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Why Drawing Anime Can Lead to More Creative Success than Drawing Realistically

Anime art vs. Realism

Thumbnails for various anime titles.

“Anime isn’t a good way to show skill, because it’s a lot easier than realism is.”

That’s something I was told to my face when I was fourteen. Clearly it had some kind of impact, because first of all, I remembered it. Second of all, I spent the next 3 years having an internalized dislike of anime and my own anime-inspired art style. I craved to create something outside of what I’d known and practiced for years because I had a fear of it being “not being real art.”

Fast forward a few years, and we get to me at 19 years old, deciding to watch an anime on a whim. That anime sparked a sudden burst of inspiration and creativity, and I created some of the most inspired and “full of life” artwork I’d created in months. All of it was fan art. So why do we decide that realism is the “better” art style, when it’s rarely the art style we see today? Here’s why drawing cartoons anime art can lead to more creative success than drawing realistically.

What requires more skill - Realism or Anime?

A caricature of Martin Luther King Jr. by Fei Lu
A caricature of Martin Luther King Jr. by Fei Lu. Portrait stylization can be tricky!

The immediate answer from most non-artists is that realism is innately harder. Getting something to look realistic is tricky, absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that anime isn’t tricky either. All art is tricky, just not in the way that we expect.

From the students that I’ve taught and the artists that I’ve met, I’ve noticed a pattern when it comes to their illustrative techniques. Realists tend to have a tougher time drawing cartoons and anime, while cartoonists and anime artists have a tougher time drawing realism. However, as time goes on and cartoonists grow better with their work, suddenly realism isn’t so hard for them anymore. However, realists have a tougher time breaking out of that non-stylized shell, and find it tricky to break free from the rules that hold them.

It’s not that anime art is easier than realism -- it just takes a different skill set and uses a different set of “rules”.

A stylized portrait of a woman, side by side with the original photo.
A portrait from my art mentorship class. Creative liberties can make a portrait feel more alive!

One thing that I teach sometimes is that you can think of realism as the “default” when it comes to styles. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just that you’re not changing anything. Compare a realistic portrait to a photo, and you shouldn’t see much difference. That’s why it’s the “default” -- you’re drawing what you see, and not changing anything about it.

But what if you decide to change that? If you took that photo and instead drew an anime interpretation of it, creative liberties are now required. The proportions will change, the lighting may be slightly exaggerated, the pose may be exaggerated, etc. In a technical aspect, it may be somewhat simpler. However, taking those creative liberties can be harder to master. It takes a different skillset to interpret, simplify and exaggerate the world around us rather than copy something realistically. While it may not be harder, per se, it’s far more necessary to learn in today’s day and age.

But isn’t realism necessary?

Two drawn dynamic poses by Alyssa Wongso.
Dynamic poses are fundamental, but aren't necessarily realistic!

Yes and no. I personally believe that it’s not realism that’s necessary, but an understanding of the art fundamentals. Realism just happens to fall under that umbrella sometimes because it requires a perfect understanding of proportions and many basic fundamentals, such as the elements and principles of art, and the measurements of the human form.

But you’ll notice that a lot of anime artwork and cartoons don’t apply those fundamentals 100% of the time. That doesn’t mean that they don’t know them -- it just means that they know how to bend them to fit a certain aesthetic. And more often than not, that aesthetic tends to be far more appealing. Think of any animated movie or anime -- it suddenly gets a LOT more boring if you envision all of the characters as real people.

How did you start drawing?

Two side by side artworks -- one is a somewhat crude digital drawing of two people side by side. The other is a far more polished art nouveau composition of a different character.
Fanart of mine from 2014 to fanart from 2020. Some things don't change!

Most kids didn’t start their artistic journeys by illustrating realistic portraits or still lifes -- more likely than not, they tried to learn to draw their favourite cartoons or video game characters! I grew up learning to draw all the Nintendo characters I could get my pencil on (I still draw Kirby frequently to this day!).

That’s because art isn’t all about trying to make something look realistic -- it’s all about creative expression. People respond to anime art differently than realism -- its purpose is more about storytelling, evoking emotions, and stylizing real life into something way more entertaining. The characters we grow to love and that bring us nostalgia are inspiring, and inspire us to create our own as well. That’s what makes art fun, and most of all, meaningful. Especially to kids!

Cartooning & Anime is one of our most popular programs, and it's an art foundations class to learn the fundamentals, but it's also a class to explore fan art in an original way. You can learn a lot from fan art, because in the end, it’s a form of interpretive master study. Anime artists and Cartoonists are professionals in the industry for a reason, after all!

Realism vs. Anime artwork in the entertainment industry

A collection of thumbnails for various films produced by Studio Ghibli.
Studio ghibli is completely iconic, and you don't see a single realistic face in sight!

Speaking of the entertainment industry, when was the last animated show or movie that you watched that was illustrated or modelled in full realism? Even more “mature” or “realistic” video games have some level of stylization or creative liberty to them. Anime art and culture has increased significantly in the past decade, and has a growing collection on modern networks such as Netflix!

In the end, stylized artwork is more marketable. While realism should be a baseline that all artists should have some kind of knowledge of, anime and stylized artwork tends to be more appealing. Bringing up Nintendo once again, their work blends the Japanese “anime” style with western cartooning. They’re one of the few companies that’s bridged the generational gap with their lovable stylized characters, where their fans range from young kids to the elderly.

There’s a stigma that floats around sometimes where some people believe that cartooning and anime is “childish”. But those people seem to forget that it’s not a 7 year old who’s sitting behind an art tablet, storyboarding the frames for an upcoming anime episode. It takes a very high amount of skill and realistic drawing knowledge to be able to blend entertainment with good artwork, and anime is no stranger to that.

Anime is just as valid as realism

A fake CD cover for Nintendo's Kirby.
I've been drawing Kirby since I was nine years old, and this was drawn when I was 18!

All in all, anime art doesn’t have less value than realism. In fact, in a lot of cases, it tends to have more. Traditional art schools tend to discredit anime art styles or reject it outright in portfolios, and that definitely needs to change. While it’s not the same skill set as working with realism, it still takes a high level of skill to pull it off correctly.

The same can be said about fan art -- most of the time, fan art is a reinterpretation of the original source material. While I understand that copying a screenshot or tracing official art shouldn’t be considered, illustrating a whole new piece shouldn’t be discredited.

There’s something freeing about not having to worry about the hard conventions that realism presents, and something far more entertaining about a stylized portrait. Truthfully, neither art style has more value than the other, but anime art needs to be recognized for its skill and value in modern culture, rather than a style that's only meant for children.

If your child is a budding cartoonist or anime artist, consider trying our beginner cartooning or cartooning and anime classes, which teaches art fundamentals, learning by creating fanart so you can eventually design your own original characters! If they’re looking to hone their skills as a cartoonist further, consider advanced cartooning and anime or an art mentorship class, where they can decide where they’d like to go in their artistic journey.

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