So you have been drawing for months from life. You have piles of worn Bridgeman and Loomis books piled up by your desk, and you still suffer from a simple problem. You don’t seem to have anything close to a personal style developed. Fear not. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Developing a personal style consists of two main components, 1 is to draw as much from life as possible as this builds up what is called your Visual Library (This means that if you draw a guitar 20 times from life, you’ll have a better chance of drawing a realistic one from memory), the second component is to understand and get very familiar with the type of symbols you generally use to convey certain features (or other objects). One must first get familiar with the different styles of drawing first in order to get a good feel for your visual vocabulary (symbols) .
So what does it mean to understand the symbols which you use? You have already been taught not to use symbols but instead use abstraction to create the illusion of depth. And this is fine if you want to make paintings like a traditional painter. However, a large group of people don’t start drawing from life in this manner when they are 14 or 15, they start by drawing from cartoons, comic books, and from their heads. And these early symbols we make for a nose (for example) stick with us for all eternity, or so it seems. Let’s take a look at just how eyes are handled in three different cartoons in the image below.
In all of these examples we can see that the symbol for an eye can vary greatly, but still depict an eye. This is what we generally refer to as someone’s style. The nuts and bolts of someone’s style is based upon the symbols they use, and the techniques which are used to represent them. So we can look at the image below, and see how different symbols are also further stylized by the techniques in which they are depicted.
So how did Ralph Steadman find his personal style, and how did that differ from Todd McFarlane and Bill Plimpton? Well, in order to see how these people draw, we can simply dissect the way they construct a drawing. In the top drawing by Steadman we can see a lot of importance is given to the gesture of the figures, and this is followed by a very methodical and technical series of dark cross hatching marks. The line is fluid and wild, and this is then kept in place by the very meticulous cross hatching. Therefore we could safely say that if we wanted to develop a style similar to Ralph Steadman we should do loads of gesture drawings, as well as practice how to crosshatch. In the second drawing by Todd McFarlane we see highly developed and structured figure drawing in outrageous poses. These drawings were most likely done in pencil first and are heavily dependent on drawing the figure from memory. So in order to draw more like Todd McFarlane I would suggest studying the figure from life, as well as drawings from memory and building up compositions slowly. Starting with sketches first of multiple characters, and then resketching these onto a larger composition, and then finally finishing them with pen and ink. In the third drawing by Bill Plimpton we can see that his depictions of form are very painterly and that his mark making is fluid and free. So in order to draw more like Bill Plimpton I would suggest working with colored pencils (because of their ease of use in depicting large areas of value) and then slowly building these values up and finishing the drawing with darker marks to place the features of the face. Then, when working with pen we will treat the ink in a similar manner as the colored pencil and gently shade in large value shapes with a pen.
So, so far we have distinguished two important aspects of how to develop a personal style. One is the symbols which are used, and the second is the techniques which are employed (ie. how someone handles the medium). But by going through the different ways these artists constructed their drawings we also added a third important aspect which needs to be considered. And that is the ability to look at drawings (preferably by an artist you admire) and take apart how they are created. Every artist on the planet is influenced by other artists. The simplest way to say this is for you to find out what you think is cool. Once you have identified your favorite artists you should then do what I’ve done in the preceding paragraph, and that is to take apart to the best of your ability how their drawing were made. Now, you shouldn’t just bite their style, you want to create your own, but the good news is that a style will naturally come out after years of drawing and multiple attempts at recreating a variety of other styles. In fact, you may already have a style now, it just might be a really generic and crappy style. So ask yourself, how do you want to improve it? Is there an artist which could be influential? Are you interested in creating commercial work? Or work for animations or comic books? Well, then you’ve got to create a style which already meets commercial expectations. Which means that straying from the accepted commercial norms will be looked down upon (this can even be the case for well established Comic Book artists). Otherwise the sky’s the limit and by using the tactics outlined above (and with a lot of practice!) you’ll be able to create a personal style that not only satisfies you, but others as well. Just remember that these things don’t come over night!