Anonymous: Hey Sam, I'm trying to find my style in illustration. How did you find yours?
Today I was waiting to cross the street at a corner in Brooklyn. Now, in New York, animals are pretty cozy being near humans and you really need to aggressively invade their space for them to flee in the same way a non-city-dwelling self-preserving animal would. So when I was standing at this street corner and this tiny bird was unflinching, walking near my feet, and then started awkwardly hopping directly in front of a car making a turn, I panicked and jolted after it to herd it away from being crushed. While this definitely angered the driver, I did succeed in getting the little thing onto the sidewalk — however, I quickly noticed that its wing had clearly been extremely banged up.
I don’t particularly like animals, I’ve never owned a pet, and am not a terribly compassionate person, but I do have the bare-minimum feeling of “I don’t like seeing things die” so for the next 10 minutes I chased and scooped this little fucking bird around trying to keep it on the sidewalk because it kept hobbling back into the middle of the street. At one point my scoop-throw resulted in it getting solid hang time and seemingly soaring off, only for it to quickly arc back towards me in a boomerang fashion and hop back into traffic. I looked like an absolute idiot, I’m sure that I got all kinds of weird bird diseases in the process, but I was so frustrated by this bird’s poor decision making that for those 10 minutes, I kept with it. It hopped to its near death, I scurried after it and scooped it back onto the sidewalk. Hopped again, scurried, scooped, saved, then back again. It was like helping every friend anyone has ever had who makes terrible choices and then continues to make them. Eventually though, my patience wore thin and I wasn’t about to take it home, nurse it back to health with a tiny yet adorable wing bandage, and become emotionally invested in its well-being only for it to one day fly away. So I walked away. Most people did just that from the get go, others stood and watched, some would make awkward little half-steps to try to help too, and after I left, maybe someone far better took on the potential heartbreak and made a micro-wing-splint out of toothpicks and tissue paper, then lovingly named it Pidgeotto … but I was presented with a situation and I handled it in the way that felt natural to me. It was exactly what I would do. There were a million other things to do instead that could’ve been more helpful, more interesting, more evil, more apathetic, and everything in between — but this particular set of actions was mine — the most natural thing I could do.
I tell you this dumb little story as a response to your very explicitly artsy question, because a) deal with it and 2) style just isn’t formed through a plan. It’s not a set of rules and guidelines that you follow and check off as you create a painting. If I need to lay down a brushstroke, I’m not thinking how I should do that, the length, the pressure, the speed, the color, the variation, the texture — I’m just laying a line down in the way that feels most natural to me in that moment. I can gather a thousand images that other people have made and say “I like these colors or this lighting or this line work or this composition or this whatever” and I do, but at the end of the day, I can only like those styles passively because when pen meets paper (so to speak), my personality and affinity for doing things in my own way will always beat out what’s right, wrong, better, worse, trendier, sexier, uglier, or different. We CAN follow guidelines to make our work look like other work or to do what seems like the most obvious choice when confronted with an injured bird with very poor self-preservation skills, but I found my style through dumb little situations like these where I wasn’t following a bible of moral or artistic codes, just by doing exactly what I would do. Not my fantasy version of myself who can paint exactly like Caravaggio and heroically slow-motion dived to save an innocent bird from an Escalade driven by Hitler while Natalie Dormer watched, but the one who paints like I do and bumbles around swearing at a bird to not get itself killed for 10 minutes and then giving up because there was a clear language barrier between us and I wasn’t prepared for a long-term commitment with pidgeotto.
To the ever asked question about art and creative endeavors, “what should I do?”
Do what feels natural. Truth is, there are no rules. There is no proper way to do things. There is no correct style you must conform to. Rules are just definitions used to help describe the world. But we let them take on greater roles. They become boundaries imposed in our minds. Often stronger than physical limitations. They make us don masks in order for us all to look and act similar. Helping us avoid vulnerability. Feining by association what we truly all desire - acceptance.
Not to say that “rules are bad. Mmm, kay.” But knowing when to ignore or restructure them is best. In fact imposing rules can create opportunities for creativity. Too much choice can be a burden leading to not knowing when or how to start. As Timothy Ferris says, “paralysis by analysis.”
A good place to start is to know when you’re inspired to create, whatever the medium. Seize onto those moments and dive in. Deep. Without abandon. Try to find your “flow.” The place when you don’t over think. Where you allow yourself to create without the worry of critics. Embrace the vulnerability of rejection. Everyone may be a critic, but not all should hold the power to sway your passion. Fear not those who will judge you that don’t matter. Pacifing your inner critic may be the hardest. You don’t need further help from resistance.
Try walking in the shoes of your role models until you find your own stride. Continue being inspired by others, but remain truthful to yourself. If done right, you’ll be walking along with those you admire. And there will be those wanting to follow you next.
Art is inspiration.
Art is imitation.
Art is feedback.
Art is collaboration.
Art is persistence.
Art is life.
Create the world.
- Paul Carter
(Inspired by Tim Ferris, Austin Kleon, Brené Brown, Barry Schwartz, Seth Godin, Steven Pressfield, Chase Jarvis, Joe Rogan, Bill Nye, and Sam Spratt.)