Before I climb onto my high horse and incur the wrath of an entire generation of budding artists, it’s probably best if I go over my qualifications as a rider, so to speak. Yes I am a professional artist. Art is keeping me fed and paying my mortgage. I’ve been drawing since I was old enough to stop eating crayons, and I’ve been lucky to enjoy a classical art education and 13 years as a professional 2D and 3D artist in the games industry before going to teach the same at Bradford University where I’ve been running the BA Graphics for Games course for 5 years. I now run their whole Games, Animation and VFX division. So I’m just saying I know what I’m talking about here, in case you were wondering.
If you Google “Why is drawing Mange/Anime bad?” You’ll get around 2.6 million results, mostly from forums on Deviant Art or similar asking why this is considered a problem, followed by another 100 bazillion replies from those who vehemently tell them it’s not. In all the impassioned posts and replies there seems to be a lack of professionally presented opinion, which is why riding my horse of average height into this debate.
One of the main issues that is glossed over in the midst of all the shouting is that the well-established “Manga/Anime style” that everyone seems to have an opinion about, is not just one style but a fairly wide variety of aesthetics that range from highly graphic design based (e.g. super deformed) to very slick and commercial (e.g. classic airbrushed Manga) to just plain cheap and nasty (e.g. sweatshop produced anime cartoons). There are many young, budding artists who are inspired to draw by all of these types of Manga or Anime and this is a good thing – anything that inspires someone to draw will help them to become a better artist. Practice makes perfect, right? Well yes. And no.
All artists need practice, but amateur artists who want to transition from beginner to a proficiency of drawing will need to plan that practice in order to progress. And this is where drawing in the Manga/Anime style can be as much of a hindrance as a help. Here’s how it happens:
First of all, many an amateur Anime/Manga artist sets their benchmark for quality at the lowest possible standard; e.g. the cheaply produced anime of Toei Animation studios (creators of many an outsourced TV cartoon including Dragonball) and their kind, rather than the highly commercial airbrushed artwork of Shirow Masamune, or the superbly detailed penmanship of Kentaro Miura or similar. Compare the latter with so-called “Anime royalty” Studio Ghibli and you’ll see a world of difference in style and quality. Even the best aren’t necessarily considered the best, artistically speaking.
Then many of these artists decide that as soon as they have produced an approximation of cheap and nasty Anime, they have “made it” as an artist, and can now sit back and enjoy the plaudits of their peers and a long, lucrative career in the aforementioned style, probably at Studio Ghibli itself or at the very least Capcom or Namco.
This is where the problem of “is Anime bad?” really lies. It’s not about the styles in themselves; it’s more about the misuse of the least challenging variety as a shortcut to artistic prowess at the expense of a wider understanding of aesthetics, theory and technique. Am I saying that Manga or Anime have none of these things? Absolutely not. But simply learning to copy the least challenging aspects of a whole culture of graphical and artistic expression isn’t going to make anyone a great artist.
To examine this issue in more detail – I am an academic in art after all – I’ve broken it down into four critical issues of only drawing in a Manga or Anime style, and why this is limiting to developing artists. Me and my horse will now trample all over them. Sorry.
Aiming low is my personal bugbear with Anime and Manga wannabes. Many of these artists are so obsessed with the subject they are unaware that they’re aiming low in many of their artistic efforts. Mostly what is presented to me at applicant interviews and in first year personal work is a straightforward copy of someone else’s art – and usually this is done badly. I’ve seen countless student portfolios of copied work, some of it line for line. While copying is a good start to developing your observational muscles, this is kid’s stuff and should happen right at the start of your artistic journey, not when you’re 18 and looking for a place at university or have already secured one. If you’re still copying someone else’s work at this stage in your artistic development, as opposed to dissecting it and incorporating its influences, techniques and styles into your own artistic experiments, you’re not a buffed up artist, you’re a puny mimic. Ouch.
But is this because budding Anime and Manga artists want an easy life? I don’t think this is a conscious decision. But copying Anime is quick and there are some very accessible rules (or “formal elements” as we classical artists like to call them) of Manga that make it easy to follow, albeit easy to follow badly. It’s much easier to follow the formal elements of the cheaper, mass produced kind of Anime than it is to follow the formal elements of drawing in general. And this is what makes Manga and Anime drawing so seductive – the results are almost instant, which makes for a very easy life as an artist. You know, as opposed to the life of every other kind of artist which is fraught with long, hard practice, failed experiments and the risky revelation of your innermost being on the page for everyone to see and critique as you develop your own personal style. Much easier, then, to copy something already established and beyond question. This is where drawing in an Anime style is not so good for you.
Formal elements of drawing
So what are the formal elements of drawing that can be safely ignored if the artist is obsessed with copying an established, but simplified style such as the cheaper kind of Anime? The short answer is: Most of them.
The longer answer includes elements such as composition, depth, framing, posture, pose, balance, weight, dynamism, line, implied line, tone, colour theory, a variety of materials and mark making techniques that range from impressionistic to gestural. Planning on the page, the construction of form, negative space, complex perspectives and foreshortening, and not least of all human anatomy are not really part of the formal elements of cheap Manga or Anime. But they form the basis of all observational drawing and are used extensively in Manga’s more sophisticated varieties. Sadly they are suspiciously absent in the amateur Manga artist portfolio 99 times out of 100, because those are not the varieties of Manga that young artists aspire to.
Artificially limiting your influences
Ignoring the formal elements is easy when you don’t know what they are in the first place, and this happens when artists artificially limit their influences – for example by only watching every kind of Dragonball anime and playing JRPGs exclusively. Everyone has a geeky passion that consumes them and inspires them in equal measure, and that’s great – mine is sci-fi and fantasy – but don’t let it blind you to a whole world of visual information and inspiration. The best Manga artists are inspired by other things and bring them into their art, which is why every artist needs to do the same, no matter what style they prefer.
But let’s talk about style for a moment. How do accomplished artists evolve their own personal styles? Animal sacrifice? A visit by the Originality Fairy? Who knows? On a personal level this is one of life’s great mysteries. On a wider, strategic level it’s through a repeated cycle of exploration, observation, inspiration, experimenting, failure, serendipity and practice.
In many ways this is no different to what a wannabe Anime artist does – except these artists just look to one place and one place only and conveniently forgetting the element of exploring mentioned above. This means they are artificially stifling any kind of transition from copycat to innovator and their work becomes cripplingly derivative, and usually not as good as the source material either, because it isn’t underpinned by all the necessary formal elements that underpin all great drawing.
Expand your horizons! Opening up your sphere of influences is critical to becoming a proficient artist, and it’s fun too! Being inspired by something randomly beautiful wherever you may find beauty is what being an artist is all about. But you have to open your eyes to new experiences and (and this is the biggie) get out there to experience them. This means leaving the comfortable safety net of Anime behind, although you can come back to it newly invigorated, refreshed and better informed. That’s what artists do too.
What I’m trying to say is that Manga and Anime styles are OK as long as they are underpinned by those formal elements that are most obvious outside of Manga and Anime. Otherwise they are just copies of throwaway commercial works that were designed to be quick and make the most profit for the smallest possible investment. How could any artist progress if that is their personal business model?
Talking of business, Anime and Manga are huge commercial entities that are gleefully consumed by fans all over the world. Studio Ghibli, the Anime movie studio that is arguably the biggest in western markets, is reported to have annual production costs of over ¥2 billion (that’s nearly £11 billion). This may sound like money to burn, but the truth is that Ghibli is an exception to the rule. Anime in particular is mostly produced on the cheap. This is partly due to location: Eastern labour markets work differently to western ones, which is why places like Toei Animation did so much outsourcing for American cartoon companies like Hanna Barbera etc. But it’s also about quantity, market saturation, and the often crushing deadlines of commercial media, because this stuff is needed in bucket loads, and it’s needed fast.
Chances are you’ve heard of the Project Management or Production Triangle, where each of the corners point to fast, cheap and good (or derivatives thereof). The idea is that anything produced can work in positive terms of two of the three, but not all three at the same time. So just like any media product you can have artwork that is fast and good, because there are very highly skilled artists making it, but they cost a lot of money. Or you can have artwork that is cheap and good, but this takes a long time to produce due to smaller or more inexperienced teams with longer deadlines.
Anime is no different, and in this production triangle a lot of it sits firmly in the “fast” and “cheap” corners. As an artist, do you really want to position yourself in this part of the market, to work to crushing deadlines for very little money? There is a reason why I used the word “sweatshop” earlier.
Yes there are exceptions in Manga and Anime, as there are in every line of commercial art. But these exceptions (like Kentaro Miura mentioned above) are hugely successful artists who helped shape the medium from the start of their careers. They’re the innovators here, not the followers. Followers get to work fast and cheap, remember?
This is where I come to an uncomfortable truth about market differences in Europe and Japan: I have never met a western artist who has made it working in a Japanese market on artwork that is so culturally Japanese. And I’ve mingled with literally thousands of artists in games, animation and illustration.
Why this is, I can’t say for certain. I do know that Japanese culture is not as welcoming to outsiders as European culture is, for example. I also know that Japanese media markets are much more insular than Western ones: Media tends to flow out of Japan, not into it. Just look at the hardware sales of Nintendo and Sony in Japan and compare them to Microsoft. Japanese consumers are not hugely interested in western versions of their own, home-grown culture. If you think this is racist, try to look at it this way: If someone from half way across the globe showed up and tried to tell you how to make your greatest selling national cultural media, how would you feel? Especially if they weren’t very good at it, and didn’t understand the intricacies of the medium like you do.
So to answer the question is it bad to draw in an Anime or Manga style, the answer is probably yes: Yes, if you aim low and are bad at it. Yes, if you use the style as an excuse not to develop as an artist. Yes, if you don’t want to work in a cheap, rushed production line of throwaway artwork. And even then, yes if you are not of Japanese descent.
But drawing Manga and Anime is not a completely or inherently bad idea either: Not if you aim high and use the masters as your benchmark. Not if you use these influences as part of your wider artistic journey of self-discovery in developing your own unique artistic style and flair. As for eastern labour markets, it’s up to you if you want to give them a try for a couple of years. Expand your horizons, remember? But don’t expect anyone to roll out the red carpet for you – you’re on your own.
 Please note I am not making any judgement calls about content here, just about skill and sophistication of technique.