If you were to look at Picasso's work, you could spot it anywhere.
If you were to listen to Sting's music, you'd know it was Sting.
If you were to read Dan Brown's book, you'd know it was Dan.
So how come these folks have a style, and you don't? How do you create your own art style?
You know you don't have a style, because if you took your cartoon or your article and placed it amongst another person's work, no one would be able to pick out your work as unique. And that's because it's not.
Imagine you're trying to learn how to cook a yummy dish like biryani
Now biryani tends to be a very complex, almost scary type of rice dish. It's filled with a list of ingredients as long as your arm, and the process can be intimidating. But if you're determined to crack the ‘biryani code', you're going to follow the instructions in great detail. The exact ingredients, sequence and methodology must be followed to ensure that you replicate the dish.
And this means you're copying
When you're copying, you're replicating the style of the person you're copying. But if you make this dish several times, additions occur. You may read about another type of biryani or may watch a few videos. And suddenly, instead of boneless chicken, you're using chicken with bones. Or instead of chicken, you're using veggies instead.
Sooner or later dropouts occur as well
You stop referring to the recipe because you're comfortable with the sequence and ingredients. And then you create your own kind of dish. But you may forget some ingredients, add others, or do something quite different altogether. And if you mix, mingle, and keep learning how to make this dish, you soon get your own style.
Style is not about invention
Style is about copying. About ‘tracing', and ‘copying' and ‘then rendering from memory'. The more you trace, copy and render from memory, the more the concepts mix in your brain. And eventually one day—and that day isn't very far—you'll have a style of your own.
But you need to practice and mix and mingle
If you slavishly copy one person's style, you'll soon become a replica of that person's work. When I first started out in cartooning, I used to copy Hagar the Horrible. And my work was a replica of Hagar the Horrible. But then I added other cartoons, like Dennis the Menace, Calvin and Hobbes etc. And my work became my own.
Today I have a distinct writing style, drawing style, speaking style etc.
And so can you. You already have a style that's quite your own in many areas of your life. And it's time to port over those concepts so that you can apply the style to your writing and your drawing as well.
So practice away.
Copy a lot.
Trace a lot.
And render from memory a lot.
And yes, make sure you copy from different sources.
And then, about six-nine months from now, you'll have a style that's quite different from anyone else. But if you keep doing what you're doing, without copying, you'll just become a copy—of yourself. If you want to continuously evolve, you need to keep tracing, copying and then rendering your own impression. That's the only way you'll keep learning and evolving your style.
So that when you make biryani, they'll say you made biryani.
But when I make biryani, there's a certain point of difference that makes it quite my own. Make it your own.
P.S. Copying is different from plagiarism. If you're not clear about the difference, look up the dictionary.
Alexandra Hopkins says
Thanks, Sean. Very interesting article. I’ve developed my own style as a writer–or at least, it’s not something that I think about–I just write. However, as a painter, I’ve been stuck, just not making progress. It’s traditional for art students to copy the old masters and other great artists. After reading your article, I’m going to give that a try. In the case of painting, I think it will make sense to look for lessons that tell me, step-by-step, how to replicate the effects created by a great painter.
Tim Kisner says
Great stuff Sean.
I think that your message is an encouragement too, because it reminds me that I am in a process and that its okay to be patient as my style unfolds.
As a bonus, it is also getting easier and easier to pick out the writing styles I do not want to emulate! That’s progress too oui?
Sue Neal says
This is a very enlightening and helpful article, Sean.
I was always told that copying is the sincerest form of flattery. And I think you’re right – the more we practice, even if we start out by emulating someone else, the more our own personal style will emerge. Because we all have a unique voice, whether we realise it or not – just as we all have unique handwriting and our own particular way of moving and talking.
But we need to do plenty of writing in order to give that personal voice the chance to develop – otherwise, we’ll never progress beyond the ‘copying’ phase and our writing will always come across as a poor imitation of someone else’s work. I think (I hope!) that as we practise and grow in confidence and skill, our own personal style is bound to unfold.
Thanks so much – I agree with Tim that your message is encouraging for those of us who are learning the craft.
This is a very encouraging article, Sean, for those just starting out. As a fellow artist and business-person, it is true that, in order to learn your craft – and to learn your preferences within that craft – you cannot help but seek to emulate those you admire.
However, you cannot REALLY hone your style until you (a) know yourself and how you are different than the ones you emulate, and (b) stop emulating others.
To illustrate: in (a) you might have a number of different perspectives on your craft that the people you emulate don’t have. Add in your own experience and personality. Bringing those forth will help you create your own voice.
For (b), emulating others will only go so far. At some point you will simply be regurgitating the work of others. Even if recombined into something “new”, it still won’t be “you”. You have to stop adding in others’ work, start subtracting what “isn’t you” from what you’re currently working with, and start exploring your own motifs. You need to let go of the crutch of emulation and walk on your own. This goes well beyond rendering from memory.
To have your own style, you will need to go on a fast of others’ work – remove it from your environment. Lock yourself away for a bit, and write and draw and “do your work” so much that it becomes an unconscious reflex – like driving a car.
Certainly add inspiration from others after this phase, but always be conscious of making it your own – which you will be able to do after the “fast”. How long you have to fast for will be an individual thing. If you are writing or drawing every day, I would recommend a minimum of 6 weeks.
And Sean, I would like to add that you are a true artist with your own voice. You don’t teach marketing like everyone else. You have explored your own motifs and your work stands out. It’s what I love about your work and why I actually read your emails (one of less than a handful that I consistently read). Well done!
karen marchetti says
Interesting points, but I wonder if they may apply more to design than copy. For example:
– When I can read someone’s copy meant for a target audience of both men and women, but yet I can clearly see — only from it’s style — that it’s been written by a woman (or clearly see it’s been written by a man), then that “style” gets in the way of effectively communicating with the target audience.
– When I read someone’s copy meant for a particular target audience, and yet I know — only from the style — that it was written by an older copywriter or a younger copywriter , then that “style” gets in the way of effectively communicating with the target audience.
Copywriters must learn to speak conversationally in the language of their target audience. “Style” is perhaps more reflected in our philosophy, our “system”, our expertise, and our knowledge about how to do this — even when our target is not us (which it rarely is).
amit tiwari says
mouth watering article..! developing our own style is a gradual process, we really have to read, copy, trace from various sources. Process them in our head and eventually what will come up will be a style of our own.
Its a long way to go for creating our own style and articles like this are really helpful in the journey.