On finding (and owning) your creative style

Developing your own style is often the biggest challenge of any creative endeavor. We all have an inherent natural style, but usually it’s not quite what you want it to be, or what it could be, without a lot of work. I’m still in the process of developing my style, and I’ve been drawing and making art since I could first hold a crayon, so it’s been a solid 22 years for me and I still feel a bit lost half the time. This blog turns 3 years old today, so even after three years of “official” development, I’m really just getting started.

While I haven’t always been concerned with developing my style, I was definitely always experimenting with it, even from a very young age. I have drawings from age two or three where my mom or dad had drawn something for me, like ducks in the park, and I had attempted to mimic their drawing. I loved drawing the cartoons I watched on TV, from Powerpuff Girls to Pokemon. I drew a lot of Pokemon. Inherently, my drawings were unique to my hand, but I was initially copying a lot of other people’s art to learn, and just because I liked it. In third grade, I borrowed the Ms. Pac-Man ghosts (Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Sue, for the uncultured) for easy-to-replicate characters in my comic strip drawings. I eventually developed characters of my own invention after lots of practice creating pages after pages of comics in my free time at school, figuring out what I liked, what I found funny, and what I could easily draw frame-after-frame without fully resorting to stick figures.

3rd-grader humor…

In middle school, I would fill up a notebook of what I imagined the characters to look like from my favorite book series at the time (Redwall, so lots of anthropomorphic woodland creatures) and I would draw my Neopets in a more stylized and customized way based on what I imagined their personalities to be. In high school, I often doodled ballerinas and 1960s-inspired florals and patterns. As my interests changed, my inspirations changed, and I would draw my own iterations of whatever I was paying most attention to. I wasn’t trying consciously to develop anything, just imitating what I liked for fun, bits and pieces of my interests slowly integrating into my own art creations.

a page of doodles from the week before I graduated high school

Style isn’t really a conscious thing, for the most part. You can maybe describe your personal style and tastes in a handful of words, but there is so much more “why” to it all than you may even realize. You might love the color apple green because it’s the color of the walls at your aunt & uncle’s old house on a hill with the smell of spring and Easter dinner in the air when you were younger, feeling so at home surrounded by family, and you kind of forget about all that and just know it’s one of those colors that just feels right to you. Or maybe a character in a movie you saw ten years ago wore a really cool outfit that subconsciously influenced what you like to wear. Or you read a certain picture book over and over when you were young, so the art style in it is very appealing to you. You may be conscious of more recent or memorable influences that you can visualize and describe, like the tip of the iceberg, but your actual style is made up of immeasurable life experiences like the examples I mentioned, extending far deeper below the surface.

So, whatever you make as a creative will unavoidably have an imprint of your own experiences and tastes. Krista of @hername_ismud posted a wonderful discussion of this in her instagram stories a while ago that stuck with me (in her highlights under “create vs copy”). She mentioned that it is often hard and uncomfortable work to get to know yourself, to find your creative voice, but it is extremely valuable to do and crucial if you are trying to contribute something new to the world. I love one thing she said especially, that you have to “invite yourself into your work.” You need to allow your unique experiences and gifts to shine through in what you make. She mentioned that while you can look at Pinterest for inspiration and copy other artists’ styles for fun and to learn some things, at a certain point, imitating the work of another just becomes detrimental to your own progress if your aim is to grow as an artist. You won’t find your own voice by borrowing others’ ideas, which likely cost them years of experience, failures, and effort. At the very least, you should give proper credit to your influences if you’re going to use their hard work as a shortcut.

This is a constant discussion in the artist community online, where art is so easily circulated now that some artists find that their work is being stolen and sold by overseas businesses, or even popular companies and big brands. Originality seems to be harder than ever now that we are all bombarded by pretty designs all over our social media, but in a way, it is more valuable than ever for those same reasons. I love Pinterest, but I have also needed to majorly shift how I use it as I begin to really try to uncover and shape my own style. I still pin illustrations and art and design that I admire, but I try to pin more photos of things and places and people and a variety of art mediums in order to find more unconventional and indirect inspiration, and when I do really want to emulate a certain illustrator’s style, I try to only borrow elements of it, mixed with other elements and styles, in order to make it my own.

I really like that Krista also mentioned she keeps a written notebook as an alternative to saving direct inspiration images, so that she can jot down ideas from things she sees and therefore already begin to separate them from the source and allow more room for interpretation and creativity. I really think there is major value in doing very present and physical activities as an artist, such as taking walks or flipping through old books, to find more unique inspiration. My graphic design professors have made a point in the past to assign us to check out any book from a section of our choice at the library, because it’s easy to forget there’s a ton of things out there that don’t even exist on the internet. I found a few super interesting old books on painting and design that were somewhat outdated but all the more inspiring for it, because it wasn’t something I would find online.

For as much as I was obsessed with books growing up, I have really drifted away from physical books in recent years, but I’m itching to get back to tangible sources like that. I was in this vintage shop in Boulder City last year that had some great Matisse and Calder and Degas lithographs, and this big selection of vinyl records that were so fun to flip through just because of the amazing old cover art, just random compilations of Tchaikovsky or Chopin, or some musicians I’ve never heard of, with the coolest cover designs. That’s the kind of inspiration that lights me up, not the same trendy design I’ve seen pop up in my Pinterest feed 10 times over the last year. But that’s the beauty of it, (and why I’m beginning to miss travelling this year, even just a day trip to a nearby city) some things you can’t find on the internet. Some inspiration has to be found 27 records deep in a dusty, disorganized pile you’re flipping through while simultaneously trying to keep it from toppling over in the back of an antiques store that you ducked into on a whim to escape the heat.

I keep seeing talk about “finding your style” everywhere lately, and it has been on my own mind for a while, so I wanted to write out some of my thoughts. It’s one of those topics that a lot of people seem to struggle with in the current age along with procrastination and indecisiveness, which I happen to think are all directly tied to the endless bombardment of over-stimulation that we’re all faced with as soon as we open up a social media app or the internet. Having just spent two weeks dogsitting a couple of golden retrievers at a house with a lovely front porch and back patio tucked at the end of a street by some woods, I spent more time just sitting outside and enjoying fresh air and solitude than I have in a long, long time. And I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. In fact, I started to wonder why I had endless to-do lists when all of a sudden it felt like I could count my priorities on one hand. I may have even had some major breakthrough realizations about my own artistic style that I’ll discuss in another post soon. I think honing your “style” is one of those processes that never ends, and while I look forward to evolving, refining, and finding more consistency, I also know that I am an admirer of many differing things, so my personal style will probably always be fairly eclectic and experimental. I just have to make peace with the process.