What's a Signature Style? 5 Things You Probably Didn't Know
Here’s a quick quiz question:
Who do you think painted the pictures below?
If you answered Vincent van Gogh...
And now I want you to pause for a minute and reflect: What is it about each painting that helps you tell for sure that it was created by van Gogh?
His ‘impasto’ technique?
The way he draws his trees?
The colours he uses?
These are some of the recognisable-at-a-quick-glance characteristics that are common in all his paintings.
These are also what make up his signature style.
So, what is a signature style?
An artist’s signature style is a combination of their go-to techniques, colours, and themes (amongst many other factors) that make their work easily identifiable.
Vincent van Gogh is an obvious example. If you’re a surface designer, think Elizabeth Olwen or Lisa Congdon. These are big names, but even you have a signature style. Don’t believe it?
Well, let me not mince my words. A lot of the things you’ve been told about developing a signature style as a surface designer aren’t exactly written in stone.
Today I’m busting some of these myths that we’ve been mistaking for facts.
Myth No. 1
As a new artist, you don’t have a signature style yet.
As a new artist, you might not have a fully developed signature style, but you will see a common thread in all the artwork you make. Yes, even as you experiment with a variety of materials and techniques. Sometimes, when you’re trying too hard to find that common link, you miss seeing what’s right in front of you. In such instances, it’s a good idea to ask a friend or a fellow artist to suggest a few words to describe your work.
You’ll probably find them coming up with words like “feminine”, “bright”, “playful”, “abstract”, etc. There you have it. An outsider can often see what you fail to notice in your artwork. As you keep honing your style, some of those descriptors will change, and you’ll start having a stronger sense of what the similar attributes are for each of your art pieces.
Myth No. 2
It takes years of practice to develop a signature style.
It takes practice to develop a style, no doubt, but not necessarily years of practice. You’ll find me iterating and reiterating how every one of us is unique. What this means is that if I take one year to develop an art style, you might do it in two years, and that’s okay.
So, start looking for signs of a signature style from day 1 of your art practice. What you really need is regular, mindful practice. Now you might be wondering what I mean by mindful practice. Mindful practice is when you start paying attention to what you do when you create art.
Observe what materials you use daily in your sketchbook practice. For instance, I almost always use a black pen when working on my sketches. Observe what digital tools you use when you create your patterns or illustrations. I am an out and out vector girl. I’ve dabbled in Photoshop and Fresco but I still prefer the clean vector look to the heavily textured outputs from other design programmes.
Observe what colours you gravitate towards (and no, colours aren’t meant just to achieve a cohesive Instagram feed). I love all the colours of the rainbow, but you’ll often see me use blues, pinks, and creams with pops of yellow here and there.
All of these tiny details together make up your signature style. You might not see it early on in your practice, but it’s there. It’s only a matter of time before you look at a picture and say “That’s my style!”
Myth No. 3
Your signature style can be determined by your finished piece only.
Art isn’t about the end result only. Sure, that’s what we see on social media and on portfolio websites, but we are also drawn towards behind the scenes images and videos. Why? Art is all about embracing the process.
Right from the composition, colours, material, and techniques, to texture, subject matter, finer details, and the look of the final design; everything decides how your signature style would look.
Whether in my sketchbook or in my finished patterns, you’ll always find me incorporating little dots and dashes to add texture. Among the two images below, the one on the left was one of my earliest ever patterns. My style has evolved as you can see in the picture to the right. However, I still use dashes (and dots) to create a textural effect, since I don’t use a lot of texture brushes in my digital art.
Myth No. 4
Once you’ve established a signature style there’s no looking back.
This is the most common BS I’ve ever heard! Who are we trying to impress here? Our Instagram followers? Art Directors?
As we explore different techniques and media, we’re bound to develop a signature style. We’re also bound to evolve that style into something that feels even more like us five years down the line. And that is absolutely allowed. We don’t need to fit into a box and stay stuck in there just because people are used to seeing us paint a certain way.
In your own time, break the boundaries you set for yourself. Give yourself permission to experiment and change if need be.
Myth No. 5
You can’t have multiple signature styles.
You aren’t bound to one style. As you make more and more art, it’s natural to develop more than one style. What’s crucial here is to remember to identify those differences so that when you pitch your work to companies, you know which style to promote to which prospective client. For example, I have two distinct styles–one is clearly geared toward children’s markets.
Keeping in mind the previous fact, my style (especially for the kid-friendly markets) has evolved further and I can now see those dashes and dots even in the more juvenile designs, as you can see here.
As you’ve seen, the ever-elusive signature style isn’t so elusive after all. Start by observing other artists' work to see what attracts you. Without copying their art directly, see if you can incorporate some of those micro-level details and techniques in your designs to form your design style.
Try describing your style in a few words to give yourself a starting point. I always use the words folksy, vibrant, symmetrical, and charming--a good mix of concrete and abstract adjectives to describe my style. Being able to describe your style is a great skill to have, especially when you're sending out cold pitch emails to art directors.