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Dilettante 011: Thinking About Style

Steve Lieber

About a decade ago, I wrote a few paragraphs on the notion of “style” and how an artist should regard it. It's about time I expanded those thoughts.

As a young artist, I was terrified of looking generic. I wanted “a style.” When young artists like I was then talk about style, they're generally referring to the tics and mannerisms apparent on the surface of another artist's work; the tricks that make the artist's work recognizable: Jack Kirby's square fingers. Chris Samnee's blunt, confident marker line. Colleen Coover's confident grey washes and friendly brushwork. Sean Murphy's jagged mark-making and spiky, angular forms. Eleanor Davis's organic shapes and the bold patches of color that define them. It's easy for an artist to get hung up on these things and assume that to create comics at that level, one only needs to assemble a set of similar mannerisms.

But such elements, even when deployed by masters like Kirby, Coover, Samnee, Murphy, and Davis are not, in the end, a goal. They're the artists' handwriting: a means to an end. 

It's important to see beyond the handwriting. An inexperienced artist is liable to look at that collection of techniques and flourishes and think, “That's what makes her a great artist—that little curly squiggle at the end of each line.” That's useless to you. Without a clear context for the tricks you observe, you're just slapping chrome on a car without an engine. You might as well decide to find your voice as a guitarist by practicing cool faces during a solo.

So if it's not about looking at the surface, how do you move beyond that? How do you make work that's distinct and individual in a meaningful way? It's going to take some time and some missteps. What will get you there faster is focusing on the story you want to tell your reader. 

You need to understand the story. You might find some of the questions I mentioned in a previous Toucan post helpful. Have an opinion about your characters and the world they live in. Have a clear idea of the ideas and emotions you want to communicate. Understand what symbolic weight the stuff you're drawing needs to carry. Everyone is on a train? If this is a present-day or historical story that needs to communicate a stable sense of real-world believability, then you need to find out what kind of train this is and what it looks like, and you should draw it simply but convincingly. If the story is full of tense drama, with the train functioning as a symbol of terrifying, relentless judgment, you're going to want to use techniques that emphasize its dangerous weight and speed. If it's a quiet and sentimental story, you might look for ways to draw the reader's eyes to the characters' reflections in the glass and the pretty, polished fixtures. If this is a comedy, maybe that train is a goofy, farting rattletrap, drawn in a way that rips away the passengers' dignity and implies that all of our best efforts are ridiculous.

Know the tone you want to strike, the impact you want to have on your readers. Should your story feel like a big-budget IMAX 3D movie with a full symphonic soundtrack, or a dinky, funny puppet show with a kazoo and a slide whistle? When you can answer those questions, you can make meaningful decisions about how to draw your pages. You might not have the time or the chops to do everything your story requires, but at least then you can make informed choices about the compromises you'll have to make. As you develop, you won't choose your style. Your style will choose you.

When you're thinking this way about your own pages, your mind will be better prepared to analyze the work of other cartoonists and illustrators and see what effects their choices are having on the stories they're telling. At that point, when you see an interesting flourish, you'll might have an idea how you can incorporate it usefully into your own work. Prepare yourself for these possibilities by exposing yourself to a variety of influences and by keeping a sketchbook where you can try them out in your own pictures.

Get analytical about other artists' work. Are they setting their stories in fully rendered, detailed environments, or sparsely decorated stage sets with only a few key elements to distinguish a kitchen from a classroom? Is the cartoonist creating the illusion of depth, or do the characters exist in a mostly abstract world? Are the characters supposed to be likable people with whom the reader should sympathize and identify? How is the artist making that happen? Are they parodies of stylizations of some heroic warrior ideal? What's the artist doing to tell me that this is a hyper-meta gag story making fun of other stories? Are the characters there to function as caricatures of certain real-world types? Awful manifestations of realistically horrible people, say? Or are they simple icons that are only in the story to be recognizable and set up a joke? You'll find that the stylistic choices a good artist makes will emphasize the details that are important and downplay or eliminate the ones that aren't. Remember what I said about making informed choices about compromises? For some artists, those compromises form the basis of their style. If you know exactly what you need to communicate, you can probably get away with not knowing how to communicate anything else.

As I mentioned earlier, this is going to take time. You'll draw a lot of pages that don't work before you draw some that do. You might not even know why they work, but don't let that worry you. You'll be making comics for decades. You've got plenty of time for self-analysis. If everything doesn't come quite together on this page, try to make the next one better.

I'm eager to hear your thoughts on this. Share them with me on twitter @steve_lieber, or on my Facebook page.

Steve Lieber’s Dilletante appears the second Tuesday of each month on Toucan!