For original art, visit M A Gilchrist
Pencil and shavings

The 3 Is of Illustration

How did you find your style?

I get asked that question a lot. I believe there is a genuine curiosity beyond the question stemming from a desire to find one’s own style. I’m just not sure most people like my answer.

There is an old adage that “writers write.” Meaning there is no substitute for doing the work. Putting in the long hours. Putting off other things. Sacrifice. The same is true for drawing or illustrating. You can’t substitute or shortcut the process if you want to have a true identity, a true style that is recognizable as you.

I tell inquisitors that, and there is agreement. Followed very quickly by questions about what pencil I use, or the type of paper, or a brush setting. Sigh.

I think these people go away downtrodden in a similar way as the “rich young ruler” did when he encountered Jesus (Mark 10:17-22). No, I’m not comparing myself to Jesus. But the “rich young ruler” didn’t want to put in the hard work either. He wanted a shortcut. He wanted the reward without the time and sacrifice. Too many people who ask me about style want the same thing.

For anyone still reading, here is how I might approach finding your style. It’s my 3 Is of Illustration (or IIIllustration?). Imitate. Iterate. Innovate.


With what is very likely to be few or no exceptions, we all start off trying to be someone else. For me it was Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and (yes, really) Rob Liefeld. I had a desire to draw just like them. Meaning I wanted to be as good as them. So, I did. I copied little flourishes or nuances or whole physiologies. I poured over their comics again and again, and tried to repeat their work. The problem is the world doesn’t need another one of them. It needs the first you.


This is your “slap the water” or draw draw draw time. This is the gruel, the grind, the less-than-glorious repetition of getting the pencil on the paper and gutting out another piece. It’s where most of your work sucks, and you just have to suck it up. This is building your resolve, your dedication, and your muscle memory. It’s your 10,000 hours. It’s continuing the perilous journey to pirate treasure, not riding up Troy’s bucket to safety (That’s a Goonie’s reference). Just. Keep. Drawing.


Suddenly, a breakthrough! In all of those countless lines you’ve put down, a few are going to stand out. There’s going to be something you love about them. And that is where your style starts. The journey isn’t over, it’s just beginning.

Innovation—at least for me—is not a conscious effort. I can’t sit down and think, “today I’m going to innovate. Today I’m going to come up with something totally unique.” Innovation arises out of the hard work of iteration, and it creates something that—one day—others will try to imitate. It’s your own flourishes, nuances, and ways of doing things. It’s your style.

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