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  • An Approach To Understanding Art Styles

    [05.18.21]
    - Ricardo Bess
  • (a) What are STYLES and how can we label them?

    Try to put it in a simple sentence

    As far as I can see, a style is the systematic repetition of decisions regarding art elements (a.k.a shapes, values and colors).

    Ok, there's a lot of information here. Let's first make sure we understand ourselves when we talk about art elements. Then we we'll talk about the visual decisions we make when creating an image.

    Art elements

    This first part may sound very basic for you, but bear with me as I try to find some common language with everyone reading this.

    Visual art is generally broken in: dot, line, shape, form, value, color - some people would also add texture, space, rhythm, composition and a few more.

    On a daily basis I get myself mostly thinking in 3 of this: (1) SHAPES, (2) VALUES and (3) COLORS.

    I may not be the most reliable source on this, but here's a 101 about shapes, values and colors:

    (1) SHAPES - The most simple elements of visual representation are dots and lines. Whenever you organize dots and lines in "perceivable chunks" you start to have shapes. They can be organic or geometric, simple or complex, they can represent form tridimensionally (rendered in 3D) or bidimensionally (flat 2D). Shapes can also be organized in a canvas in order to imply rhythm. Lastly the absence of a shape can form a shape in itself (see the 4 circles/ 1 star example bellow).

    (2) VALUES - They are all the grey range between pure white and pure black. Imagine you take away all the hues of an image, all that is left are the black, greys and white values.

    I tend to organize images according to the use of values in 3 ways.

    a) They can be high key (most values are closer to white), low key (most values are closer to black) or use the full range.

    b) They can be high contrast (only a few grey areas) or low contrast images (most image is grey, with few whites and darks).

    c) They can be organized to simulate lighting or not.

    (3) COLORS - These are all the hues that make up the color wheel. They can be saturated or desaturated and always work together with values. They can be organized in hot or cool colors. They can also be arranged in color palettes (this palettes have different names depending on the colors position in the color wheel - Complementary, Analogous, Primary, Secondary, etc). Never forget that colors are not perceived independently, they always suffer influence from the surrounding colors.

    Let's make some decisions!

    Whenever you're creating an image you have to make decisions (consciously or unconsciously). Say you're going to draw a character. Will you draw it in an action pose, or will it be sitting straight? Will you draw it in complete darkness and the only things visible are its cigar and glasses or will it be a sunny scene in the beach?

    Of course decisions can go much farther than that: will you draw with a 6B pencil or an HB automatic pencil? Will you draw free hand or with a ruler? Will you detail everything or jus the character's eyes? Will you use vivid colors or only grayish ones?

    There are many decisions that will affect the result of your image. Some are related to basic art elements (shapes, values and colors), others can be related to technique (digital or analogue), medium (oil, photography, watercolor, collage, etc), theme (fantasy, Sci-fi, etc) or even time constrains that you can set (draw a portrait in 30 seconds, 1 minute or 5 minutes).

    The moment you keep repeating some of these decisions, you start creating a style.

    As time goes by, the artist starts to be very comfortable working under a set of constraints. That is, some decisions are so obvious to him/her that he/she doesn't see them as decisions anymore but as "rule" of how he/she does things.

    How many styles are there?

    Well, they are probably infinite (I really have no idea). But if you take a step back and look at the big picture, you can start to see some style patterns that allow us to categorize them.

    I generally see people trying to sort styles in a linear range from "realistic" to "cartoon" (and everything in between is called "stylized").

    This works "OK" for exaggerated comparisons like Call of Duty and Super Mario or State of Decay cinematic and Asterix.

    It starts to get messy when you add the so called "stylized" examples. Kingdom Hearts, Kentucky Route Zero, LoL, Inside, Disco Elysium and a cubist painting are between Call of duty and Super Mario. Yet they are very different from one another and it seems that their difference is not only about being realistic or cartoony.

    My bottom line is: the linear classification from Realistic to Cartoon is too simple to be useful for two reasons: most styles end up falling in the "stylized" label and it isn't practical to order them in a Realistic to Cartoon fashion.

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