Are you a Manga fan? Maybe American superhero comics are more your thing? It's likely that you have strong opinions about visual styles. When it comes to learning art, and preparing for an art career, the notion of style is essential. Let's talk about it!
Style, not shame
Beginners face a very strange imperative: to be totally unique and original. To have a vision. Copying someone else's style can be seen as shameful. The peak of artistic accomplishment is to blaze a new visual trail. But in the real world this rarely applies to commercial art.
Unless you're a fine artist working in the gallery scene, you're probably being paid by a publisher. You're working on a project that is much larger than and single artist. Especially if you're working for an established brand, you're required to follow a well-established visual formula. Marvel hires artists of a certain sort. Disney has a very specific look. Adult swim cartoons are unmistakable. What beginners or young artists scathingly call "copying" is a career imperative. So what does this all mean for you?
Versatility vs. Specificity
As you approach a career in commercial art, you essentially have two choices. You can choose to establish an extremely specific style (whether it's original or not), or learn to match a variety of styles. Each of these approaches has pros and cons from a career standpoint. Creatively, they're very different pursuits. There's no way I can make this choice for you, and luckily - there's no correct answer. The crucial thing is to be intentional. Do your research, and make an informed decision.
Some artists aspire to be the household name for one hyper-specific topic or look. Especially in the world of editorial illustration, standing out in this way is essential. In the game industry, some artists are known for specialties - and are hired accordingly. Bungie employs "Sparth" as their art director, leveraging his proven flair for all things futuristic. If you've ever seen his work, it's clear that he has a passion for spaceships and epic sci-fi vistas. Though I'm sure he's perfectly capable of painting portraits, his 'brand' is spaceships. It takes a lot of dedication to specialize like Sparth has, but the payoff is recognition.
Other artists prefer variety in their career; not painting the same subject-matter project after project. For this sort of personality, being able to reproduce a variety of styles is essential. In my game industry experience, I've been required to paint both realistic and stylized artwork. I've also been asked to design user-interface artwork, which is more "Graphic Design" than it is "Illustration". To make this possible, I'm constantly redefining my workflow. Instead of settling on a single way of working, I identify as a lifelong learner. Staying versatile lowers your chances of being a household name, but it might raise your resilience to a rapidly shifting industry.
This choice can sound paralyzing. After all, how long does it take to become a Sparth-level spaceship artist? My advice is to go easy on yourself. Like all decisions in art, it's not permanent. You might initially think that working in a specific niche is for you - and then find yourself restless in 5 years. No problem. The opposite might also be true - your diverse set of interests might slowly start favor one niche. Great! As long as you're aware of the choice, it's hard to choose incorrectly.
So next time someone accuses you of being unoriginal or of copying a style, don't sweat it. Copying style is often more than acceptable, it's required. The commercial art world is a big place, and we're all looking for the right spot in it. Be aware of your community, trends, and your personal preferences. And of course, have fun with it! Since this is a very important topic, we'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.