Week 1: Style Treasure Hunting

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Hello! And welcome back to DIY Art School Orientation! If you’re new here, be sure to check out the overview on this page, and the syllabus right here. After you get caught up with my first post, come on back and see what’s going on today 🙂

Today I’m going on a hunt. Not a bear hunt. Not a lion hunt. A style hunt!

In **her class on Creativebug, Lila Rogers suggests “treasure hunting” a variety of things you love, and contemplating what you love about them. Likewise, **Christine Nishiyama’s Skillshare class walks students through a style influence exercise that includes mapping different sources of inspiration.

I decided to adapt these exercises to focus only on illustration (for now), and to think specifically about the defining elements and techniques these artists use that I would like to emulate in my own work (this is a bit of a preview of next week when I’m going to review the “foundations” of art + design).

Not surprisingly, I found myself drawn to some of the same illustrators over and over– they have well-defined styles, and so use many of the same elements and techniques repeatedly in their work. The main artists whose work I love, love, love and which I am going to look at here are Lisa Congdon, Brigette Barrager, Sarah Walsh, Andrea Lauren, and Dinara Mirtalipova.

I think the thing they all have in common is that they are “perfectly imperfect” in their representations of people and things. None of them are setting out to create photo-realistic paintings, and they’re often drawing people or flowers or animals that don’t necessarily exist in “real life” 🙂

(I’ll add that it’s super interesting to see how their work has been licensed in different ways, and how they work in different media for personal projects– if you click through to their websites you can see how their styles translate from a 2D page into something 3D, whether a hand-made personal project or a manufactured brand collaboration).

One of the things I like to paint the most are houses, so it’s no surprise that the largest number pins on my board were house-related. While I admire the skill necessary to create precise architectural renderings, the styles I’m most attracted to are more fairy tale-esque and illustrative. I’m all about the charm and character when it comes to houses– both in drawings and in real life!

The first one I’m drawn to is this street scene by Dinara Mirtalipova. I have a thing for street scenes in general, particularly rows of houses. What I love about this one is her use of black, especially to bring attention to the little details– the curved balconies, the embellishments around the windows, the textured doors, the cats on the roofs! All of the details make the scene SO charming. I think by using so much stark black it not only makes them stand out, but also gives it an extra layer of fantasy-illustration. True black is not very common in nature, even in architectural scenes, so when you use it to outline or add in detail linework, it emphasizes the fact that this is intentionally not a photo-realistic rendering.

Something I find interesting about this one is her use of color. Usually Dinara uses a more saturated, flat color palette– and a lot more red! This street scene is much more muted, textured, and earthy (it looks like she may have used a watercolor or ink wash under the linework). The illustration is still really clearly identifiable as hers, I think because of the black details.

This house by Brigette Barrager is so “perfectly imperfect”– the wonky lines and uneven windows give it so much personality. She uses very little true black (just in the wrought iron grates and a little in the roof), but it still has the fairy tale-like character to it. You kind of feel like you’re about to step in to a children’s book (which I like!).

Even though she doesn’t use much true black, there is still a lot of contrast in this painting. The background colors are super muted, making the house pop. The details– like the bushes and the lower windows– are very dark and stand out a lot against the white house. The pinks in the upstairs windows play nicely with the greens in the bushes around the house. I think that helps to make the painting feel polished and complete, especially when the lines and textures are deliberately wonky.

The colors!! I looove flat, saturated colors. One of the things I like most about Lisa’s paintings is how she uses color to define shape (but note the difference from her drawings– see below!), and then goes in later and adds linework– so the color and the line really stand on their own and do two totally different things (define shape vs define texture and details).

Of course, I also love the geometric, impressionistic elements of this painting– it is unapologetically *not* a photograph. But at the same time– there’s no question as to what each element represents! I also like the way she plays with perspective and makes the ground somewhat flat.

Did I mention I like flat, saturated colors? Yes? Okay. I think that’s part of what draws me (frequently!) to block prints and stamps. Andrea Lauren has such a great style– I love **her book and find the compositions in it so inspiring. I think it’s a nice example of “modern folk art.”

I get frustrated because my carving skills aren’t up to par, but I love the effect. I used to do a lot of cut-paper art, and like the sharp definition it gives to shapes. A lot of the work I’m drawn to accomplishes that in different ways– like block carving– by using high-contrast, highly-saturated colors to define shape.

I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m *afraid* of drawing people, but I don’t often feel like I *succeed* at drawing people… especially faces! That is why I am so, so impressed by people who do it well. Sarah Walsh is kind of known for her people, especially people with diverse appearances. I love the hard edges in this illustration, and the way she combines flat saturated color- shapes with textural overlays (digital brushes, line) and plays with transparency in a few key places like the food. I like the wonky perspective (kind of like Lisa Congdon’s)– you can see everyone’s eyes even though the viewer is from a slightly overhead angle.

Flowers! I love flowers. I really love leaves, though. While the traditional sort of soft, washy- watercolor flowers are lovely (and I’d like to learn to paint them), I love these folksy flowers and other foliage by Dinara Mirtalipova best. The color is what jumps out at me first– the saturated pinks, oranges, and reds, contrasting with the greens of the leaves. And then you notice the more subtle gold and yellow leaves filling out the composition. It’s such a nice balance of contrast and subtlety, and gives your eye lots of reasons to meander around the whole piece. There’s also a lot of contrast in size– BIG big flowers, and little little ones, all blooming together. Like in several of the other examples I’ve looked at, a lot of her shapes are defined by color, and the details are brought out with high-contrast (both white and black) line work.


More flowers! Lisa Congdon is kind of known for her linework, and here she uses it to create all kinds of fantastical flower shapes. I find it interesting to see how different her painting style is from her drawing style (at least, this looks to me like it was done with a micron pen, perhaps). Whereas above she used color to define her shapes and line to bring in the details, line is the dominant feature here. It both defines the shape of the flower as well as the textural details of each. Color is brought in as another way to highlight details and complete the overall composition. 

I love the saturated, flat colors (it almost looks like they were filled in with the live paint feature in Illustrator, but I *think* she works primarily with traditional media). I think using the secondary and tertiary colors here really works with a somewhat broad color palette. It keeps the level of contrast from becoming too “buzzy” (see next week’s discussion of color 😉 ).

This is the cover image on my daughter’s (current) favorite book, Uni the Unicorn, illustrated by Brigette Barrager. I love the overall composition here, and the illustrations throughout the book are just as charming. I like the use of secondary and tertiary colors, and the fanciful flower shapes– they’re not too fanciful, though. You might expect to see some of them in an actual field of flowers.

And finally, this whimsical print by Sarah Walsh. I love the composition and collection of somewhat random, fanciful things (potted plants, prehistoric animals). I love the color palette. And I love the way the paint strokes (and gradients) are visible within the object, but the shapes have sharp, clear lines. I think this piece is a nice reminder for me that *anything* can be a composition– it doesn’t have to be a scene in order for it to be a complete, polished piece.

Want to see more work by these talented ladies?? I either own and love these books, or have them high on my wishlist!

  • **Uni the Unicorn (illustrated by Brigette Barrager) — one of my 4-year-old daughter’s favorite books, responsible for sparking her current obsession with unicorns, and for introducing me to Brigette’s illustrations
  • **Imagine a Forest: Designs and Inspirations for Enchanting Folk Art (Dinara Mirtalipova)– a lovely how-to-ish book on Dinara’s folk art style, I credit this for dragging me out of my post-baby creative slump last summer!
  • **Art, Inc: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist (Lisa Congdon) I love this book of practical advice (not so much featuring her artwork, though), and will be re-reading it during the 4th quarter of DIY Art School for sure.
  • **The Joy of Swimming: A Celebration of Our Love for Getting in the Water (Lisa Congdon)– I don’t own this one, but it’s high on my wishlist. I was excited to learn that Lisa started painting in her 30s (like me!) and even more excited to learn that she’s a pretty badass swimmer (I am not so badass, but I love to swim).
  • **Playful Painting: People (Sarah Walsh)– This one is on my to-purchase list for February. I’m love Sarah’s style of painting people, and can’t wait to pick up a few tips and tricks from this book!
  • **Hats of Faith (Sarah Walsh)– This is on my “to purchase next” list for my kids. I read somewhere that it began as a personal project for Sarah, which I think is super cool!
  • **Block Print (Andrea Lauren)– I love this book of printing projects. I haven’t completed any of the projects yet, but the designs inside are so inspiring! I pull it out whenever I need a quick dose of creative inspiration.

Come back next week when I review some of the foundations of art + design, and apply this same analysis to my own portfolio-to-date in order to think about where I can challenge myself and push my boundaries. In the meantime, I’d love to hear who some of your favorite/ most inspiring illustrators and artists are 🙂

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