A nagging question I’ve had over the years regards illustration style and whether one’s portfolio should contain works in a single style or a variety of styles in order to show artistic range and flexibility. Perhaps you’ve used different techniques and mediums for illustrations depending on the assignment or the kind of story; if you create delicate, soft watercolor paintings, but also love to use ink in a bold black and white style, wouldn’t an art director want to know that you have those abilities, that you are fluent in more than one language, so to speak? I ask this question of art directors, editors, agents, and published illustrators whenever I have the opportunity, and here are a few of the answers I have received.
At our September conference, I asked Kirsten Hall, owner of boutique kid lit agency Catbird Agency the style question and she said if you have one strong style you should stick to it, but if you can do more than one style really well, there is no reason not to show that to people you hope will hire you. She added a caveat however: it is difficult to be objective about one’s own artwork, and that’s where feedback from an agent or publisher can be critical.
Last March I also posed this question to our guest speaker Giuseppe Castellano, Art Director at Penguin Group USA. He suggested dividing the portfolio into sections if we want to show different styles. He said there wasn’t anything wrong with showing variety as long as the artwork was strong.
Uri Shulevitz, in his wonderful book Writing With Pictures, How To Write And Illustrate Picture Books, in the chapter on style says “The best way to attain a personal style is by doing all you can to make your pictures communicate clearly.” He goes on to say under the heading Advice to the Beginner: “Don’t limit yourself to a single personal style. Using a style consistently throughout a book makes sense, but consistency becomes a straitjacket when an artist tries to force very different books into the same stylistic mold.”
One of my heroes is Caldecott-winning author/illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky, who was a guest speaker at our March 2013 conference; over his very distinguished and prolific career he has employed different illustration styles, with great success.
So. It seems that showing multiple styles is okay, if they are all GOOD, right? However, one thing is sure: we are in a very competitive field, and if your objective is to be noticed you will probably want to create a brand for yourself, and that might mean showing the one style you do best.