Style by design

May 16, 2010

A while ago I had a conversation with my friend Micah (who has an uncanny ability to sum up art issues in a simple statement) and he said, “It’s not the style that matters, but if an image is drawn well, that does.” A simple concept, but an important one. After having drawn comic versions of Monsters Vs. Aliens and Shrek. I know that bending your own style of drawing to an established design, can be difficult, and there are artists who don’t wish to work under those expectations, or restrictions (as they often see them). They prefer to work in their own “style” with less attention to established design. The problem is that young artists often confuse the terms, or abandon their definition altogether either through laziness, or for convenience. To help simplify, let me point out how style and design work within animation.

Style in animation defines the overall look of a film or show. They use established “designs”, through the use of model sheets for characters, limited color palettes, etc., to maintain the chosen style for the entirety of the work. If you’re still not sure you understand this, here’s an example that my friend Gonzalo said had helped him to get this concept.
Family Guy.

The cast of Family Guy

There is a definite style to the show, where the characters all have similar bubble eyes, blocky forms, and restricted detail in the figures. Not long ago, that tv show had an episode where Brian and Stewie travel into various universes, one of which is a Disney-verse. Family Guy’s style is in direct contrast to that of Disney which utilizes a more fluid line work, higher levels of detail to their figures, and a wider range of expression in the character’s eyes. If you don’t think you can recognize the difference, look at this image from the show. These are the same characters from Family Guy as seen above, but drawn in a style that mimics that of Disney.

Same family trapped in the Disneyverse

Style is a subtle thing, and a difficult concept to understand when compared to design. Even images that have a similar design qualities can look enormously different based on style. A subtle change in style can mean the world of difference, while maintaining a unique look all on its own. Consider if you told an animator from another country to draw Peter from Family Guy.

Peter- Family Guy

Now imagine if the animator wasn’t familiar with Peter, you might described Peter as a character with perfectly round eyes, circular ears, curved lips, not a lot of hair, rounded fingers, tube like limbs, a rounded belly and crotch, trunk like legs, simplified shoes, and a white shirt with a collar. Yet you might get this in return.

D'OH! That's Homer Simpson- not Peter!

The design of the two characters, on the surface, have a lot in common, but it’s the style that separates them visually. When you establish an overall design, but leave space for stylistic interpretation you get variations, that’s how we can recognize one artist’s work from another. A competent artist will maintain their style from image to image by making their marks, and solving visual problems they face, consistently. Even someone only moderately familiar with comics can recognize an artist’s work by one example.

To help show what I’m talking about, take a look at the drawings below of Conan the Barbarian, one by Jack Kirby and the other by Neal Adams. Those familiar with Jack Kirby know his work when they see it, and not many would say that his drawings are anything like that of Neal Adams. This image of Conan has some of Jack’s stylistic trademarks, such as angular edges and squared off fingers.

Jack "the King" Kirby does Conan

Now, here is Conan drawn by Neal Adams. The character design is the same, but the “style” is different. Neal is often credited with bringing a more realistic approach to comics, through proportions, anatomy, shading, and body postures more in line with real people.

Neal cranks out Conan!

The issue of  style is still something that has caused me frustration, in battle after battle on the comic boards with wannabes who continually attempt to justify the inconsistencies in their art by claiming all those failings are just part of their style. It’s a vague term that can be manipulated by people who don’t want to be held to a specific standard. To see if you can catch these visual traits, which artist from above this image is drawn by?

Didn't know there'd be a quiz- did you?

If you said Kirby, then odds are you recognized the style in his work.

So many amateurs like to just say that whatever they do, however they do it, is their style; yet, it’s the consistencies in an artist’s work that are the true definitions of that. In combination with design, it establishes the universe the artist is attempting to show us. It doesn’t matter what style an artist works in, as long as the consistency is there. Randomly set up environments, fluctuating heights of characters, varying facial features, irregular architecture, and the like, are not the things that make up a style– that’s just laziness.

One Response to “Style by design”

  1. Den said

    Loving that Neal Adams picture. Neat post by the way!

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