Updated: Apr 1, 2019
What It Means To Be Recognized For Your Art
What comic art style should you go for? It's one of those burning questions we all want answered when we set out to learn the art of comic book illustration, and really it needs to be. Artistic style serves as the personal visual branding of our work to identify it as our own. We all want that recognition. Imagine if when your comic art was shown to a crowd of onlookers, they new instantly, without hesitation who created it? I'm sure whenever you see a piece of work done by your favorite comic book artist you're the first to declare who made it. You give them credit and you're proud to because of the level of admiration you have for them and their art. We want the same for the work we do. You're entitled to it. But the question remains, what comic art style should you pick? Is there a particular style you need to lean toward in order for your art to even be categorized as comic book illustration? Surely there's a status quo we've got to abide by.
The Stylistic Evolution of Comics
We know the art form involves the use of black and white line work presented as a slick, sharp and clear inked interpretation of our idea. Then it's colored. There are a multitude of options we've got in that department, with the usual suspects being the traditional methods of half tone, cell shading and/or airbrushing.
And that's the way it was for a good long while. Throughout the bronze age, golden age and even (partially) the Image era of comics.
But times change, and changed they have. Mostly due to new technology and the digital arsenal of tools we've got at our disposal now as comic book artists. This had blown the spectrum of potential comic book styles wide open to an almost unlimited amount of aesthetics.
This is why many of us have absolutely no idea where to start or what we should be aiming toward as far as our personal style is concerned.
I'm going to list a few of the common ones that I've seen crop up in recent years. But first, let me solve this little dilemma right now for you, because it's actually easily solved.
Go with the comic book art style that inspired you to begin making comics in the first place!
It only makes sense. You want to make comics because you've fallen in love with the medium. Maybe you find it to be an engaging art form, or an immersive vessel of entertainment to share your ideas with the world. But there was almost certainly an already established comic book artist out their who inspired you with such intensity that there was no other choice. You simply had to make comics.
No doubt you envisioned the art within those comic books to look very much like the illustrative style of the artist, or group of artists whom you admired most. You probably still admire them till this day! They get you fired up, your blood rushes and the urge to make your vision come true within the pages of your own comic book becomes irresistibly overwhelming.
For me it was Todd McFarlane and Greg Capullo. At least at first. They were the gate way drug that indoctrinated me into the world of comics and after that there was no looking back.
Later down the track I discovered other artists like David Finch, Marc Silvestri, Michael Turner, Jim Lee and J-Scott Campbell.
You know what my style looks like? A total mashup of all those artists. No joke. There's a little of all of them in my work. Any unique flavor I've managed to bring to the table simply evolved overtime without me having to consciously try and manifest it myself.
So when you think about it, if you're in this for the long haul, and you actually want to make a career in comics you'll need a way to keep yourself excited! Comics are a hard line of work to pursue, with more challenges and road blocks than you can count.
But what's going to keep that spark lit bright no matter how hard it gets, are those who inspired you to go down this road in the first place. So make the kind of art that inspires you. Embrace the style of illustration you admire and make it your own.
How to Begin Cultivating a Style
Okay, so what if you have no idea who your inspirations are and thus no compass to tell you what comic art style you should be going for. Maybe lets say, you're a writer who wants to also illustrate your own comic. You've got your favorite authors pinned, but have no clue where to begin as far as your visual style is concerned.
Well, maybe I can help get the ball rolling for you by listing some of the major styles that I've come across below. This by no means is a complete list, but it'll certainly get you on the right track.
The cartoon style has been around since comics began, which was a long, long, long time ago. Many of your parents, grandparents and great grand parents grew up with the wacky, slapstick, caricatured stories of Charlie Brown and Snoopy in Peanuts, Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes and countless more. Although they looked about as unrealistic as you could get in terms of visuals, the messages conveyed in these simple comic strips were often profound and insightful.
Originating in Japan, the iconic Manga Style has become more and more popular throughout the decades. It mixes a highly stylized aesthetic with a semi-realistic interpretation of the world and the people within it. Oftentimes extremely realistic!
Just to name a few of the classics you've got Berserk, Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, Ghost In The Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion and so many more. All of which have a unique take on the traditional Manga art style.
Typically, the body of a Manga character will be realistically proportioned, with accurate anatomy and convincingly drawn attire, while the head or face will be more stylized. The backgrounds within a Manga are often abundantly intricate, crafted to create an immersive connection with the reader that embeds their attention deeply within the story.
Like the cartoon style, most Manga's convey a powerful message to the reader that's often profoundly impactful despite the hyper stylized aspects of the genre.
Western Comic Art Style
No, not Cowboys and Indians, I mean the style of comic books that predominantly originated in North America and occupies a majority of comics produced in the western world. This art style is probably the one you're most familiar with, the one you know and grew up with. It's evolved over the years as different artists have come and gone but you've likely got a few well known favorites on your mind already. Funnily enough it started out as another intricate art style that conveyed exceptionally realistic interpretations of the settings each story took place in, and the characters within them. Fine hatching techniques and toning was used to shade and shadow the illustrations throughout the visual narrative with pure black ink. Key contours were carefully weighted to embolden the primary points of focus within the illustration and draw attention to them. Later color was added using a variety of methods to bring an extra hit of visual splendor to the table that'd pull the audience into the stories and hold them there with enough eye catching stimuli to throw them into an unbreaking trance.
Of course these days, the typical look for Western Comics has transformed and changed, splintering into countless interpretations that are as plentiful as the artists who bring them into being.
As we venture into the next set of styles, I'm going to cover a few specific ones within the Western Style of Superhero comic books. Primarily because, if you're reading this article I'm going to assume that you're most likely looking at the various styles within that particular comic art genre. I'm also just going to cover some of the key, standout styles we've seen in the last few decades, just to keep the scope of the topic narrow enough for us to get the basics down. After all, you could easily write an entire book on all the potential comic book art styles that are out there.
Jim Lee's Art Style
Jim Lee's Comic Art Style is iconic to the Superhero medium. In fact, his portfolio of titles includes some of the most iconic Superheroes in the Western world of comics today including the X-Men, Superman and Batman. In my opinion, he absolutely nailed the look and spirit of these characters with his classic, widely palatable style.
Because of this, his style does come across as generic to some people. Yet, it's surprisingly difficult to imitate due to his wild crosshatching technique. It's evident that Jim Lee has been illustrating comics for so long now that he barely has to think about his approach, and you can see how that extreme level of confidence translates into the art itself. This is precisely what makes his art style so difficult to copy, because it's not as much executed with logic, as it is pure instinct. Another classic hallmark of Jim Lee's work is his use of vivid shape language. Encompassing the intricate details within his work is the sharp, energetic and slick outlines around each of the key elements inside his illustrations. This gives his work an undeniable level of impact that's hard to match.
If you want to see Jim Lee in action, visit his Youtube channel at: https://www.youtube.com/user/jimlee00 where you'll see loads of examples on how he approaches the art of comic book illustration.
David Finch's Art Style
David Finch is yet another artist who has worked on many of the most iconic comic book Superheros across both DC and Marvel. But he actually started out at Top Cow Comics when he was taken under the wing of Marc Silvestri who helped mentor and guide him early on in his career. He shares a similar dark and dramatic style to Jim Lee, as well as many of the other well established artists who became popularized in the 90's Image era. What sets his work apart though is his methodical approach to comic book illustration which is brilliantly demonstrated and explained in his drawing courses.
Unlike Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri, the cross hatching technique he uses for shading, rendering and texturing is calculated and placed with precision to create a logical pattern that makes sense when lighting and materials are taken into account. This makes his particular method of working somewhat easier to backward engineer and replicate. The other standout feature within Finch's work is his abundant use of shadow which seems to produce an enhanced cinematic effect that adds drama, impact and contrast to his compositions that's hard to match. If you'd like to learn more about David Finch's approach to drawing comics, visit his website at: http://www.dfinchartist.com/tutorial-videos/ and peruse his selection of lessons.
Greg Capullo's Art Style
Greg Capullo's art is something special. It takes the best of the grungy, ultra detailed, inked line art of the Image era, and combines it with an expressive stylization that's almost on the verge of an animated cartoon.
Because his work really does seem to come to life and move on the page. The way his character's emote, the nuances he captures in their facial expressions and body language give them that extra hit of realism that goes beyond just convincing you, and onto a whole other level of immersion that few artists are able to invoke within the audience. Greg now headlines some of the most popular DC titles, but before he teamed up them, he was Todd McFarlane's number one artist on the hit comic book Spawn. It was at this point in Greg Capullo's career that I absolutely fell in love with his work. The amount of detail and intricacy he incorporated into every panel was nothing short of jaw dropping. I was absolutely obsessed with his art from that point onward and became an avid reader of Spawn as a result. Greg Capullo was for sure one of the key artists who not only influenced the direction of my own style, but inspired me to pursue comics in the first place.
Mike Mignola's Art Style
Mike Mignola has one of those art styles that you instantly recognize as his when you see it. He has an exceptional eye for composition, shape and contrast, which he uses to lead you throughout his illustrations. His aesthetic is dark and moody, which jibes perfectly with the character he's most well known for illustrating, Hell Boy. Powerful contouring aside, one of the standout aspects to me about is work is his use of silhouette. He uses it almost exclusively to give his illustrations a vivid and instant read that's both jolting and memorable.
It's a significantly stylized look, some might even say cartoonish, or animated in some sense. Which detours away from the long established aesthetic of the Superhero genre, but certainly isn't unheard of. As we'll see in the next example.
Sin City Style
Another standout style within the western world of comics is that seen in Frank Miller's Sin City. Once you see it, you won't forget it. It'll be seared into your memory just like the confronting narrative it illustrates.
At a base level, Frank Miller's style is derived from a classic, black and white crime noir visage. What's unique about the way he's used this style in Sin City is that there's barely any outlines needed to convey the subject matter within his art. Instead he takes it one step beyond Mike Mignola and uses black and white silhouette almost exclusively to construct his near abstract compositions.
This produces a very strange, unique and oddly appealing effect within his signature style that instantly captures your attention. It's quite frankly pulverizing to look at due to the highly contrasted values, but in a good way. It's as if he's taken the dark and grungy aspects of noir and turned it up to one thousand, making this particular art style hard to forget.
Alex Ross's Art Style
Then there's Alex Ross's uncannily realistic art style. Ross's approach to illustration is a shining example of how comics certainly aren't confined to the classic contoured outline, crosshatch and halftone appeal they're so commonly associated with it.
Alex Ross's art showcases breath taking visuals that are expertly crafted within his medium of choice, watercolor. He renders ultra realistic interpretations of the iconic comic book characters we all know and love from the likes of both Marvel and DC. He's even taken his artistic expertise into the indie realm of comics from time to time. Part of what makes his work so attractive, besides the obvious awe inspiring visuals, is the way he represents each character with a classic design which not only conjures a fond nostalgia, but makes them seem more believable. If you love the look of Alex's work and feel like this could be a style you'd like to pursue in your own art, I'd suggest giving his Youtube channel a gander at: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheAlexRossArt. You'll get an inside look at his process as well the pearls of wisdom he's got to offer after years honing his skills on the job, and building himself a career that's sure to leave a legacy none will soon forget.
As you can see, there's a vast range of styles you can use present your comic book art. And we could literally go on forever here. Don't worry, I'm tempted to! There are so many amazing artists out there whose work just makes you compelled to pick up the pencil and begin drawing.
But these are some of the few standouts I've come across over the years that I think demonstrate the level of variety you can have within the look of your work when it comes to making comics. These days, the sky is the limit. You can make your comics look like whatever you want them to look like and there's a good chance it'll fly.
Developing a Unique Style
We've talked a lot about letting the brilliant work of the artists we admire influence the look of our own work. But how do you make your style, yours?
After all, that's what we're after here. We don't necessarily want people to look at our work and mistake it for someone else's. We don't want to be a mere clone. What's the point of that?
It's wise to have multiple influences so that you can take the best aspects from each of their styles, and blend them together into a new one. In the beginning you might start out with only one or two. But as you continue honing your abilities, you'll inevitably discover new artists who capture your attention. You'll add them to your Frankenstein of style, slowly molding it into a hybrid of the most sought after preferences you'd like to see come through in your work. But when does your true identity seep through into the art?
That manifests through the refinement of those bucketed together styles on an unconscious level. It takes shape as you optimize your method and sharpen your skill set. It bleeds into the lines you throw down onto the page, the natural gestures of your hand, the speed of your stroke. As you become more confident and competent, your style will mature and take on it's own form. This is something you don't have to think about so much. At this point you want to let go of your concerns in regards to your artistic style and simply allow the chips to fall where they may. You've done all you can do at this point, all that's left is to keep learning and continue moving forward. The rest will take care of itself. I hope you've found this article helpful. Thanks so much for reading and if you gleaned some insights along the way, why not tell me about them in the comments below?
Please share this article with your comic artist friends if you think they might also get some value out of it. They'll thank you for it! Until next time, keep on practicing. -Clayton