Ask Mr. Artist Guy: Should An Illustrator Work In Multiple Styles?

Recently my friend and fellow illustrator Tom Richmond posted a very thoughtful article about this question on his blog. Tom specializes in caricature illustration and made a good case for having one unique look or style in your work that art directors can always count on. I have a lot of respect for Tom and he makes some very valid points in his article. However, I have a somewhat different take.

I think that to some extent the answer to this question depends on the industry you are working in. Tom does a lot of editorial work (i.e. magazines, books, etc.) and I think that in those industries having a unique style is indeed a huge benefit. But there are other industries in which having a specific “look” to your work carries less weight. Most of the work I do is in the fields of advertising/marketing, toy design, and animation. In those industries the ability to work in multiple styles is often just as much of an asset, if not more, than having one consistent style. I recently attended the Animation Expo in Burbank and one thing I heard repeatedly from studio recruiters is that they are always looking for artists who can adapt to a wide range of styles. The more flexible you are, the more valuable you are to a studio.

I also do a lot of work with advertising agencies. For many advertising projects, often by the time I get involved the overall look and style of a campaign has already been established. The artwork I create has to mesh with all the other elements that are already in place to complete the larger picture. Since deadlines in advertising are very tight and there is usually a lot of money invested in a campaign, more often than not there is little room left for an artist to express his or her “voice”. Art directors will often pay a premium for someone who can jump right in and quickly create something that blends in seamlessly with the rest of the campaign.

Yes, you can build a reputation on having one strong, distinctive look or style. But I think you can also build an equally solid reputation on being fast and flexible. It all depends on the project. For some projects the former is of more value, for others its the latter.

Tom makes a good point when he says that a big downside of working in multiple styles is that does make it harder for you to stand out from the crowd with a unique look or voice. When I send out an email blast or a postcard showcasing my latest work I sometimes think my message gets a little muddled. My portfolio is a bit of a stylistic jumble, something that doesn’t always work in my favor. So instead of emphasizing a particular look or style, my advertising strategy lately has been to emphasize my speed, my quality of work, and to draw attention to some of the bigger names on my client list (Disney, Walmart, Hasbro, Target, Hewlett-Packard, etc.) which communicate to an art director that I am an experienced professional. So far it seems to have worked since I have stayed busy even in the down economy.

Having said all that, there is a big danger in being TOO diverse. Early in my career I had pieces in my portfolio ranging from realistic oil paintings all the way to wacky cartoons and everything in between. I was all over the map and looking back I realize it made me appear unfocused and amateurish. No matter how talented you are, no artist can be excellent at everything and the best art directors understand that. Over the years I’ve narrowed my focus to a “limited range” of styles. I can do a variety of work but I focus on things that are more cartoony, with softer curves and geared towards a young kid-friendly look. I rarely do “realistic” work anymore (other than an occasional storyboard or marker comp). My portfolio has some variety but there is still an overall unity in the work. It might not scream out at you but it’s still there. My spectrum of styles is broader than some but not so broad that it looses all focus and meaning. It really is true that if you try to be everything to everyone you wind up being nothing to nobody.

What do you think? If you are an art director, which is more important to you–a strong style or the ability to adapt? If you are an illustrator, which approach do you prefer? Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.

The Return of “Ask Mr. Artist Guy”

It’s been a while since I took the time to answer reader questions. These posts take longer to write, and with life getting crazy and my blog moving from a daily to semi-daily format, they fell by the wayside. I decided it’s time to try to weave this feature back into the mix.

To make up for lost time I’ll answer not one but two reader questions:

Tony LeTourneau writes: “I found your posting a while ago that you are using a Cintiq. I wanted to touch base with you to see how you have liked it and if you have found it to be a significant difference from your older Wacom Tablet. I am considering buying a Cintiq and wanted to get another illustrators opinion.”

A Cintiq is a huge improvement over a Wacom tablet. I used a tablet for years, and while I enjoyed painting digitally I never could get the hand-eye coordination thing down. It’s just too unnatural to look away from your hand when you are drawing. I made it work for painting/shading, but for actual drawing and inking it was faster to work straight on paper than to wrestle with the tablet.

A tablet also lacks the “rotation” factor. Many artists like to rotate their paper back and forth as they draw/ink, myself included. But since a tablet’s orientation is tied to the monitor, and the monitor doesn’t rotate along with the tablet, when I would spin the tablet the lines I drew never went where they were supposed to.

A Cintiq solves all these problems. Drawing is natural and rapid. You can rotate the Cintiq almost 360 degrees, and tilt it as steep or as shallow as you’d like. It’s also very efficient. You can fix mistakes much easier than you can on paper (just hit “undo”), and you don’t have to waste time scanning in your artwork and then cleaning it up. A Cintiq is expensive, but for me it has more than paid for itself in terms of the amount of time I save.

However, the Cintiq does have some shortcomings. First, if you work digitally from start-to-finish (as I do) you have no “original” artwork to frame and hang on a wall. Inking is also tricky on a Cintiq. Inking in Photoshop can be wonky, and inking in Illustrator takes some getting used to (although with practice I’ve achieved some nice results). Some people ink in Painter or Sketchbook Pro with good results, but that means buying additional software. Finally, a Cintiq is very smooth—you are drawing on glass, not paper—and some Cintiq users say its just not the same, they miss the feel of drawing on paper. Fortunately for me that’s not a big deal.

John Beatty writes: “As I was doing my errands the other day, I thought; ‘I wonder how other Freelancer’s deal with going to the post office, going to the bank, getting office supplies, etc, etc.’…how to you work around your errands that ‘must’ be done, while in the middle of a deadline, when every minute is precious!…I know you’re married and that probably can help, if you wife isn’t a full time employee too?”

Great question. As a freelancer you have to wear a lot of hats including bookkeeper, errand boy, and janitor. The better you are at time mangamement, the easier things go.

Like many creative types organization does not come naturally to me. I’ve had to train myself and pick up some tricks and shortcuts along the way. The most important thing is to prioritize and plan ahead. Everything should revolve around your clients’ deadlines. Decide which tasks are urgent and which can wait until a rainy day, and then plan accordingly. If you manage your time well you will very rarely find yourself so swamped that you are unable to spare an hour to run an important errand.

I’ve found it helps to get in the habit of keeping a work log on every project. Over time tracking your hours will help you get a sense of how much time you actually spend doing different types of client projects. Eventually you will learn to predict with a fair amount of accuracy how long each project will really take, and that will help you to figure out how much time you will have left over for errands and other tasks. My wife created a template in FileMaker Pro that I use to log my time spent each project, but you can also buy one of several desktop or web applications designed specifically for freelancers to track their hours.

If you can carve out a big chunk of time it’s best to run several errands at once (and being a freelancer you can do them while everyone else is at work, avoiding rush hour traffic and long lines). It’s also a good excuse to get out of the studio for an hour or three. Sometimes deadlines pile up and then it gets tricky. If I have to I can send my wife to run errands for me, but when I was single I had to learn to plan ahead and run the errands either before or after things got crazy. In today’s fast-paced world that’s a vital skill to learn.

Modern technology makes it easier than ever to get organized. I use Apple’s iCal software to keep track of my deadlines, meetings, etc. On my iPhone I use a great app called OmniFocus to organize my to-do list. It lets me know when something has to be done soon or if it’s overdue. Most smart phones will also let you keep a shopping list on-the-go (I use an iPhone app called Zenbe). When you find yourself in a big-box store just whip out the list and get everything you need at once.

Most of this is just common sense. It just takes practice and discipline. Believe me, if I can learn basic time management anyone can.

Ask Mr. Artist Guy: Why Have A Blog?

Designer/illustrator Clay Cantrell writes:

“How important do you feel a blog is as a part of an overall business model for a freelance visual artist? Does it make good business sense, or do you think that only other artists read them, as opposed to potential or current clients?”

This is an excellent question, one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. My blog has been something of an experiment, and frankly I’m still undecided as to whether or not a blog is a worthwhile way to promote myself and my work.

I started getting serious about my blog in July ’07, posting five times a week and making efforts to publicize my blog on other websites. My readership has steadily grown; I currently average about 700-800 page views every weekday, and I’m very flattered that so many people are interested in what I have to say. I suspect most of my readers are other artists who will never hire me, but I know for a fact that at least a few are art directors or past clients who have a serious interest in me and my work.

Nevertheless, from a purely financial standpoint my blog so far has been a bit of a disappointment. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. But then again, I’ve only been working at it seriously for about eight months. Everything I’ve read about blogging describes it as a very slow and gradual build towards success. Blogging is not for the get-rich-quick crowd. So I’m planning to hang in there a while longer and see what happens.

I’ve read about freelancers who started a blog and before they knew it job offers from readers were pouring in (this is more common among freelance writers than artists, which makes sense). While I’d love to say that I’m one of them, that has not been my experience. I can count on two fingers the number of job offers I’ve received in the last six months as a direct result of my blog. One fell through, the other was actually a writing gig for which I made decent money.Read More

Ask Mr. Artist Guy: Should I Buy A Laptop Or Dekstop Computer?


Illustrator Doug Jones writes:

I have always had a tower type computer but now I am wondering if maybe I should go for a MacBook Pro as my main computer. Is there any reason to have the large tower type computers anymore?

A great question. I had to do a little research to answer this one. I’m fortunate enough to own both a powerful desktop machine and a laptop, and I use both regularly. Like many creative types I’ve been a devoted Mac user for several years, so I’m pretty clueless as to what’s available in the PC world. But I’m pretty sure most of what I have to say is just as true for users of either platform.

I’m not an expert on computers, so someone else may give you different advice. But as a commercial artist who works digitally, here’s my two cents. There are several issues to consider:Read More

Ask Mr. Artist Guy

Announcing a new feature coming to Cedric’s Blog-O-Rama!: “Ask Mr. Artist Guy”

I love writing this blog, but sometimes it’s a challenge to come up with fresh and interesting topics to write about five times a week, every week, all year.

My friend and fellow illustrator/blogger Tom Richmond actually blogs more frequently than I do (I don’t know how he does it). Tom also has a regular “mailbag” feature on his blog where he answers questions emailed in from readers. Tom, if you are reading this, and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then consider yourself flattered. I’m about to steal your idea.

To keep this blog fresh and interesting I’m going to ask for a little help from you my faithful readers. If you’ve got a question about freelancing/illustration, send it to If you have a cool link or a suggestion for a topic, send that as well. I can’t promise that everything I receive will eventually make it onto the blog, but every email will get read and if I think it will make a good springboard for a blog post I’ll work it in eventually. I’ll also give name credit at the end of each post, so if you want to be anonymous just say so in your email.

This’ll be fun. I know you readers are smart, thoughtful, and curious, so I’m looking forward to hearing your ideas and questions.