Turbo Monkey Tales is a group blog focusing on the craft, production, marketing and consumption of Children's Literature. We are illustrators, writers, animators and media mongrels. We are readers! We are published, unpublished and self-published; agented and searching, and 100% dedicated to our Kid Lit journey, no matter where we are on the path. Join our Tribe and grab a vine. The more the merrier!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What's your style? by Hazel Mitchell

I'm pretty much surrounded by writers here on Turbo Monkey Tales, so choosing the first topic for my first blog post here has been a little perplexing. Should I try to address you writer folk out there, or stick to my knowledge base, illustration? Or try and talk about illustration and writing and how they work together ... oof! I put the kettle on and had a cup of tea. (It's what the British do when they have to solve a problem - it's what the Brits do at any given time really!)

And while the tea was mashing (Yorkshire speak for brewing) I thought of the first question that most beginning children's illustrators are burning to know the answer to:


and the second question


And here's the thing - most of us already have a style. Writer's call it VOICE. 'What is our voice? Where does it come from? How do we capture it and nurture it and grow it?' As a writer VOICE is the choices we make, the words we use, the cadence, the point of view, the quality that makes the writing unique - and recognizable.

And emerging illustrators struggle with all the same issues, especially the 'recognizable' one. The one that will make us STAND OUT FROM THE REST.

Let's have some examples - how many of these illustrators (or books) do you instantly recognize?

If you put a name to the illustrators - (Arthur Rackham, Dr Seuss, Quentin Blake, Robert McCloskey) what is it that made you connect the image to the illustrator? Each example has it's own stamp. Like receiving a letter from a well-loved friend and knowing instantly who it's from, by the handwriting on the envelope. The letters, the squiggles, that certain crossing of the 't' and dotting of the 'i'. They're all visual CLUES - a secret code our brain deciphers instantly. (Clever things, brains).

But where does it come from and how do we KNOW when we have found it? For sure, illustrators starting out are desperate (for the most part) to capture it, get it in their portfolio and own it. You need it! It seems to be the magic key for those lovely emails from Art Directors, Agents and those CONTRACTS.
If, like me, you are searching for your style let me tell you, you can't GET it. Because you've already GOT it. It's in there, waiting. Waiting for you to let it out. Confused? So was I. If I already had it, why couldn't I find it? Why wasn't I drawing what I saw in my head? What I felt? Ah! Feelings. Now we are GETTING SOMEWHERE.

OK - that's all a bit hoity-toity-arty talk. Let's look at the famous examples above. What makes them memorable? What evokes the spirit of the artist? In many ways each of them is exactly of their time. Rackham's almost pre-raphaelite construction, dark Victorian mood and ornate book plate structures. McCloskey's beautiful line work and use of light and shade reminiscent of art deco influences and the structured magazine editorial work of the 40's and 50's. Dr Seuss with his background in cartooning and advertising, bringing strong and unforgettable colours to his work, free use of line and making the most of the spot printing method. Quentin Blake, with all the influences of the experimental 60's and 70's and his humorous roots in Punch magazine.

Get the idea? Start looking at YOU ... your own influences, likes and dislikes, conditioning. Discover what you are and where you have been. And where it is you want to go. Everyone's path is different and astonishing.

And here's another anomaly: Nobody knows any of this but you. Jees! It's like the worst labyrinth. It's also great fun - if you let it be. Or you can torture yourself.

Let's make it a little easier and look at some of the stuff that makes an illustrator's style their own:


I could go on listing .... so could you. But to me these are the salient points that help me recognize one illustrator instantly. One who engages with me from the page.

How do we develop this 'stuff'? There is no easy way. (Sigh). Not for most of us anyway. There are those who it seems to come to unbidden ... often straight from school, or even before then. I think of these genius as being unsullied by life. Somehow their style - voice - heart - was there already before the world had a chance to get it's claws into them. Most of us will spend years undoing the damage that has been done to this child's vision. (Although the experience and knowledge that we have garnered along the way influences our style too!) When we look at the work we were doing as a young artist or teenager that's where we see the quality of our style, struggling against all the influences that the world flings at us. Before we started to try to be like this one or that one, or the other. If the voice is strong - that transition can be easier. But most of us pack up that little voice in our heart and try not to reinvent the wheel. Afterall, we need to make our way in the world! Let's get to it!

Great teachers make a huge difference to where we start our journey. Working with a teacher/s who are also artists, or steeped in their subject and understand how to nurture our style, that is half the battle. If this happened to you - that's awesome. It's why as artists and writers - creators - need to give back to those coming after us. It's why education and association with excellent artists is important at any stage of an illustrator's career. If you are missing this part of your life, go find a great class - or a conference- or a workshop - or read books, visit galleries, use the endless opportunities that await in the greatest free source with have - the internet.

Here's what you need to do if you weren't one of the genius who grabbed their style and recognized it at 14. NB. You also need to do these things if you WERE.

1. Sketch
2. Sketch
3. Read
4. Sketch
5. Read
6. Sketch
7. Study
8. Sketch
9. Read
10. Study

I can guarantee that if you do, style will start to happen - unbidden. I can justify this, because it is happening to me. No arguing, OK?


When you are no longer self-conscious about what's going on the paper, when you stop thinking about whether it looks right, or even like something, that's when your style will poke it's head out and wink at you.
Each illustration will begin to tell you a story. Things you didn't know about it. And it only comes through practice.

And here is a BIG ONE
So go knocking on your heart's door. 

A quote  from Caldecott winner Chris Raschka

"First you draw what you see, then you draw what you remember, then you draw what you feel."

© 'A Ball for Daisy' by Chris Raschka

Here is another famous one, (attributed to Horatio Greenough, architect):


The more I work on exploring the heart of my illustration, the more I realize it is true, if your heart is not in it, it's no good. In fact, if my heart's not in it, I forget how to draw! One of my favorite illustrators of the present day is Marla Frazee. I relate to her beautiful line work and colours,  freedom with shading and form, carefully constructed layouts. Her amazing pace and connection to the words. Matching your 'style' with the 'voice' of the words is a huge part of illustration. If there is discordance the reader will feel it and disconnect from the book. Frazee tells us that she worked for many years to develop from the more generic, commercial way she had worked in. Her beautiful, totally recognizable style came from years of study, nurturing and exploration to produce the wonderful work she does now. Below is an illustration from Mrs. Biddlebox. The heart breaking thing about this story is that Lynda Smith died before the book was published, so there is added poignancy to the book.

© 'Mrs Biddlebox' by Lynda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee
On top of all this we need that other elusive friend of style - inspiration. Caldecott winner Paul O. Zelinsky is certainly one of the most inspired children's illustrators working in the industry today - and here is where we can throw ourselves on the floor and beat our fists. Paul works in many different styles in his many different books. Quote: "Feelings and colours come to me as a sort of flavor, a taste". I didn't understand it when I first heard Paul say this. But I am beginning to understand better now. Style has to work with the story, not the other way round. And how we see it is highly personal.
© 'Rapunzel' by Paul O. Zelinsky

I hope this gives you a little more insight into style and voice in illustration, whether you are writing the words, creating illustrations or both. 


I've heard that time and time again over the last few years from so many luminaries.

In the quest for reconnection with my own style I am working on reconnecting with the feelings I had as a child and teenager. Doing doodles for this, on my sketch blog 'Look Back in Candour', I've no pressures to perform, no deadlines, just a fun place to create and discover and have fun. So go have fun!

 © 2012 Hazel Mitchell 

Thanks for visiting 'Turbo Monkey Tales'.
Come back next week to read a great post from writer JULIE DILLARD
and don't forget to follow the blog.


I'll be signing at 
Camden Book Festival, Maine Aug 18th
Princeton Book Festival, NJ September 8th 
.. come and see me!


  1. This is absolutely BRILLIANT!
    Good on you Hazel.
    Thanks for the insight, guidance and wit.
    Dickensian and otherwise.


    1. Thanks Craig ... glad you enjoyed. Sometimes wit is all we have ...

    2. yes, but mine seem to be half...

  2. One illustrator whose style I love, and recognize, is a certain Hazel Mitchell. Your illustrations speak to me, touch me, make my spirit want to dance. Thank you.

    And thank you for this excellent post.

    1. Hazel does have style and then some!

    2. Thanks Beth ... I appreciat your comments and thoughts. If we can touch anyone with our work then our job is done. Hazel :-)

  3. Thank you, Hazel. Your post brought tears to my eyes. I can't draw stick figures to save my life, but your universal message went straight to my heart.

    1. Thank you Marilyn, from an awesome writer that is a compliment indeed. And I bet your stick figures are great!

  4. Hazel, I love how your post relates to writers as well. We all have a writing voice, but our books have voices as well. Like Paul O. Zelinsky's many styles, authors can write in many voices. 'Cause we've got all those voices in our head, you know.

    1. Thanks Amy! All those voices ... are ... worrying ....

  5. I've had to bookmark this as there is so much here, I know I will want to return to it again an again. You speak as an artist, but it certainly touched my writer's heart. i am LOVING all your Look Back in Candour sketches and each one reminds me to take the time to mine my memories for FEELINGS! Fabulous post, Hazel!

    1. Thank you Joanna ... what ever we do we all create from the same place. I am very much enjoying 'Look Back in Candour' it's taking me to places that I didn't know still existed. So glad FB brought us all together!

  6. Hazel . . . I loved this. You are truly amazing, and touched on so many emotions all artists feel. Bravo!

    1. Thanks Ellen ... all our experiences are so different, and we all have different thoughts, but truth and sincerity always shine.

  7. Great post, Hazel. I agree that style is something we can't get away from even if we try. I struggle every piece I do, but I love where you mention that when the time is lost and you don't even realize you're creating, that's style peeking up and patting you on the back.

    Wonderful idea about chronicling childhood through art, I'll remember that.

    1. Thanks Donna ... try and FORGET about the style issue and just draw and lose yourself in it. Constant sketching will bring it out ... I have always had trouble diarying and then I read Lynda Barry's 'Picture This' and ' What it is' and it gave me a whole new perspective. Check them out of your library!

    2. Thanks Hazel - the post is terrific, and I have just put the books on hold. Recently I have been discovering more about my own style as I copy others in my quest to teach myself watercolor techniques. A bit falls away, another clings, and I emerge - there is no hiding!

    3. That's so true ... you can't hide from yourself, and you know when you are doing it. Here's to all emerging butterflies!

  8. Well done, Hazel! It's amazing how much work it takes to find our hearts, and how vital it is to our work in kidlit!

  9. Great post, and full of hearty truth! I second the motion on Lynda Barry.
    And I love the list: sketch, sketch, read, sketch!

    1. Thank you Jamie ... I think Lynda Barry is genius! Now remember, sketch, sketch, read, sketch!

  10. This is EPIC, Hazel! I can't wait to find out what your writing style is like :).

    1. Hugs KCH ... I guess my writing style is much like this!!

    2. Ha! Guess I should have specified "novel writing" style :).

    3. I think it will be much as I speak in general .... ;-)

  11. Lovely, Hazel. Thank you for sharing your own heart with us!

    1. Thank you so much Emma ... means a lot. Someone once told me to look in my heart ;-)

  12. This is the best post on finding your style/voice for illustrators that I have ever come across! Thank you for putting it all down in a clear and thoughtful way. For all those in the illustration trenches you gave us a map of where we need to go. Thank You!

    1. Hi Nancy, thank you so much! My map is still in progress ... thank you for taking the time to visit with the Turbo Monkeys and comment.

  13. Terrific post, Hazel. It's a must-share link for the Got Story peeps!

  14. I'm so glad Joy posted -- great article!

  15. Lovely post, Hazel! If writers create the songs children want to sing to, surely the illustrators create the melody to make those songs worth keeping?

    Donna L Martin

    1. That's lovely Donna ... thanks for sharing!

  16. Hazel, this was so inspiring. Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom!! (I bookmarked this page to come back to and re-read for inspiration again some day).


    1. Thanks Kelli! I will re-read it too, lest I forget!