James Bond has a pretty cool job, as a spy for her majesty’s secret service, he gets all the best toys, the best lines and the babes and while he’s working he maintains a certain cool. He wears perfect suits, has the best lines and always looks good doing it. Even at the expense of the British Government and his colleagues. Everything James Bond does, and the way he does it tells us that he’s in it for one thing… Himself. If fact sometimes it’s hard to say if he’s even noticed that anybody else is in the room.

Compare that to Jason Bourne. The guys not perfect, but he operates at an entirely different level. He pays attention to the world around him. Using maps and other relevant information to complete the mission. Taking care of others and doing his best to limit collateral damage. And while Bourne may be confused about who he is, the difference and character come down to one thing; he’s not really all that into himself. He’s more concerned with being brutally effective.

The common teaching in the illustration profession is that illustrators should be like James Bond and focus on their own style of drawing. This makes them are easily recognisable, and there is an association of visual voice with their name and who they are as artists. It’s a self-serving idea and if you ask us, not in the best interest of the businesses and brands we work with.

At Union Illustration we take the much more controversial approach of sacrificing our personal “style” for your solutions. We’d much rather be like Jason Bourne.

What is style anyway?

Often, it gets confused with a subject matter. An artist gets labelled as a fantasy artist because he/she creates art that often includes medieval warriors, magic, and otherworldly creatures. A medical illustrator is somebody who focuses on the medical field, and a portrait artist is somebody who does a lot of faces.

Those aren’t styles of illustration. They are the subjects of the drawing. Similar to how both Bond and Bourne are super spies.

Two types of Guns
These guns are the exact same. But each one is presented in a unique style.

Style is how we do it. Slick 3D, cartoony, as a doodle, in graphite or as an impressionist painting.

At Union, we’ve done work across a large number of fields. We’ve done video games where the subject matter was fantasy, but we’ve also done others that include everything from old style drawing to modern pop culture themes. We’ve done medical and fitness art, as well as animals, technology and more.

We get excited about any subject we get to draw. Especially ones we have yet to tackle because they can lead to fresh new solutions.

We like to Re-Imagine Anything.

If James Bond is a super spy, He’s an insufficient one because he always gets noticed at the beginning of every movie. Spy’s are supposed to remain secret, and he doesn’t even try. Like artists that focus on style, it shows their limitations instead of strength.

Like Mr Bond, some styles can become seriously dated. During the 1990’s as I was finishing up my degree in design and illustration, if you were to open up an illustration annual, you would find a tonne of what we liked to call big-head art. It was trendy for artists to draw big heads on small bodies as a way to make boring concepts seem more important. It was a style solution and had very little to do with the article’s content or the business who commissioned the work.

You rarely see this kind of work anymore because it was so obviously of a particular design period that nobody wants to use it. It’s also the most obvious example of the hang-ups of illustrators who weren’t interested in custom solutions. They were more interested in being trendy and creating work that would get them noticed by the folks all buying the same look. In other words, it was a solution for themselves and not the people they were serving, and it shows.

Union doesn’t just focus on one style. We’ve found that when we dive deeper into a brand’s needs and requirements that, more often than not, the style is only a small piece. When presented with options and a good reason to pick a particular style they’ll go with the one that suits them best. Not us.

Agencies love the fact that we draw in whatever way we need to get the job done – right – for the client. Like Jason Bourne.

It’s the digital age, and the limits of art making tools are in the past-  which means an artist should be capable of creating a variety of distinct looks. We can make brushes in Photoshop that will instantly turn each stroke into a watercolour painting, or we can use the best art program to make an oil painting effect.

In Adobe Illustrator there are endless ways to make interesting brushes when going for a particular effect. Modern photo compositing solutions mean we can now mix styles on the same image for brand new effects.

If an artisan is only as good as his/her tools, which range from a pencil and paper all the way up to animation software, it’s difficult for us at Union to make a case for style as a selling feature for the modern illustrator. Instead, we’ve taken on the idea that there are unlimited opportunities for new and exciting looks depending on the brand requirements.

The rest of the illustration industry is going to argue with us saying that art directors need to know what they are getting or get confused when looking at a portfolio. But we don’t think that’s true anymore. We’ve worked as art directors ourselves in industries like video games and animation where many illustrators have to work together to make a consistent style across one product. Why wouldn’t we take that ability to collaborate on a vision for our clients? A small group of others agree with us –http://www.gcastellano.com/arttips/forgetstyle.

Artists have spent years investing in their distinct styles – or as we like to say “hang-ups.” They’ll say that Union doesn’t care about the personality of the illustrator and that with a lack of style comes a lack of differentiation in the market.

The problem with that argument is that Union has been carving out its own place in the market for many years by relying not on a style to stand out, but instead being able to adapt to your business’s requirements and create a style all your own. We don’t have time for any illustrator who wants to shame us for that.

It’s all about the right compromise. We can’t even help but put our personalities into a piece of art. The way we draw, how we set up the elements in the picture and our tastes in colour and design matter. But by the time we’ve iterated with the art director to find a solution that you are happy with our initial choices, based on taste and training, are always secondary to the needs of you, the person who hired on in the first place.

That compromise can frustrate a lot of illustrators, but for us, it’s where we can distinguish ourselves as being of service to our clients instead of to our limited vision or hang ups. By not being overly attached to how we see the world, we create opportunities for your business to use illustration in the future.

Not focusing on being cool means that we can re-imagine an illustration style that will be consistent across your brand and if we make it functional enough, will allow your employees to use it where ever deemed appropriate across a myriad of communications.

Union Illustration will always strive to set itself apart. But we won’t do it with surface values like a distinctive or trending style. We set ourselves apart by understanding your unique problems and will work to help you solve them. If you’re an agency that serves a broad range of clients and needs to provide them different alternatives and solutions, or a business looking to stand out with great illustration – feel free to give us a call so we can chat about it with you. We’ll re-imagine out a unique, custom solution that’s bold, on brand and all about you.

Michael Grills

Author Michael Grills

Michael Grills is an Illustrator, Artist and Designer working internationally at Union Illustration Co. from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

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