As a freshman in ComD, I was constantly getting shut down for using the word ‘style,’ and now, as a junior, I cringe when I hear someone mention the word. Lately, I have been resentful of that treatment of our artistic expression, because illustration is an area of practice where one needs to have a strong identity. If you look at any great illustrator today—Christoph Niemann, Chris Ware, and Anita Kunz to name a few—you’ll notice that they all have a distinct look where their art is concerned, which, for an illustrator, is crucial to getting jobs. I keep thinking junior year is the year I am supposed to be developing some kind of style, and that what I am doing now isn’t cohesive enough. However, I really enjoyed the openness of foundation year and now I find myself torn between both wanting and not wanting to have a style. So, if not now, when should I create one? And how do I even go about doing it?
Looking back, I realize that I really loved freshman year, which was a time to develop very basic skills. I found this easy because I came to Pratt with a scattered portfolio and so, not having any idea what I was doing, I simply soaked up all the material I could learn, including the idea that I should be open to all possibilities of art and not just one specific way of drawing. It felt like all of my peers were struggling for some kind of independence in their art, a way to separate from the crowd, and yet I just went with the flow. Despite this, I think foundation year, as much as I ranted and raved against it, was important because my professors didn’t want me to box myself in before I had any idea what I wanted my professional career to be like. Now here I am as a junior and I want to do everything, from collage designs to detailed pencil studies and even graphic novels. I am still in a position where I don’t want to limit myself to one method of design, and it’s during a time when I’m feeling pressure to start developing a personal style.
I’ve been stubbornly holding on to the idea of artistic freedom in a world of confinement until recently, when my illustration class featured a guest speaker: illustrator John Jay Cabuay. In the class I had the opportunity to view a slideshow of his career from its beginning to the present, and I was completely enraptured watching his art evolve over the years. Starting out with fashion illustrations that he developed after school at FIT to his current work, I saw that a professional’s art can transform so much over time. In fact, I saw his work evolve into something so very interesting and colorful and eloquent, into something that has had years of influence and experience. The best part is, Cabuay does not only apply his style to one outlet, such as magazine cover work, but also to book covers, article pieces, portraits, and even advertising campaigns, while maintaining his own unique cohesiveness. The result is fine art based upon calculations and habits that matured slowly into a style that has something to say, and that’s just fucking beautiful. I’ve realized that even though I am crying out for my own identity, it is something that evolves organically over time as I take in my surroundings and let them influence me in a positive way.
Even though it seems that the illustration field largely tells me that I need to find five photoshop brushes and five swatches of color to use for the rest of my life, I still want to say, “Fuck the system, I’m going to create what I want, when I want, in whatever medium I want.” In reality, I am intelligent enough to know that good and consistent work is what counts, and is what art directors and clients want to see. Even so, this doesn’t mean that I should be hassling myself to create some kind of rigid style while in college. I think it’s important to know that my work right now would probably be decidedly different from what I could be creating five or ten years down the line, and that this is the time to just absorb the diverse influences around me. Rather than defining myself through expectations of what I am supposed to be like, I’ve learned that it is more important to allow my visual identity to emerge and begin to define me.
Image by Hua Chen