The Art of Wabi-Sabi for Sprites

Have you ever been able to pick out CGI scenes in movies because the 3D was too perfect? The enormous monsters were too shiny and sharply rendered, the walls of castles were too smooth and cleanly colored, or the aliens moved too much like the same five or six pre-programmed motions that all animators learn in art school (I’m looking at you, Stephen Spielberg).

Real life is “real” because it’s full of tiny imperfections that you don’t expect. The walls on buildings collect dirt and corrode over time. Old trees bend down from ages of harsh winds and heavy snows. People move in spontaneous, unique, hard to calculate ways.

The little imperfections that show up in items like handmade ceramic dishes or those classic steel gates built by master blacksmiths? There’s a difference between those and what you find in the sanitized aisles of Ikea or some automated factory where everything is mass-produced by a machine.

You guys who grew up on the computer-less, scratchy ink lines of 80s anime: remember the big scene in the Transformers Movie when Unicron took like half an hour to transform into a giant robot with a billion different camera cuts of intricately detailed hand-drawn mechanics that must’ve eaten through every compass and straight-edge in that animation studio? That was way more gorgeous than the perfectly flawless 3D cel-shaded 48fps CGI we see in cartoons today.

It didn't take long for us to realize we'd never see anything like this ever again on the big screen.

Why? What is it that makes these imperfect subjects more appealing than perfect ones? It’s really hard to describe, since it’s so subjective. And yet leave it to the ever-ambitious Japanese culture to attempt to do it. They’ve called it Wabi-Sabi, and they’ve apparently known about it for a while. But give it a Google, and you’ll see that even today there’s no full agreement on what this ancient term actually means, since it covers so much territory. For now, let’s just say wabi-sabi is why we’re drawn to the little and sometimes unexpected details of real life, be they imperfections or so on.

–Now what does this have to do with improving your sprite art?

Like most disciplines, if you work at improving your abilities in art, there comes a point where you’ve done all you can in the area that you were learning and in order to keep growing as an artist, you begin looking for other styles, techniques and influences. So some pixel artists might begin trying to add impressionism into their work and do new things with color temperatures, while others could experiment with (appropriately) cubism and go crazy with the straight nature of pixels.

But for this article I’m going to tell you why you should apply the philosophy of wabi-sabi to your pixels.

Woah woah woah, Kiwi. How do you mix some vague, abstract appreciation of little imperfections with an art style made from perfectly square blocks of pixels?” Good question. The important starting point is that to be a good artist, you can’t just be superficial. Don’t look at a sprite and ask how you can make it look more “handmade,” but rather ask how can you think more like an ancient Japanese artist while you’re creating your art so that the results come naturally. So, brain-twisting as it is, let’s look at some more expert attempts to define this as an art style.

Wabi-sabi emphasizes:

  • a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete
  • subtle details, even if noticed only by vigilant viewers
  • the importance of looking closely
  • the effectiveness of small doses
  • having quiet authority without having to be the center of attention
  • a beauty of things modest, humble and sober
  • paring down to the essence, but not removing the poetry. Keeping things clean but not sterilized
  • keeping things simple but not boring
  • realizing something’s “interestingness” has nothing to do with how complex it is

Don’t be fooled. Each of these points can relate to your blocky-pixelled sprites just as much as they do to fine handmade chinaware.

Practical examples ahoy: How do you make a sprite artistically incomplete? Selective outlining. Don’t encase the light areas of your figure in an outline. Let it break through.

How do you pare down to the essence but not remove the poetry? Stop overworking your art with details like excessive shading of clothing or capes or hair. Just because you can draw it doesn’t mean you should toss it in. As any art instructor will tell you, the best artists in the world have mastered the skill of knowing when they’re done. (Most professional sprites follow this rule already because they have to be able to animate easily.)

The same point is repeated with keeping things “modest, humble and sober”: Keep things focused, use a limited palette and keep the visual flourishes to a minimum.

The flip side to this is that while you should keep things simple, that doesn’t mean make them boring. Rather, the simplicity should be pushing extraneous detail out of the way so that the “story” of the artwork can most clearly be looked at and enjoyed over and over again.

wabi sabi for sprites

Alright, a little exaggerated, but bear with me. Overly defined lines: bad. Let the linework fade in and out with the light. Sharp, straight outlines and silhouettes (the legs): bad. Imitate the subtlety of nature and weave in organic curves in place of straight, mechanical lines. Not shown: overworked elements like adding texture to the suit, which would clutter up the whole sprite

How do you make sprites interesting without overdoing it? By using the tricks of subtlety that you as an artist pick up with experience. You might be able to arrange shading on a torso that instead of outright defining abdominal muscles only lightly suggests them. Take note, the effort you make in reaching that level of sophistication will not be appreciated by every spectator. Remember, it’s good artists who are more than superficial. They’re the ones who’ll have the capacity to appreciate it.

Finally, just how *do* you add those little imperfections of life into so stiff an art style? This question opens up how there’s always a war happening in your artwork between the mechanical and the organic. Humans are organic, flowy, curvy subjects. There’s nothing perfectly straight or mechanical to be found in figure drawing, and this is one of your prime challenges when working with pixels. You have to make that extra effort to fight the straight, blocky and mechanical nature of pixels and add organic curves to your figures, even when they’d be almost imperceptible. Note that this applies more to your shading/light patches than your silhouette/outlines, since you have more leeway smooth things together with colors than you do with the on-off nature of outside edges.

I could go on about this for a long while since I find a lot to love about wabi-sabi both in pixel art and real life, but I hope this was enough to give you a new outlook on life. Mechanical versus organic, knowing when you’re done, and the imperfections of real life. If you want to be a good artist, these concepts will show you the roads you should be taking. If you want to add dimension to the art you’re already making, the subtleties of these concepts will make you feel like you’ve discovered drawing all over again.

Smarten your brain up! Read more about wabi-sabi here:

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