Sunday Mailbag- Developing a Style?

October 16th, 2016 | Posted in Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag!

Q: My question probably has a different answer for each individual but I’d like to know your thoughts about developing a unique style. I spend a lot of time looking at different styles and techniques of caricature both traditional and digital. I have become a lot better at the caricature process but still find my work not looking very unique. Maybe you can share your thoughts on how your style developed?

A: An artist’s “style” is a surprisingly difficult thing to define. It’s easy to see and identify, but not so easy to pigeonhole into where it comes from and how it’s developed, because as you say it’s different for everybody.

In many cases an artist’s style is a natural extension of their drawing, and is a completely unconscious and uncalculated thing. The late, great Jack Davis is a perfect example of this. Everything Jack drew, from a chair to a boat to a crowd scene full of different people and objects, all has his distinctive stamp on it and was instantly recognizable as a Jack Davis drawing. Jack did not sit down and “figure out” his style… it just grew out of his non-stop drawing. It was how he saw the world, and utterly consistent in every line. It was also independent of medium. His pencil drawings, inked work, and fully painted illustrations all looked like Jack Davis artwork.

In some cases “style” is a carefully crafted thing. Some artists experiment with different mediums and different ways of drawing to create a unique look, and then sometime down the road they “reinvent” themselves and come up with a very different look to their work. There are not a lot of examples of this that come to mind, but I have seen it before… especially in the illustration world. Sometimes a certain look is very “in” for a while and then becomes passé, and an illustrator needs to update/freshen their look to continue to get work. I have to say that, in my book, this is less “style” than it is “technique”.

I’ve always defined “style” in terms of drawing and not medium. Like Jack Davis, an artist can work in many different mediums and what I would call their style shines through them all. The work of C.F. Payne has a very recognizable painting/color technique that he developed, but if you ever see some of his sketchbook drawings you will see that same drawing style in black and white. Steve Brodner is the same way… his paintings have a recognizable technique and color palette, but when working in other mediums it’s still clearly a Brodner drawing. In may ways it’s impossible to divorce a drawing style from any piece of artwork created by an artist, unless they are trying hard to either mimic some other style, or take some very different approach to the subject matter (like a cartoonist doing a very realistic portrait).

All that is a very roundabout way of saying that I consider “style” something you grow into, not something you craft. Even if you are consciously trying to develop some unique look, what you are really doing is exploring the boundaries of your own drawing and artistic eye, and therefore developing your art naturally. Experimenting with mediums also influences your style, since the limitations of any medium forces an artist to find ways to accomplish their desired results within those limitations, and that can in turn influence your drawing itself. Veteran comic book inker and artist Joe Rubenstein once told me he could often tell what kind of nib a cartoonist uses to ink by aspects of his/her drawing style… for example someone who uses a crow quill does not use “curly cue” type lines because crow quills can’t do that without splattering. Thus their drawings avoid that kind of line and use other kinds of lines to accomplish the desired result.

As for me, the majority of my style was developed when I spent 20 years drawing live caricatures full time at theme parks. Drawing approximately 75,000 faces from live models will do that. The rest was experimentation in mediums like airbrush, inks, digital, etc. I like to think my drawing style remains consistent and recognizable no matter the medium I work in. Working for MAD I am sometimes called on to mimic certain styles or alter my style to suit a particular feature, but under it all I draw like I draw, and that is hard to change.

My advice to others is do not worry about your style. Concentrate on developing your skills and let the style take care of itself.

Thanks to John Michael for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Ernie says:

    It has been written that style is making the same mistakes over and over again.

  2. Joe says:

    I think anyone’s style is inherent in them, but maybe as the one creating you’re too close to it to see the style. Just last week I was talking to a friend who is also an artist and we were going over pictures of what we were working on at the moment. He told me that the great thing about my stuff is he could tell that it’s me even if he just saw it randomly. That I have a style and that he could pick out my stuff. That floored me because I had no idea I had my own style and I probably couldn’t spot it myself.

  3. Chad says:

    Stephen Silver suggests that elements of style can come from the unique way an artist might draw an ear, or the way they treat hair, or something like that. Maybe the artist squares off the fingertips when drawing hands, or something. It could be the combination of a thousand of those little things that add up to style.


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