5 Ways to Dig Deep and Create Unique Work


Illustration is a difficult game! There seem to be so many illustrators out there today and everything seems to be derivative of something else. In my opinion that is actually true, something cannot come from nothing. But on the other hand you are unique, and you have a unique voice that can come through in your work.

Here are five ways to dig deeper and unearth this uniqueness:

1. What Response Are You Hoping For?
When you create an illustration it helps to understand what response you are hoping for from your audience. Surprise, joy, confusion, empathy, sadness, laughter…

Obviously not all of your illustration is going to have the same purpose, so you won’t be hoping for the same response every time, however I do believe it’s a good step to decide what you feel the ultimate response would be to your work. When you have landed on a certain response and you head that direction, your work starts to develop a tone; this tone will be unique to you. Also it helps you decide what type of illustration to pursue (editorial, books, etc).

A good way to decide on the type of response you are looking for is asking yourself this: what response have I had to art in the past that I hope to evoke with my own art? Try to think of the most impactful or memorable response you have ever had to any form of art. The good news is it probably won’t be from illustration, which leads to point number 2…

2. Find Influence Outside Illustration
It’s tough to be influenced by something very different from what you do, but a good place to start is getting inspired by disciplines outside your own. Take note of when you feel the most inspired, and return to those things before or while you create illustration.

This could be music, film, novels, etc. This is more likely to lead you to more unique outcomes in your work than just taking influence from other illustrators.

3. Trace Back Your Influence’s Influence’s Influence
It is good to take influence outside illustration, but there is nothing wrong with having illustration influence too; actually, it’s essential. I think it’s important, early in your journey to become an illustrator, to surround yourself in what’s happening today in illustration, understand it, and be influenced by it.

As you develop, though, I think it’s vital to step away from feasting your eyes too regularly on today’s illustration offerings. This poses a problem: You still need to be inspired and influenced to continue to grow and get better at what you do. One solution to developing more unique work is researching who influenced your modern-day influences, and then even take it another step further to who influenced the person who influenced your influence! Getting back to the roots of your niche can be a super-valuable and inspiring process.

4. Tackle New Subject Matter
Something that will force you to create unique work is tackling subject matter that you have never seen tackled before visually. This can be a difficult process, and it may not create portfolio pieces, but it can be very valuable to your development.

Think of objects, animals, and places you can’t remember seeing drawn before, then try to draw them with your style. This will force you to make original decisions in how to approach representing this image. These discoveries can transfer to the rest of your work.

5. Understand What Makes You You
The most important part of crafting unique work is understanding why you are different. Have you ever encountered someone eerily similar to you? Even those people are dramatically different to you.

The first step to this process is to get to know yourself as well as you can. Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you love? How do you learn? What makes you most sad? What gets you most excited? What were the most formative occurrences in your past? How do you deal with stress? When do you feel most energized?

Understanding these sorts of things will help you understand how your work should appear, and how it should differ from other illustrators’ work.

It’s only logical
With all the work being created today, it can feel overwhelming to try and add something completely unique to this conversation, but it is possible. Although it may sound cliché and cheesy, remember that no one is exactly like you, or has the same experiences you have had, so logically creating unique work is possible! Good luck and keep working hard!

These are some of the ways I have tried to make my work more unique, but I’m interested: What has been most helpful to you?


:: Andy J. Miller was born in the midwest USA but went to college in the UK. Andy stole a British wife from across the pond and brought her back home. They now have two rascals and live in the great Columbus, Indiana. Andy draws for a living. His drawings naturally look like they came from a guy who grew up in suburbia watching Fraggle Rock and Ninja Turtles, and then developed his craft in Europe surrounded by modern design.

Learn on Skillshare

Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at thomasjamesillustration.com.
Thomas James

Posted by Thomas James on 08/30/12 under artists


Submit your illustration:

Select an image on your computer:
Choose File no file selected