To specialize or not to specialize…that isn’t even a question. Not in the shop I work at, anyway.
If you stop and look at the artists you admire, I’m sure you’ll find something in their work that is their unique signature. This stamp on the artwork is their style, and it takes a lot of time to develop.
There are a few schools of thought on developing a “signature style” as an artist.
The well-rounded chameleon.
First up is the generalist or the chameleon. This is the artist that can do any style. But can they, really? It’s hard to say.
Most “chameleons” mimic styles without understanding them. I’m not saying that there aren’t some phenomenal well-rounded artists out there. But, more often than not, they aren’t masters at any specific style.
When you focus across several disciplines, it’s difficult to create a signature. Chameleons dabble in everything but tend to spread themselves too thin to master anything.
The perks of being a chameleon.
There actually are perks to being a chameleon when it comes to an artistic career. Whether you’re tattooing or pursuing another field (like concept art, illustration, animation, etc.) – you’ll always have job opportunities. But they’re very competitive.
Being a chameleon means that you’re going to spend an INSANE amount of time becoming proficient in various styles. Then you can do “good enough” at everything that comes your way. But you’ll have to stand out, somehow. And that’s hard to do if you’re well-rounded.
Another perk of being well-rounded is that you get to explore many, many different styles. Especially as a well-rounded tattoo artist, you’ll get to do a bit of everything.
Sometimes that’s fun, but most of the time (in my experience) it’s pretty exhausting.
The stylish artist.
Like I mentioned earlier – most high-profile artists have a style of their own. It’s likely inspired by a very wide variety of influences, but blends in the mind of the artist. That blend then gets executed in a very unique way.
It takes time, patience, and study to develop your own style. It’s a good practice to look at the artists that inspire you to mimic techniques and applications until you find something you like.
There is typically the same amount of study involved in being a specialized artist, but the returns are much, much greater.
What’s so great about having a style?
You get to work on the projects you love! When you’re great at something you’re more engaged in the work.
It’s a little dopamine hit every time someone comes to you because of your style. If you develop a signature, people will start coming to you for work instead of you having to hunt clients or wait on walk-ins. Especially if you know how to market your work.
Imagine: clients approaching you because they saw your work, not because you were the first person they could find. It’s gratifying beyond belief.
You’ll also find that you feel less stress about creating art when you develop your style. You may be somebody else’s idol one day, too. Give that some thought.
Dangers and downfalls…
Of course, there are downsides to anything you do. The downside to being a chameleon is that you probably won’t create a real name for yourself. Your work can always be dismissed as “really good,” but nobody will know it’s yours.
And the stylized artist may end up pigeon-holing themselves. They feel trapped with a style that they don’t feel an attachment to.
Sometimes a stylized artist may start to feel like they aren’t growing, either. The art becomes a routine instead of something they love to create.
That said, I find it much more satisfying to draw and design with a specific style
How to develop your style.
It’s pretty straightforward to develop your own style. Steal art from artists you admire. Rip it off, trace it, study it, copy it.
Yeah, I told you to copy from artists you admire. Flat-out steal their work but keep it private. The more you copy artists you admire, the more you’ll find out HOW they did the things they did. You’ll find out what works well with your own art.
Once you copy enough art from your idols, you’ll find certain things that begin to come naturally. Those natural tendencies are going to shape your style.
In art schools, they call these paintings master studies. There’s a reason you copy the masters – so you can learn their languages.
Once you have a closet full of copied drawings and paintings, start creating original work using the techniques that you’ve internalized. You have officially built a visual library in your mind that you can pull from any time you want.
As you create original work, your influences are going to show through. And since you’ve studied many artists that you admire, all those influences are going to blend into something that is uniquely…you. Just don’t get “stuck” in your style.
Cultivate to avoid stagnation.
Many specialized artists fear that they’re going to get stuck doing the same type of work for the rest of their lives. Good news! There is such a thing as a happy balance.
Specialists can learn from the chameleons to avoid the trap of stagnation. Experiment and cultivate different styles, like the chameleons!
When you’re open to ideas from other disciplines, you find things that help you develop your own style.
It could be the study of line weights from Art Nouveau artists or color theory from Japanese Anime. Maybe you love the softness of realism or the grittiness that you can find in Trash Polka tattoos.
Your options are endless.
Keep one foot planted in what you know while you explore outside of your comfort zone.
Style without getting stuck.
Just as a quick re-cap, developing a style is important to any professional artist. Be wary of the dangers of getting stuck or stagnating in your own style – be open to influences from outside your specialty. Don’t try to do every style because it seems safer, make a name for yourself by taking risks.
What are your thoughts? Am I wrong about supporting specialties over general artistic interests?
And if you have any tips for the people out there trying to develop their own signature – leave a comment!
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