I recently received an email from an art student with a really good question: how do you find your illustration style? I had to stop and think about it for a minute. How did I find mine? Here's a revised version of what I ended up telling her:
The thing is–everyone hones their style differently. It's an evolution that happens best when it happens naturally, but you can give yourself a little direction.
1. Start by drawing.
A lot. All the time. And when you're drawing, challenge yourself to try a variety of styles so that you're not stuck in a rut. Don't let your illustrative personality be what it is simply because you never did anything else.
2. Draw subject matter you're not naturally attracted to.
A good way to focus on your illustrative skill is to pick something to which you have no emotional connection. If you only draw what you like, you're missing out on some technical learning opportunities. Like, what if you thought you only liked sugar and never, ever tried anything with salt in it? You'd miss out on the complex goodness of salted caramel.
3. Start with a story.
Come up with little micro stories for yourself and illustrate what you see in your head. I do this all the time. I personally believe all the best illustrations tell their own story anyway. I remember my graphic design instructor at Fort Hays State saying once that you should always have an answer for everything you do, and that answer can't be, "Because I thought it looked good." I think some of this lesson can be applied to art, too.
The point of all of the above is to flex all your artistic muscles until you see your own patterns emerging.
4. It also helps to study artists you love.
Pick apart your favorites–why are they your favorites? Try emulating an artist's style for practice. Not because you want to copy their style as your own, but to help you pin down what it is about his or her pieces that resonates with you. For me, it was the balance of bold line work and delicate detail often found in early 20th century illustrations. I don't want to be the next Aubrey Beardsley, but those specific aspects of his line art are inspiring to me.
5. Let accidents happen.
My bubble-eyed Skary Childrin style came about when I was playing with eye shapes and comparing one size to another on one face. Then I thought, "Huh. Why not just keep them mismatched like this?" For better or worse, it quickly became, you know, my thing. A thing I still think about returning to now and then.
So, don't try to be perfect! Mistakes often wind up being unplanned perfection.