Saturday, July 6, 2013

Pixel Art Lesson: Style

Watching Attack on Titan right now.  Annoyed that it's still only subtitled (I like dubbed anime cuz I can multitask, with subs I have to put all my attention on the screen), but enjoying it a lot. This is a kickass song from the soundtrack.

Style is a touchy subject in art, not just in pixel art. The idea of having a consistent appearance is tempting and alluring. But Style is dangerous if not handled properly.
First, let's talk about what Style is, or more accurately, what the Style I'll be talking about really is. Style is a set of rules, on the pixel or composition level, that the artist follows in order to provide a consistent look to their art. It's my general thought that falling to style without clear deliberation is akin to strangling your creative abilities. With intention, it can work just fine, but in moderation, and I'll go into that, but in general I consider Style a thing to be avoided without the utmost care.

So how does style actually come about? The two primary ways is through natural tendency and by forcing it. Forcing style has a lot of motivations as well, but let's touch Natural Tendency first. Natural Tendency is the best path to Style as a whole, and it's entirely normal. As you pixel and gain experience, you'll discover things about how you like to pixel. Maybe you find that you have a fondness for dithering, or you really like handling saturated colors, and those elements start recurring over and over in your work. It turns into consistency, and you have Style! It's entirely normal. There's nothing wrong with allowing this process to happen. The only thing that a lot of people don't quite grasp when starting out that this MUST be an organic process, you CANNOT rush it. And a style completely found through Natural Tendency is forever evolving, never completely static. Basically, Natural Tendency causes a Style to occur at the composition level, not the pixel level. The exact number of colors in a piece, a certain pattern of dithering, these things aren't set in stone by a Natural Tendency.
Natural Tendency alone can have an issue though, and that's falling in ruts. If you just keep languishing in the same compositional choices that you're comfortable with, they're consistent, but you aren't expanding. If I tend to do low-color high-saturation pieces with lots of dithering, try moving outside the box! Do something high-color, or low-saturation, or use no dithering.

The other way Style appears is if you force it. Now, "forced" carries with it some negative connotations, but that's not to say that it's universally bad. There are perfectly good reasons to enforce a style. The reasons we force style are:
* As an excuse
* Building an identity
* Games
* Technique Mastery
* Exploration

Let's hit 'em one at a time.
* As an excuse: This is an extremely common excuse among beginning pixel artists that they use to try and cover up their lower skill level. If I had a nickel for every time I'd read "That's not wrong, it's just part of the style!" I'd probably have a few bucks at least. There are two reasons this is such a prevalent excuse: genuine misunderstanding of how style should work, and because it is very hard to counter. Maybe it WAS just a part of the style! That's why, when I intentionally leave a flaw in a piece for purposes of style, I call it out while posting that element X or Y is a stylistic choice, not a mistake. The thing is, if they're not using an established style (modeled after a certain game, a person, a console), their choices of style are totally open to critique. Style can be WRONG. If I like to make my lines all jagged and don't clean anything up, it doesn't matter if it's the style, it's still bad pixelling unless done with the utmost care. And if they really don't understand that the sort of style they're pushing should be developed over time rather than forced, well, explain it to them.
Style is also an excuse for laziness when it comes to experimenting. It's easy to fall back on what you usually do, rather than branching out and trying new things.

* Building an Identity: In my opinion, the ultimate reason that people want a style. It's also the most viable reason to force a style consistently over time. In order for an artist to go commercial with their talents, they need to be distinct from the rest of the herd. If they can't do it with pure talent, they need some sort of visual edge to them that makes them special, and a unique style is the easiest way. When I look at the front page of PixelJoint, or heck, even the front page of DeviantArt, on occasion there's a piece that jumps out and I say "I know who that's by!". That sort of brand recognition is the main reason people want to say they have a "style" in my experience. And that's an important thing if you ever want to stand out.
You cannot let that identity rule your art. That style identity is meant as an expression of yourself and the way you work, and if you abandon your own continued exploration in order to maintain that public image, the image really isn't genuine anymore. Of course, if you only show the public your normal styled pieces, sure, go ahead. But never stop trying new things and experimenting just because you have an image to maintain.

* Games: The biggest reason to use a style. I say "games," but I mean any unified project, so it could include things like the music video for Gowe's song Aurora or whatever other projects, but video games are the most common. There are two reasons a game leads to style. The first is much less common nowadays, but involves limitations of the target console. If you make a Super Nintendo game's graphics, you have to obey the limitations of the SNES (16 colors per sprite, colors per tile, number of sprites per line, etc). This isn't a matter of choosing style, but having it thrust upon you, and that's totally okay and without issue. The other reason is in order to create a cohesive whole. Think about the Legend of Zelda series. If you're playing Wind Waker, imagine if all the graphics were the same but the Link model was the one from Twilight Princess. Kinda jarring, right? That's because the styles are different. The same applies to pixels - imagine if Sonic sprite fell into Super Mario World. It can happen on a much milder level too: if you look at sprites from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and ones from Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, there's subtle differences but they're enough that transplanting from one game to another would be somewhat unsettling (either looking oddly poor-quality or oddly high-quality, depending on which game was the transplanter). My point with all this is that when you have multiple parts to a single whole, they need to look like they match each other, and to do that you need to establish style.
Basically, using a game's style, whether for an actual game or for a mockup isn't as much an exercise in style as it is an exercise in operating under limitations. You shouldn't lock your personal style into just being a game style.

* Technique Mastery: Certain styles showcase certain techniques. Repeated use of that style can give you an excellent understanding of that technique. For example, Fire Emblem's mugshot style is fantastic for learning really REALLY smooth AA and skin tones. Commodore 64 style is exceptional for learning how to operate under a highly unconventional palette, for learning how Wide Pixels work, and for how to use gray as a buffer color. Most styles have something in particular they're good for learning, but the big key here is that you then have to take that mastery and apply it elsewhere, on other art outside of that style.  Understanding gray as a buffer in the c64 palette is only really valuable if you can then understand gray as a buffer color outside the c64 palette.

* Exploration: Related to the others, you can use styles for exploration and experimentation. This is, in my opinion, the purest reason to use styles on a personal basis. It's close to style mastery, but instead of doing a ton of it for fully understanding a technique, it's more like just dipping your toe in and experiencing a style and moving on. It's a decent test of skill as well, trying out weird or different styles just to try. This is the entire purpose of the April Fools challenge that Pixel Joint has had a couple times, where the goal is to imitate a different artist's style (whether it's just Natural Tendency or an established thing of their's).

And those are a bunch of reasons for why people force style, and how forcing style isn't always a bad thing. However, this can't be a retroactive thing; if you don't have the intention of doing a game's style or mastering a technique through style repetition or trying out something new just to learn, then those things simply become excuses. That's what I mean when I say that using style has to be a very deliberate process.

Basically, I've set up a set up steps that are more or less a way to Safely Establish Personal Style.
1. Don't rush yourself into a style. Work until you understand your Natural Tendencies. This can take some time. Just pixel and analyze your older pieces as you progress.
2. Try a lot of established styles. Game styles, console restrictions, other people's styles, whatever, just do lots and lots.
3. Now you can start thinking about what it means to have a personal style. Absolutely make sure you understand the difference between a Style and a Restriction. Restrictions are pixel-level limitations, either self-imposed or caused by the system, while Style is composition-level guidelines. There's some nomenclature weirdness here - often you'll see a game's set of Restrictions referred to as that style; Fire Emblem style, for example. But even things like that are Restrictions in this distinction. The biggest difference is that Style is flexible and evolving, while Restrictions are hard and unbreaking.
4. Devise the basic guidelines of your Style. Keep in mind that it's Style, not Restriction, and that it should generally be on the composition level rather than the pixel level. Base the guidelines on your existing Natural Tendencies and conscious thought you have about how pixel art should work. For example, some artists think that dithering is a strong tool and make frequent use of it, incorporating it in their style (eg Jinn) while others think that dithering is less necessary and that strong pixel clusters are a more important thing to focus on (eg Cure). That sort of stuff is also good to include in your guidelines.
5. Use it a lot. Release pictures in that style. Keep using it.
6. NEVER STOP EXPERIMENTING. Keep the stuff private if you're worried about diluting a public image, but always keep trying new things. Let your style improve over time - after all, if you're establishing a style for commercial purposes, no one wants an artist who's letting him/herself stagnate in sameness.
 That's basically it. But before I'm done for the day, I want to talk about a couple individuals. They're examples of a couple different things, some good elements, some bad. I don't mean any offense to any individuals here.

Jinn is an incredible artist. His art is also very distinct, recognizable at first glance. More than anything else, this is due to his color selection. He has an established palette he uses, but frequently deviates from it if the piece demands it. He does a lot of dithering, and typically has very distinct highlight and shadow regions. To me, Jinn is a perfect example of crafting style without becoming slave to style.

So I don't have to keep typing OCEANSCENTED, I'm just calling her Iggy. Iggy's a damn good artist who has managed to NAIL the "building an Identity with Style" thing. She still experiments and has no problems with trying out all sorts of stuff. In general, this is the proper approach to style. However, her style is definite itself has some issues. As the product of almost complete Natural Tendency (I suspect), it's not particularly refined, but that's okay, as often those pieces that lack refinement are stress-relief or productions of boredom. When it comes to the big, significant pieces, she works hard on making things work.
This is an example of a personal style that has been approached properly, but has pixel-level techniques holding it back. And that will come with time and practice - she's already improved at an exponential rate over the past year.

The Merc FCS is a master of the Fire Emble style. He's also my definition of "Style-as-rut". And if he finds it fun to keep doing it like this, more power to 'im. But he knows he ought to branch out and continue experimenting, that unless he does he'll probably start to stagnate. He's been sticking to the style lately, but has been adding full bodies, and a whole horse, and such to start branching out. That's enough for now, and his mastery of skin AA that Fire Emblem teaches will serve him well.

So that's three different artists, with three different approaches to Style. Oh, and I wanted to mention one more:

Myself. No images. I just wanted to call out that I'm not exempt or anything, nor have I mastered staying out of style ruts. But a lot of common elements you see in my pieces are due to laziness on a pixel level, rather than an experimental or stylistic level. I do a lot of coloring others' linearts instead of doing my own, which is definitely laziness, but not actually an impediment to style. You can draw the same subject matter a million times and still be doing it in different styles and experimenting with it. So that's an important distinction to remember.

I think that's a pretty good discussion for today! I confess that I'm pretty much out of any backlog for Pixel Art Lessons so they might not be an every week thing, but I hope to get one up as many Saturdays as possible. Later folks!

EDIT: In a nice coincidence, the PixelJoint Chatbox had an excellent discussion on evolution of style and the established styles and habits that have appeared over the years. The discussion has moved over to Pixelation as it's much more theory-based, and the thread is ongoing. It is fascinating and if you have interest in the style stuff I talked about last week, PLEASE check it out because these people are smarter than I am, or at least more experienced. And as Helm and Cure have pointed out, none of this is firm or formal really, but it is fascinating.
End Recording,

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