by millions of people and as such, ethics and accountability should be at the heart of our work. While it is natural for journalists to think of their ethical responsibility, illustrators’ work has been under the radar of accountability for too long.
7. Illustrators are authors. Illustrating is not only about filling up space nor it is about creating “content”, it is about articulating language and visual. Illustrations are the product of a highly complex set of skills including visual problem solving, cultural sensitivity, decoding and encoding of signs, cross-semiotic translation and many more. Illustrators should be talking about ethics because they are authors. Because this is what talking about ethics does, it situates illustration as an authorial practice with power and responsibility. And at a period when we have to compete against image banks, when rates have never been so low in spite of inflation, being an author could help us claim a stronger position in our community.
All this being said, we should be proud and happy that more and more illustrators are engaging with ethics. Unfortunately, this is a conversation in which companies rarely participate. If anything, these past few years have seen the increase of predatory contracts terms, preying on illustrators’ rights in obscure legal lingo, hiring us on their own terms, with little to no transparency about their rates. No matter how much we as a profession talk about ethics, nothing will change until we get together to force the companies we work with to do the same and to include us in the conversation.
Who gets to define illustration ?
I listen to a lot of podcasts about illustration and design. It’s always interesting to hear the voices of people we usually equate with images. Sometimes these are stimulating, some other times, they are reassuring. Recently, I came across an interview with an agent that was plain outrageous. This is not an article about how illustration agents are good or bad — I’m actually often interested in what they have to say about the industry as they have a great vantage point on different aspects of it. This is an article about definitions, and who gets to make them.
Because as illustrators, letting other people define what illustration is and is not may limit the space we are allowed to occupy.
During the interview, the agent, with decades of experience in the business, distinguishes artists and illustrators. The artist, they tell us, is someone who creates for themselves an image on which they have total control, including its format, time frame, colours, etc. On the other hand, an illustrator is commissioned to create an image with specifications and restrictions. This statement appears as a banal definition, full of common sense, that the interviewer can only agree with (and they did). But from my perspective, it poses the question of who gets to define illustration, in what terms, and to what effect. Because as illustrators, letting other people define what illustration is and is not may limit the space we are allowed to occupy.
But first, a bit of theory. Definitions are a tricky linguistic object, and we should be mindful of people claiming to define things. As “a statement expressing the essential nature of something” (Merriam-Webster), a definition is either true or false and thereby merely *describing* reality. But as a speech act (i.e. an utterance that is used to perform requests, warnings, promises, etc.), a definition can *create* new reality. We often forget this, because the nature of definitions is to state the truth. But as any utterances, definitions have a tremendous social impact and they should never be taken as face value.
Of course, not everyone gets to give random definitions of things as they please. A key condition to a successful speech act is authority. An extreme example of authoritative definition is that of presidential speech, studied by communication scholar David Zarefsky:
“Because of his prominent political position and his access to the means of communication, the president, by defining a situation, might be able to shape the context in which events or proposals are viewed by the public.”
Agents are not presidents, but they are powerful figures of the creative industry, and many illustrators look up to what they have to say. This (plus the fact of being invited to speak on a podcast for example) gives them a platform that can turn a mere definition into a powerful speech act. But let’s go back to what is so problematic about the statement of this agent.
From cultural sensitivity to complex semiotic layering of meaning, illustrators have been decoding and encoding the visual fabric of our societies for a long time.
I’ll start with the obvious : These definitions of artists and illustrators are profoundly historically inaccurate. “Artists” were always and still are, commissioned. “Illustrators” were always and still are, creating artworks in their own terms. Most artists we admire today were not only commissioned, but under strict constraints. The historian David Baxandall, in Painting and Experience in 15th century Italy shows that economic transaction and commissions are at the heart of the most famous paintings of the era : “The better sort of fifteenth century painting was made on a bespoke basis, the client asking for a manufacture after his own specifications”. Mantegna was literally working for hire his whole life for Ludovico Gonzaga in exchange of a yearly salary, food and accommodation. The phantasmagorical notion that artists are existing beyond economic ties and clientelism only reifies the romantic idea of genius, which capitalism has been milking for decades.
And while we are reifying surreal assumptions about artists, why not relegate illustrators to a position of space fillers ? Illustrators should not shy away from the economic aspects of the job, but defining illustration as just a drawing that is sold dismisses centuries of expertise. From cultural sensitivity to complex semiotic layering of meaning, illustrators have been decoding and encoding the visual fabric of our societies for a long time. In his autobiography, Norman Rockwell, from the authority provided by the end of his careers, says :
“[…] illustrators who are given ideas won’t do as good work; they won’t *feel* the pictures they are painting […]. An artist can’t surrender himself, becoming just an executor of another’s idea. Or, rather, he can but he *shouldn’t*”.
Illustrators ought to be collaborators, not executors, and our role in the industry should be ours to define. I’ve been lucky enough to work with people (art directors mostly) who truly valued my input as a visual communication expert and this helped shape the way I see my work today. But self worth has to come from within nonetheless.
As a rule of thumb, people who are trying to force rigid categories on fluid experiences are often the ones who are benefiting the most from such categorization.
I’ll conclude with the general obsession some people have with distinguishing artists and illustrators. This has been going on forever and I’ve rarely seen it play in favour of illustrators. But maybe we shouldn’t be looking at illustrators and artists to understand this issue, but rather at the people who seem to ask this question. As a rule of thumb, people who are trying to force rigid categories on fluid experiences are often the ones who are benefiting the most from such categorization. So when an agent is defining illustration in these terms, it is sure to advance their own agenda. Which is completely fine, but in this case we are not talking about a definition, but about a very subjective and very pragmatic version of reality.
Nonetheless, power dynamics are a real thing, and who gets to define the terms we use everyday is an important question. People listening to these podcasts are often new illustrators (like me) and looking to get represented for the first time or simply to get insights into the industry. And people being invited to speak are already likely to be established figures. Who gets to define illustration in these moments, if that person is in a position of authority, is who gets to set the rules of the game. And like Elphaba, the witch of the musical *Wicked*, “I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game”. Illustrators need to be in charge of defining illustration, and create definitions that are not limited by someone else’s agenda but enabling their own creative potential.
During the Q&A of a talk he gave at the Walker Art Center, Geoff McFetridge explains his relationship to the word illustration : “If I say I’m an illustrator, then I have to wait for a designer to hire me for a job, so why don’t I be a designer, and then I’ll just do it.” And then ends his answer by saying “ I guess I could call myself an illustrator, but why would I ?”. In this intervention, we can see how illustration is defined according to its hierarchical position in the industry, not by its specificities. Definitions of illustration like the one we’ve talked about earlier are the reason why McFetridge is absolutely right in asking “why would I [call myself an illustrator]?”. Why would you call yourself a name that has been trivialized and relegated to a position of the subaltern ?
Defining is power. And I wish to see more and more illustrators grabbing that power and defining their roles in their own terms. There can be as many definitions of illustration as there are illustrators, but we need each definition to come from the people whose lives are going to be the most affected by it. Defining the terms we use everyday is crucial. It’s a way to spot and resist abusive practices and discourses, a way to reclaim agency, a way to chose what you want to be.