Drawing has many faces. On the one hand, we admire realistic representations of the world around us, and on the other we seem to enjoy distortions of it. At least, certain kinds of distortions. What is the difference between your unrealistic drawing and an unrealistic work of art by a professional? Are there some rules of unrealism that one must follow? And how can you learn to create your own professional-looking style?
Today we’re finishing the How to Learn to Draw series with the most elusive skill of them all. This time I can’t tell you what exactly to do—it will be rather a set of suggestions you can use on your path of development.
What Is Style, and What Do We Need It For?
Before we start, check out my older article Realism, Photorealism, and Style in Drawing, in which I explained the definition of style in detail. An understanding of this topic is crucial to create your own style.
Let’s compare drawing to another line-based skill you already possess—writing. They’re both about conveying meaning through visual representation. Even though that meaning is only one, there are countless ways to represent it.
When you learn how to write, first it’s about gaining the ability to hold the pencil/pen properly and to create meaningless marks with it (Stage 1). Then it’s about copying meaningful signs with precision (Stage 2). Later, you learn how to bring the words from your mind to paper, for others to understand (Stage 3). Finally, you work out your own way of drawing these things—quickly, effortlessly, in line with the natural rhythm of your hand (Stage 4).
As you can see, there’s really no difference between these two skills. It means you already have your own style, a style of writing. Its quality doesn’t have anything to do with your ability to draw—for example, my handwriting is hard to read even for me! The real similarity lies in the origin of style.
Your handwriting is a distorted version of the original letters you were taught long ago. You didn’t distort them just because you didn’t like them—it happened “by the way” when you tried to be faster. And you didn’t even do it on purpose. You didn’t try to look for ways to connect the letters faster, or to change their shape for an easier flow. Even now it would be hard for you to describe these elements of your style from memory!
The only reason why it happened is that you wanted to convey the meaning in the fastest and the most comfortable way. Although you were taught a certain shape of the letters, you discovered that they were understandable even if you changed them. Sure, there is some limit to what you can do, but there are still countless modifications you can apply.
Apart from your “working” handwriting, you are also able to create other styles. They’re not fast, and they may not come naturally to you, but they have special functions. You may use a separate style when asked to sign legibly, or when filling in a wedding invitation. These styles may not be easy to reproduce for you, but you are able to copy them when you concentrate.
Can you see the analogy yet? We’ve got an original style, which is realism, and it can be modified in many ways without losing clarity. The important lesson to take from this similarity is
that you can’t develop a style if you can’t re-create the original
first. A style is based on modification, not creation.
Do You Have a Style?
The common meaning of “style” has been merged with “well-developed, unique, recognizable style”. That’s why “She’s got a style!” is meant as a compliment, not as stating an obvious fact. Having a style isn’t anything special. It just means that certain features recur in your drawings, on purpose or not.
Style is based on rules. This is the only way for it to become something. If you can’t describe
something, it doesn’t exist anywhere, be it in reality, or just your
mind. So, the more random elements are there in your “style”, the less of a style it is. For example, if each of your wolves has a different anatomy, this is not a style—it’s a guessing game.
Styles aren’t good or bad innately. “Bad style” is a subjective term—for you, Picasso’s may be a bad style, because you prefer realism. However, there’s also “lack of style”, and it can be judged objectively. Basically, it’s the percentage of randomness in your style.
Test it: draw something one day and the same thing a week later. The more different they are, the less style you have. And it doesn’t need to be as drastic as in the picture above. If the neck’s width has changed, or the eyes have been placed differently, that’s a sign you’re shooting in the dark.
Which, of course, is not a bad thing! This is normal when you’re still learning. Look at the number of this stage. This is the last, the most advanced one, because…
Realism Comes First
It’s not that I favor realism over other styles, because it’s “better” or “prettier”. The truth is “realistic” in drawing is synonymous to “recognizable”.
In your style eyes may be huge, but they still must look and function as eyes. The legs may be ridiculously long, but they still must bend in certain places to allow for movement. It’s not a matter of preference—if you want the legs to be recognized as legs, base them on the real version.
It’s just like with writing. You can add flourishes, you can bend and shorten, but only if you modify the original letters. You can’t imagine what the letters look like and write them without learning, because nobody will be able to read them (except you). Shouting “It’s my style!” won’t help!
If you want to draw an animal, don’t simply guess what it looks like, and don’t call the result “your style”. There are certain things that make the animal what it is—things that our brain picks up to recognize the image. You can’t dream them up, because they’re already defined!
If you worry about not having a style, it usually means you have problems with repeating what you’ve drawn before. But it isn’t a problem with style; you just need more control over your drawings. And this is something you can learn in the previous lessons. If you feel this is the case, stop reading and go back to the previous stages.
It’s also true for you if you came here because you want your drawings to be prettier. If you don’t like your drawings, it may be just a problem with your skill, not the style or lack thereof. Do you think you can draw realistically with ease? Great, keep moving. If not, you’re not ready for this stage. Learn to write before you create your own style!
A Danger of Ready-Made Styles
There is a reason why the most pronounced styles come from cartoons and comics. When you want to create an animation, you must draw dozens of similar pictures for a simple motion. That’s why the style you use must be easy to recreate without mistakes. It’s the same with comics—if you want to tell a story, you must draw your characters many, many times. It would be pointless to spend hours on every panel, knowing that the readers will look at each for few seconds.
That’s why those styles seem to be easier to learn and thus friendlier for beginners. With a couple of simple rules you may be able to create a drawing with a clear meaning, and even hide your inability to draw anything fully realistic. In other words, these styles may guarantee your drawings will look professional with little effort on your side.
This is where the popularity of cartoon and manga styles comes from. They offer simple rules that you can follow to create a drawing—a drawing that looks as if it’s made by a proficient artist, even though the process it was based on is totally different.
Starting from a manga or cartoon style is like learning how to bake by using a store-bought cake mix. You may get a delicious cake this way, but you don’t know why, and you won’t be able to bake anything else. Having a nice drawing as a result of some process isn’t proof you can draw—it’s the process that matters.
Can You Learn Style? (And Do You Need to?)
As with writing, style comes on its own. Once you try to master realism, you’ll simply start to adjust it to your needs to draw faster and more efficiently. You don’t need to sit down and think over it—it will just be happening gradually with time. Believe it or not, even now the “realism” you draw is a modified version of it!
But this is true only for that main personal style. Just as you use your handwriting to write something down and have other styles you can use if need be, you can also create more drawing styles—for example, for a comic book, or to make your commissions easier to finish. Here’s where it may be useful to sit down and think—and that’s when “practicing style” may come in handy for you.
1. Analyze Styles
A very good, but also dangerous way to find your own style is to analyze other styles you like. The danger lies in the risk of copying some elements of the style instead of creating them on your own, because you won’t be able to imagine them any other way. However, a proper analysis shouldn’t do you any harm.
Pick a few examples of the style you like. Try to find the original versions of them. For example, if it’s the Lion King style, compare a lion in this style (2) and a real lion (1), possibly in the same pose.
Make notes separately for each character. Ask yourself:
- Which elements have been copied from the original version without a change? Why?
- Which elements have been left out completely, and why?
- Which elements have been modified, and how exactly? What was the purpose?
A sample analysis can look like this (it’s just a small sample; you should make it as long as necessary to point out everything):
|Eyes||Big, round, with visible whites (here: yellow) and pronounced eyebrows||To make them more human-like and to convey emotions in an understandable way|
|General anatomy||Unchanged||Crucial feature of a realistic lion|
|Visible musculature||Invisible under the skin, the silhouette is smooth (“fat lion”)||For simplicity’s sake|
|Genitalia||Left out||Children safe|
When you perform this analysis for various characters from the same style, you should be able to re-create certain rules of that style. For example, you may learn that Disney’s characters have big, round eyes when they’re good, and smaller or constantly squinted if they’re sinister.
Because during this analysis you answer a lot of whys, you learn what are the possible reasons to modify realism (they aren’t random!). This will be very useful to you when you want to create your own style.
Some styles are so popular that they seem to be the only successful ones you can use in their field. For example, it may be very hard to create a simplified, but still realistic, children-friendly lion with an “emotional” face that doesn’t have anything to do with the Lion King style, because your mind will tend to offer you tested solutions.
Challenge yourself—pick a character from a popular style and try to picture it some other way without losing its meaning. Who knows, maybe you’ll create a great new style this way!
2. Simplify Reality
In most cases we’ll want to simplify realism to convey the original meaning more easily and quickly. It’s quite tricky, though. How far can you go until the meaning is lost?
To simplify realism you need to convert realistic elements into their symbolic counterparts. For example, a long, thin, elastic tube attached to an animal’s butt is recognized as a tail, even if we can’t even recognize the animal. Two black, symmetrical dots on a face are recognized as eyes, and long sticks perpendicular to the ground are usually legs.
You can recognize a giraffe in the picture below, even though it’s just a few lines. It doesn’t have a nose to breathe, nor ears to hear. It only has two legs without any joints, so it can’t even move. And its neck is too thin to contain all the important organs inside. So, is this really a giraffe?
No, but no picture can be a giraffe. The giraffe is an animal, not a set of lines. The lines are only capable of creating symbols—special patterns that our brains see as linked to something real. Even when you look at a real animal, your brain is looking for such patterns: “Long legs, short body, extremely long neck… Yup, that’s a giraffe!” By the way, it’s also the reason why drawing from imagination is so hard—you actually try to draw these simple patterns at first!
We can use this attribute of our brains to create different styles. If you look at manga faces, you’ll notice they’re actually very unrealistic: huge, disproportionate eyes, almost non-existent noses, tiny mouths… And the expressions are even more symbolic! But that’s what it’s all about—if you can recognize it, it did its job.
That’s why it’s so important to understand how symbols work. You need to see what your mind expects and where the limit of understanding is. To do this, try this simple exercise:
Pick an animal and draw it as accurately as possible (this is the first level of simplification!). Then draw it once again, this time simplifying an element. Keep on doing it step by step, until there’s nothing else to simplify.
Now find the point where it stopped being recognizable. You’ll see which features are crucial to recognize the animal, even when they’re quite symbolic. Once you keep these crucial features, not matter how simplified, you can modify or remove everything else—you’re free to create even the most crazy style! Only be careful not to include the symbols of other animals, or the final effect will be confusing.
The Dark Side of Patterns
Sometimes you may create a style with all the rules and it still looks kind of… wrong. This is because in our minds we carry a whole library of things that are “right”. Some of it may come from the Golden Ratio, but most comes from the things we’re simply accustomed to.
Eyes are symmetrical not because “this is how things should be”. Our definition of “how things should be” comes from our experience. If X was Y every time you saw it, you expect it will be Y when you see it another time. It wouldn’t be normal, right, if it weren’t.
The problem is that the library isn’t available for reading. It’s comparison-based: it’s activated when you look at something. So, you need to draw something first to see if it looks right. And many times you won’t have an idea why it’s not right. Maybe that’s the problem with hidden symmetry you measure unconsciously: maybe it’s not similar enough to your favorite style, so your mind sees it as a mistake…
Basically, your mind expects things to be a certain way. To create the “right” style, you must discover what your mind expects and deliver it. And this is a problem I won’t solve for you. You can only analyze reality, search for the patterns that your mind may need, and experiment with them. Creating new patterns is possible, but very hard, so I wouldn’t suggest it if you’re not confident with your skills.
3. Exaggerate Realism
Once you know these crucial features that make an animal what it is, you can play with exaggeration. This is a very useful tool for an artist to picture something that can’t really be seen.
In the Lion King, Mufasa’s strength and royalty is stressed by his strongly built body, while Scar looks and moves more like a sly fox. Realism doesn’t allow you to present the character this way—lions are generally similar, and the psychological features rarely influence the physical ones. This is what we need other styles for.
To practice this, once again pick an animal. Imagine a few characters it can be, like:
- intelligent, but very shy and constantly anxious
- brave, independent
- scatterbrained, playful, friendly to everyone
Draw this animal as each of these characters, stressing its features by exaggerating some elements of the body. You can use certain stereotypes (like ugly=evil) to build the body, but it doesn’t mean you need to perpetuate these stereotypes. On the contrary—mixing the physique suggesting one thing and behavior telling the other is a great way to create a fascinating character!
You must be very careful to recognize the stereotypes you’ve learned from other styles. For example, big, round eyes are a good way to exaggerate the innocence of the character, but not the only way. Whenever you catch yourself replicating elements of other styles, perversely try something else. Be creative!
Once you draw the characters, try to notice which features you exaggerated and why. Is there any other way you could do it? If you want to convey the meaning accurately in your style, you must also know these symbols—symbols linking body with character.
4. Extend Realism
Sometimes realism is disappointing. For example, a lion with flies swarming around its eyes, with dried mud sticking to the fur on its thighs may be very real, but it’s certainly less majestic than a golden-fur beast with its mane ruffled by the wind. You may be inspired by the dangerous look of deer antlers, and then learn this is actually a very timid animal, reluctant to pick a fight.
Extended realism is a way to present the topic in a way you’d like it to
be, no matter how it is in reality. It can take the form of cosmetic changes (making the mane of a deer more majestic), or almost cheating (drawing very visible muscles under thick fur).
The difference between this and exaggeration is that here the modification is applied to every character of the species, to make it more “real” than it already is. The goal is to create a new reality, in which everything looks better.
I remember watching The Animals of Farthing Wood as a child, and I loved those white fallow deer. They looked so noble! You can imagine my disappointment when I had a chance to see real fallow deer and I learned not only that most of them aren’t white, but also that they look so much like skinny cows!
Those deer in the cartoon didn’t look like this by accident. They were designed realistically, but they were also “fixed”. This is what you can do for an exercise. Imagine you’re a Creator. What can you do to make a deer even more deer-ish? There are many ways to do it!
It may seem like cheating—why don’t you just draw the animal as it is? However, there’s nothing bad about “beautifying” a character, as long as it doesn’t come from ignorance (“I don’t know what a deer looks like, so I’ll draw him like a horse with antlers”).
There are a few crucial features you should leave intact (the “symbols” of the animal we’ve talked about before, like the plantigrade gait of a bear), but feel free to play with the others. After all, art is about creativity, not about accurate copying!
5. Create a Reference Sheet
Once you’ve understood the rules of creating a style, you can proceed to actually creating one. This is the tricky part. As I’ve said before, a style is based on rules that make it repeatable. As a creator of the style, it is your job to create these rules and make them easy to use in the future.
A good, clean style should be deliberate. You can’t base it on luck and guesswork! Every element should be tested and described. To ensure this, it’s best to create a reference sheet for your style.
Start with sketches. Explore your idea, and consider different versions. Don’t stop only because it looks good—maybe the next sketch will be even better! Don’t limit yourself, but draw a lot using all the rules we’ve talked about. Ask yourself:
- What is the purpose of this style?
- Who is my target, and what are their needs?
- What are my characters like, and how can I tell it through the style?
- Which elements should I leave as they were originally?
- Which elements should I leave out?
- Which elements should I modify, and how?
Be messy, make a lot of notes, and keep sketching until you’re sure you know what you want. Now, line out the sketches you want to make a part of your reference sheet. Take a clean sheet of paper (or use your sketchbook) and describe your style, both visually and in writing. Make the drawings as clean as possible this time.
Imagine you’re creating this reference sheet for another artist you won’t have a chance to talk to. They should be able to draw a character in your style using that sheet only, so it must be complete and very thorough. Feel free to use a lot of pages, with notes and drawings put separately—make it as convenient to use as possible.
What you can include in the sheet:
- Notes (target, what’s and why’s)
- Detail sketches
- Movement reference (e.g. frames of walk cycle)
- Facial expressions
- Phases of growth
… and more, whatever you may need! Make it consistent, clean, and tested. You should be able to draw the character in many different poses without making it look like a different character every time. You can even ask an artist friend to test the sheet for you. If they draw the character differently than you expected, it means there’s something lacking in the sheet.
Keep in mind that creating a well-developed style takes time. Don’t push yourself to finish it in one day—do it well, not fast.
Realistic drawing is cool, but only style makes it really personal for you. But the truth is you don’t need to learn it—it will come once you stop guessing and start basing your pictures on deliberate rules.
When creating a style for a comic book or for another specialized purpose, keep in mind that some styles have become popular not because they were “pretty” or “perfect”, but because they were part of a good story. Every style, even the weirdest one, has a chance to grow on people if they have a reason to look at it frequently. So, don’t be afraid to experiment—you may find fans among those who are sick of clichés!