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The S Word
Action and Interaction in Illustrations
A Friend in Winter
News for December!
The S WordWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
Check your windows. Lock the doors. If anyone impressionable is in the room, send them out for a quart of masking fluid. Brace yourself.
Today, we’re gonna talk about the S-word.
No, not shit. If you’ve been an artist for any length of time, you should have produced plenty of this already, and if you haven’t, you need to get started. The pinnacle of artistic achievement lies at the top of a mountain of absolute crap. Take a lesson from biology. Holding in the crap just makes you artistically constipated, it doesn’t make the crap not exist.
Go forth and make dreadful art. How else you gonna get good?
No, we’re talking about a much scarier S-word.
Yeah, I said it. Lock up your daughters!
Now, there are generally two reactions to the word “style” which are “Gimme!” and “Kill it! Kill it before it breeds!” People start out and get obsessed with having a Style Of Their Own, and then they go th’other way and when they hear the world “style” they scream and hit the deck. For large segments of the artist population, “It’s my styyyyle,” is a phrase used to express the whining of young artists who don’t want to, y’know, actually learn to draw ‘n stuff.
This is fine and good, but doesn’t help all that much.
The American Heritage Dictionary, which I should really stop using to prop up my monitor because it makes it really hard to look up words, says that style is a lot of things, but the important one is #2: “The combination of distinctive features of literary or artistic expression, execution, or performance characterizing a particular person, group, school, or era.”
It’s a perfectly good definition, and I want you to ignore it for the moment in favor of mine.
Style is the collected sum of your personal solutions for artistic problems.
As it happens, at this exact moment, there is a Carolina chickadee on the window feeder about two feet from my nose. Carolina chickadees are small, round adorable birds. Their beaks are as tiny as anime noses and they have striking black caps and throats, as if they’re wearing a wee little beret and neckerchief.
If I were going to paint a Carolina chickadee, I would run into a great many artistic problems—not dire, unsolvable problems, but all the little decisions that have to be made in order to paint a chickadee.
To begin with, I’d have to decide whether or not it needs a background. That’s a problem. My solution is to give it a background. That’s a solution. Not giving it one would also be a solution. Each solution leads to more problems, a branching tree of hundreds of artistic decisions.
Now, how do you make a wee little monochromatic bird stand out against a background? What do we do about the edges? I could put hard lines all around the edges, ala art nouveau or cartoons, or I could edge it in an unearthly glow, or I could just make sure that the patch of background behind my chickadee is a color that won’t blend into the grey-black-white color of the chickadee. I could even choose to lose the edges of one of the colors, like the white, and set up the composition so the viewer’s eye closes the line without any line actually being there. (Neat if it works. Tricky to pull off well.)
Part of the chickadee is hard black, and part is hard white. How do I express depth and volume here? Do I express depth and volume here? I don’t have to, I could do a hard, graphical style and reduce it to flat colors. I could express depth in the feathers by hard cel shading, by airbrushing, by tiny, precise, muted strokes, by bold slathering of color. I could make the white bit hard white, or I could work hundreds of pale shades in and give it depth that way. I could make the shadows grey, or I could make the whole thing cream and make the highlights white.
How about the eye? The eye of a chickadee is black on black feathers. How do I show the eye? Do I make the eye the blackest black, and the feathers just kinda black? Do I put in a wee thin line of white around it, or a hard black outline? Do I do something funky with lighting so that you can tell the different surfaces by the differing refractions, or do I lose the eye completely in the dark feathers?
These are all artistic problems. How you solve them, collectively, adds up to your style. The chickadee, the idea, sits at the roots of a vast, branching tree, and the path you chart, when you look back, is a roadmap of style.
This is not a bad thing. You have to solve these problems somehow, after all, or the chickadee remains unpainted.
The problems arise when you’re a young art puppy and you get eager for a style, because you have notions that art is the road to fame and glory, and you pick one solution to these problems. And then you consider that problem forever solved, and stick to that single solution, and you always wind up teetering at the end of the same damn twig of the tree. (Perhaps you’re secretly afraid to go visit other twigs for fear someone will go “Hey! That’s not your twig!” This happens, god knows. Try not to sweat it.)
Some of these solutions may not be the best ones. Other solutions would be better, but you may never find out because you wanted your own twig right off the bat, damnit.
Worse yet, there are plenty of trees you may never actually climb because your solutions just plain won’t work for those problems.
This is bad. This is artistic cowardice.
How often have you heard people say (and I’ll just assume that you, dear reader, have never said such a thing, of course) “My art teacher just hates my style!”
Let me letcha in on a secret, kids. Your art teacher probably doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your style. She’s just trying to get you out of your nice safe little tree, and if you won’t come down peacefully, then yes, she’ll throw rocks. All’s fair in love and art.
It’s been said occasionally that style is something you earn, and there’s truth to that, but I’d say that it’s more that style is something you acquire, over time, through trial and error, and it should always be flexible. If you can’t do something a different way because then it won’t be your style, then you don’t have a style, you have a straitjacket.
Despite all this, style is basically a good thing. The key word is “solutions,” and solutions are good.
If style is the sum of artistic solutions, then you only get a good, workable, solid one by trying different solutions. Try everything once. Try some things three or four times. Try some things a hundred times. Try weird things. If you line up your art from end to end, there should be things in there that look like they belong to someone else entirely.
Some of those things will suck. That’s fine. That’s great, in fact. Now you know a solution that doesn’t work, and you don’t have to try it again unless you figure out something else where it might. And eventually—and this is the key bit—you will learn a good solution to any given problem. Yes. It will happen. You’ll have a drawer full of solutions, and when a problem arises, you can pick the one that you want to use today. Most of the time, you won’t be conscious of doing it, and this is how it should be.
And that set of solutions will, yes, eventually become your style. It may change over time, but it will be yours. And you will perch, like a chickadee, on your particular twig, not because you are desperate to own your own twig—any twig at all!—but because you have painstakingly investigated more twigs than you can remember, and this one, so far as you are concerned, is the best of all possible twigs.
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