Do illustrators worry too much about style? Bridget Marzo looks at how understanding our unique ‘voice’ makes our work authentic. 

If we think about style too hard, it is all too easy for us become self-conscious - and draw to impress, rather than relax into what we love - to ‘entertain' ourselves in some way and draw what we really want to say.

I found myself saying this to an illustrator recently and it’s prompted me to look a bit more at an old bugbear of mine – that word ‘style’. I confess I’m positively allergic to it and want to run away from ‘branding’ too. Yet ‘finding a style’ is pushed as being important, especially for illustrators who are starting out.  And it even affects children’s book illustration which is less trend-led than, say, editorial illustration. 

"I hate the word style," wrote Helen Stephens in a recent blog post, "because it implies fitting into an aesthetic that already exists, but it is so hard to find another more appropriate word!" So she goes on to recommend an  article called How to Find Your Style by Tom Froese.

The joint course Helen offers in The Good Ship Illustration is in fact called Find Your Creative Voice, so could ‘voice’ be a more appropriate word to think about? It reminded me of something that was a turning point in my own life as an illustrator and picture book maker.

One day many years ago, I received a surprise call from my French art director to tell me that she "knew my secret".  She had just returned from the international children’s book fair in Bologna and had spotted a book I had illustrated at the Simon & Schuster stand.   

Some illustrations by Bridget to Kiss, Kiss! by Margaret Wild (Little Hare & Simon & Schuster)

This was a picture book story, Kiss Kiss! by Margaret Wild, which I had originally illustrated for Little Hare Books. I reddened. I had been found out and compromised by a totally different style!   

But then she  announced that she’d prompted her publisher Bayard to acquire the co-edition of that very book. "But you can't!" I replied. "It’s naturalistic -  it’s such a different style from the flat, graphic work I do for you in France!”

Books by Bridget for French publisher Bayard

Well, admittedly I wasn’t the best at selling my own work.  

Was I being over sensitive perhaps? Years before, my agent managed to interest a big UK publisher with a novelty series I had designed. They wanted the concept and all the content of my sketched dummies but they felt that my ‘European style’ would not work for the UK market. After some hesitation, I decided I couldn’t let another illustrator do the final illustrations for work I had so enjoyed sketching.  My agent and I said a friendly goodbye and it was over a decade before work I had done in US and France broke into the UK market.

Anyway my French art director’s response to my "can’t!" was:

‘I could ‘see’ you Bridget, in that book from metres away!  Whatever style you decide to use for a particular book,  I can recognize your voice.’

Then she went on to quote something about there being two basic kinds of illustrators or ‘creatives’.   I’ve often shared this with colleagues, students and in SCBWI masterclasses I’ve given:

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." 

You can check here if you want to know more about where this comes from, but to explain it in our terms, here’s a passage, where I’ve replaced ‘writers and thinkers’ with [illustrators] :

Hedgehog-like [illustrators] focus on one all-embracing idea or formula for understanding life. They possess a 'central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle....'

Fox-like [illustrators] pursue many ends, often unrelated, 'seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing....unitary inner vision.'

So, my art director announced that I was a versatile fox and that I should be happy about that. I could escape the confines of a brand which might not travel or might ‘date’ as time goes on. Versatile illustrators, she insisted, were equally appreciated by art directors as single ‘branded’ illustrators  and often have longer careers as they can change and adapt with the times and and cross frontiers too. Some ‘hedgehog’ illustrators are hugely successful but only in certain countries, so while, for example, the very recognisable ‘handwriting’ of Quentin Blake is adored in the UK and France, he’s much less known in the States.  

Quentin Blake is a hedgehog? Well it’s a game you can play. Which are you? Perhaps we may find ourselves in a spectrum somewhere between hedgehog and fox, particularly with the pressure of earning a living.

John Shelley is known for his intricate line in the US, but in Japan he earns his keep doing something quite different. Sustaining a career can mean having to do different things in different places or at different times.

John Shelley - a spread from Stone Giant (Charlesbridge, USA), contrasted with a more graphic technique often used in Japan.

That said, behind these two styles or visual approaches for different purposes, I believe John’s ‘voice’ is still recognisable.

Many of us will feel a little shy about revealing work in different styles, so it was good to hear our hugely talented guest author and illustrator James Mayhew telling us at the SCBWI Picture Book Retreat a couple of years back how glad he was to play with a very different style for Mrs Noah's Pockets after a long-running success with his Katie and Ella Bella books.

James Mayhew - Covers of Ella Bella Ballerina (Hachette) and Mrs Noah's Pockets (Otterbarry Books).

However, what was key, and a turning point for me, was what my Art Director had said about my voice. Behind Kiss Kiss! and the very different graphic work she had commissioned from me up to then, she recognised something about the heart of who I am and what I want to say. I could "whisper, shout, sing folk or classic opera," she said,  as examples, but she’d still "hear" my "voice" behind those styles.

I hadn’t consciously thought about my creative voice until that point. 

Just a caveat that this idea of voice is not to be confused with writers’ use of ‘voice’ as a literary device. And yet all that said, I don’t think we should pay too much attention to our own ‘voice’ in and of itself.  The minute we ask, "What is my voice - who am I?!" we run the risk of going back to square one, feeling like teenagers and self-consciously glaring into the mirror. Is it any different from thinking about style then?  

Yes - one key difference - we can talk, shout or or sing in different registers or styles but we can’t change the voice we were born and grew with, and that’s the key. It’s all really about what we DO,  and what we love doing, isn’t it? And we only know that by doing and communicating what we want to and are happiest with.

So while I admire the work of plenty of illustrators and artists, Bonnard, Matisse and Roger Duvoisin’s illustrations in particular, I couldn’t sustain a career imitating anything of their style let alone voices - it would not be ‘me’. At best I’d be faking it. Like Helen says, I’d be trying to fit into their aesthetic.
And what I personally enjoy is making connections  -  creating and playing with characters, their relationships and their worlds, with books and children, and mixing techniques too.  I can only hope that I can give out some kind of warm energy with whatever I tackle using different materials and experimenting with colour combinations. And whether it is about savannah animals or about the diversity of humans I’m doing for the book I'm currently working on, all these different things have kept me going through my career.  

A peak at Bridget's work-in-progress for Walker Books (publication 2022)

 I still find self-confidence comes and goes in cycles, but I am grateful to my French art director’s pep talk for dispelling any worries about that word ‘style’. Since then I have felt more at ease about varying my visual approach to fit with the purpose of different books. And best of all, I don’t have to worry about  ‘my own voice’ – it just comes out, whether I like it or not. Perhaps it is simpler than it sounds.  It goes back to what I said at the outset. 

It’s about relaxing into what we really love doing and focusing on what we really want to do with our lives. 



Bridget Strevens Marzo is a long-time SCBWI volunteer, a former International Illustrator Coordinator and SCBWI Board member, as well as illustrator-author of over 25 books, and workshop facilitator.
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