Style paralysis


I’ve been experiencing a bit of a crisis of confidence lately.

I’m a newcomer to illustration. With zero education in the field (I have a degree in science that I’ve never used and a degree in journalism I’ve semi-used), I’ve fallen hard and fast for illustration in the past year. As evidenced on my interview project Outlier, I’m obsessed with learning as much as I can about other illustrators. I can happily spend all day at my desk making illustrations. Illustration is my happy place, and I’m glad I finally found it after always feeling my writing career wasn’t quite ‘it’.

When I started taking illustration a bit more seriously about a year ago, I kind of just picked up where I left off in high school and uni, stylistically speaking. I never really experimented or anything before launching Outlier—I just drew and painted the way I knew then.

Until I realised I was kind of hating both the process and the result. So I slowly started testing different approaches and styles a few months ago. I started opening my eyes a bit more to other illustrators and their styles.

And I started to feel a little overwhelmed at all the possibilities.

I’m impatient. I also have very high expectations of myself. And I’m prone to mental health issues. This has created a perfect storm of hating myself as I struggle to forge a clear, consistent illustration style.

I know it sounds totally self-indulgent and just, like, unimportant. Homeless women struggle to access tampons during their periods and so many countries are currently dealing with the devastating impacts of climate change and the High Court head-scratchingly allowed this farcical postal survey and, just, Trump. I know.

But my building anxiety around developing and refining my style refuses to budge. In my hurry to propel my half-baked career forward, I’ve been putting pressure on myself to nail my style, like, yesterday.

Instagram, unsurprisingly, is stoking that fire of uncertainty. On the whole, I find Instagram crazy-inspiring. But lately it’s been making me feel so bad about myself and where I’m at with both my style and career. I know it’s a rookie mistake (I’m a rookie, so), but I can’t help but compare my work to that of other illustrators.

The problem is those illustrators are established, often formally trained in the arts, and have been making work for many years. I’m comparing my insides to their outsides, as the saying goes. It’s dangerous territory.

I think some of my anxiety also stems from the fact that my work already has an audience via Outlier—a small one, but an audience nonetheless. It’s really painful to think about having to go through my trial and error phase on a semi-public stage. It would be nice to have been able to make the shitty work I have to make in order to get to the good work behind closed doors; to have been able to practice and hone in anonymity.

Which, sure, I can definitely do. But there’s never enough time to work on Outlier, which means I expect myself to nail my illustrations the first time, and quickly. There’s no room for error lest I delay my publication schedule, which means no room for experimentation or play. Which means my work stays the same. I feel I’ve stagnated, and I’m too afraid to shake things up.

Hence the paralysis.

At least I know my fear of looking back at old work as crap isn’t novel. Harking back to an interview I had with illustrator Evie Cahir late last year, I recall what she said about the terror of knowing your current work might (read: probably definitely will) one day embarrass you with how shitty it has become with the passage of time. She wasn’t necessarily talking about it from the same perspective as me, but I still find it comforting:

“The fear of knowing that in a year or two months or a week the work will be really stale: it’s scary shit!” Cahir said.


And while I was revisiting an interview with illustrator Ping Zhu on the Great Discontent the other day, I noticed something interesting. This illustration is one of Zhu’s early works:


In fact, the caption says it’s the first illustration Zhu had published, in the New York Times back in 2009. But if you’re familiar with Zhu, you know her work now looks different. Like, really different. Like this:


And this:


That is a pretty huge shift in style over eight years. I love all the pieces, but I think it’s fair to say you’d barely recognise them as coming from the same person.

And as I was researching my recent feature on Melbourne illustrator Carla McRae for Outlier, I discovered a pretty noticeable progression between McRae’s older work and her current style. Exhibit A is from around four or so years ago:


And here’s some work McRae created more recently:


Obviously, the fact that Zhu and McRae’s style has evolved isn’t a revelation. That’s par for the course.

What heartens me is just how much the illustrators’ respective style has changed over the years—and even more so, that they were professional illustrators at both point A and point B. They had to start at point A in order to get to point B. They would never be creating work in their own distinctive, beautiful styles if they hadn’t begun and then continued to make work.

When it comes to my own style, I can definitely see a marked shift over the short time I’ve been illustrating. This was the first ever portrait I posted on Outlier, of illustrator Dawn Tan:


And here’s one that’s just a few weeks old, of illustrator (I told you I'm obsessed) Lisa Congdon:


I mean, I like the first one. I think it’s proportional and true to life and ... nice? Some people might even prefer it to my current work. But it doesn’t light me on fire. And, like I said, I never enjoyed painting in this style, which is why I started pushing myself to explore different techniques in the first instance.

Like Zhu and McRae’s early work, it’s not necessarily worse. It’s different. It’s point A.

The more recent portrait I like a lot more. When I look at it I feel excited—which is how I felt when I was painting it.

I think that’s a good sign that I’m on the right track. But sometimes it feels like I’m drowning under the self-imposed pressure of getting it right right now. Of having a fully honed style that I can smash out without thinking about it too much. Of having my work immediately recognisable as mine. Of being confident in approaching publications and art directors with my work. Of knowing the work I’ll create in three months’ time or in a year will more or less be of the same style I work in today.

When I interviewed Congdon (see: portrait above) for Outlier, I asked her about how she developed her style.

“Finding your own style as an artist takes so many years, lots of experimentation, trial and failure, and working on making your style distinctive,” she said.

“In many ways, finding your style is really just years and years of drawing and painting.”

Which is a sentiment echoed by Cahir, that li’l go-getter:

“I think it comes down to practising; trying really hard at getting better. What I tell myself is that there’s no retrograde with skillset or work. If you create more, it’s not as scary.”

I guess I know what I need to do.