1. Design & Illustration
  2. Theory

Developing a Diverse Range of Illustration Styles

Read Time:6 minsLanguages:

Making a living as an illustrator is a dream for many young artists – but it takes more than dreaming to impress potential clients. A successful illustrator needs flare, persistence and a strong portfolio.

Over the years I've experimented with various mediums and techniques to establish a broad range of styles. In this article I'd like to share my thoughts and experiences with using multiple illustration styles, as opposed to fixating on just one.

This Post is Day 3 of our Digital Illustration Session. Creative Sessions

What is Style?

Style refers to visual vocabulary; such as color, shape, line weight and principles of proportion. It can also refer to the tools/techniques used to create the illustration.

This image uses color and Illustrator's symbol feature in a creative way – it's also a style that I'm keen to evolve.


Client: Digital Arts magazine. Software: Illustrator and Photoshop.

If you're planning on developing a range of styles, it's important to be true to yourself and not slavishly copy current trends. My best advice would be to gravitate towards the styles of work you feel most comfortable with and build up a strong portfolio that reflects the commissions you want. Illustrators are often requested to follow current trends – that's inevitable; just remember though, that by following trends, you'll never set them!

This commission takes inspiration from the cheesy B movie posters of the 50s.


Client: Digital Arts magazine. Software: Bryce, Photoshop and Illustrator.

I've had numerous commissions where art directors will place an existing illustration into a design or mock up and ask me to produce something similar for the finished artwork. Through my experience this is common working practice, because art directors are busy people who need to relay their ideas quickly. In cases like this it's best to "air on the side of caution" and inject as much of your own individual flair as possible, what's more a good art director will welcome your input.

For these web banner illustrations the art director initially emailed me a selection of styles he liked. These samples were then used as an incentive to generate my own unique style.


Client: VHD Creative. Software: Illustrator.

It's also worth noting that the most successful illustrators have what's known as a signature style. This is similar to how a brand or logo works to make their work instantly recognizable. The repeating circular patterns that are abundant in Scott Hansen's work are a prime example of a strong signature style.

Trends Change

Style, like fashion and music are in a constant state of flux; what's hot in the visual marketplace today maybe considered untrendy tomorrow. Saying that, styles have the habit of re-emerging, albeit being slightly re-invented. Illustration is also a diverse field, so for me it made sense to create a wide variety of styles that could allow for change.

This illustration borrows imagery from "The Son of Man," by the surrealist painter René Magritte.


Client: Envato/Psdtuts+. Software: Photoshop and Illustrator. Premium members can view the tutorial here.

I began my career as a traditional designer and admit to being a complete technophobe when the desktop revolution arrived in the mid 80s. I realized I had to embrace this new technology, or find another job. The early Macs were unable to handle large image files. Back then, Photoshop was solely used to scan lores sprinters or position guides and the printer stripped in hires scans at repro stage.

These images recapture some of my traditional hand painted illustration techniques.


Clients: Digital Arts and Photoshop Creative magazines. Software: Photoshop.

Advances in technology now offer us new and exciting methods of producing imagery. The 90s was saturated with what I call "program-led" style – illustrators were producing artwork with a sterile, computer-generated look. What you need to remember is that 100% digital work is very reliant on technique and therefore fairly easy to mimic, that's probably why in recent years we've witnessed a step back, towards a more hand-crafted aesthetic.

This three-color tshirt illustration mixes digital halftone effects with hand-drawn elements.


Client: Envato/Psdtuts+. Software: Photoshop and Illustrator. Premium members can view the tutorial here.

Other Applications

Although Photoshop is my primary illustration tool. I also love the way Illustrator and Photoshop work in tandem; for example, pasting Smart Objects from Illustrator into Photoshop and exporting Photoshop paths to Illustrator.

I used a custom perspective grid and the Free Transform Tool to create this map, rather than relying on Illustrator's built-in 3D effects – which can sometimes affect linework quality.


Client: Computer Arts magazine. Software: Illustrator.

It also seemed a natural progression for me to explore 3D applications. I currently use Poser, Daz Studio, Bryce and Cinema 4D. I wouldn't claim to be an expert in the 3D arena, so I make up for any shortcomings with some Photoshop magic!

This illustration was inspired by the 80s airbrush artist Hajime Sorayama.


Client: MetalFX Technology. Software: Poser, Bryce and Photoshop.

There are certain styles that I would never attempt, such as a hyper-realistic cut away drawing of a car for example. This is quite a specialized field and best left to the experienced professionals. I can remember being in awe at some of the technical drawing student's airbrush work back in my collage days.

This product design is probably the closest thing I've done to technical illustration.


Client: Advanced Photoshop magazine. Software: Photoshop.

Promote Yourself

I get a steady flow of freelance work from regular clients, so I guess having a varied range of styles has paid off for me. As well as having a strong web presence, I've found that sending out regular mailshots also generates new business.

I mail samples that showcase some of my best work to a database of existing and potential clients (this can be costly, but it does pay off when you consider the amount of new business generated), I then make follow up phone calls to check it's arrived OK and also get feedback. I can remember being totally amazed when one art director thought I was an illustration agency representing different illustrators!

Here's my "What's Your Brief" mailer. Unfolded, it measures 32'', so hopefully it will stick in peoples mind and they'll keep it to hand.


Final Thoughts

We're all different, so I'm not saying working in numerous styles is right for everyone, although I firmly believe diversity shows adaptability and dexterity. In fact, the only downside to having a varied portfolio is that some art directors may consider you a "jack of all trades and a master of none" if your work is not polished to a high enough level.

This Post is Day 3 of our Digital Illustration Session. Creative Sessions
One subscription.
Unlimited Downloads.
Get unlimited downloads