One of the greatest things that anime ever did for me was give me the desire to create. I was a really bookish kid, and the idea of writing had always been pretty appealing to me. Anime – and later on, manga as well – introduced me to the idea that I could not only create stories, but create visuals to add texture to those stories. At twelve years old, I started to draw very regularly. It was all fan art, and most of it was pretty bad. But it started me on a path to creating my own characters and stories, and I honestly have to credit more Japanese mangaka for my artistic abilities than any specific Western master painter.
But in art circles, “anime style” gets a really freakin’ bad rap. And for the most part, I can understand; a lot of kids are buying up those “How to Draw Manga” pieces of junk and thinking that having a formula for drawing people is more or less correct at all times. But from a personal point of view – and knowing a lot of other people who have gotten into art via fantasy illustration or drawing Pokemon – this is an extremely narrow-minded way of thinking. Animanga artwork is as wide-reaching as Western art; the automatic assumption is that it all looks the same when, honestly, there are more obvious differences in Sailor Moon versus Dragon Ball Z than there is between a Titian painting and a Tintoretto painting [I realize I am being vastly hyperbolic; bear with me].
There is, of course, the age-old excuse of “well, it just doesn’t look realistic.” Screw that, since when is art supposed to look realistic? We haven’t been making realistic looking art for the last couple centuries! Someone try to tell me that Picasso ever made a realistic painting. Or Van Gogh. Or Toulouse-Lautrec or Mucha or Klimt or Monet or Manet or Munch. Please. Convince me.
I never set out to duplicate any one artist or any particular style. I drew (and still draw) as much influence from Naoko Takeuchi (Sailor Moon) as I did from Edward Gorey or Dr. Seuss or Alphons Mucha or Gustav Klimt. Anime planted the seed, the interest and the desire to make art and therefore to learn more about it. I ended up studying art in college (mask-making and sculpture, not actually drawing and illustration). I’ve done figure drawing and still life drawing and figure sculpture and more. And this is what my art looks like now:
I have a lot of knowledge about art, and I have the skills to render a “realistic” portrait (I find the term realistic to be excessively silly, because drawing is totally based on illusion). I think these are important skills to have, and the majority of mangaka actually go to art school and learn all this stuff, too. But if I wanted an exact replica of someone, I would take a picture of them; the purpose of animation and comic books is not to replicate, but to allow the reader(s) to insert themselves into the action. Creating simplified characters allows a reader to relate better (all this comic book theory comes courtesy of Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud, which is an absolutely wonderful read).
The underlying issue is, of course, that the comic book genre has never fared well in the high-brow world of so-called fine art. So even if a child becomes enamored with fine art via a low-brow medium, that medium remains low-brow. Despite the fact that some illustration should really be considered fine art,like the work of Yoshitaka Amano, whom I mentioned last week. Again, he did illustration for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman story, Dream Hunters. I don’t know how many people realized, without looking at his name, that he is a Japanese artist with an impressive art-ography where animanga is concerned.
There are many people in the high art world who will actually tell you that illustration is not art. Which technically invalidates…well, the entire Renaissance, to start. The urge to illustrate and to interpret figures on paper/canvas/cave wall is extremely inherent to the human condition. In many ways, I think low art in all its forms is more true to the human experience than high art can ever hope to be. Allow me to feel and to understand and to believe, and I’m sold. Too often, the only people who get any enjoyment out of going to a museum are the ones who have had an art history education. And while I think that half the problem is that art history isn’t emphasized enough in education, I also think that it’s just really hard to relate to something that has no bearing on your own life.
Anime got me to draw, seriously, for the first time. I haven’t stopped in almost thirteen years. I have at least 30 sketchbooks full of my work, plus a plethora of art markers, watercolors, colored pencils, acrylic paints, paint brushes, spray paints, ink wells, polymer clays, art books, reference books – et cetera. I really do not believe that I would have done any of this work if I hadn’t watched anime for the first time at five years old. My mother was really into art, had gone to art school for a couple years, but large-scale paintings always seemed way less accessible and far more intimidating. Anime was a safe start for a child, and now it is a passion.
I don’t “draw anime” now, though people have often mentioned that they can see the influence in my work (which I think is actually kind of funny, because I’m blind to it). But I can watch anime and read manga with a critical eye, with an eye that knows when the artist hasn’t had a whole lot of drawing experience, or how long it took to make one single panel. My life would be a little less colorful without art, and I would probably be really frustrated with not being able to visualize my ideas well enough.
It is never a bad idea to expose yourself to artwork. And I think that looking at animanga and also further back into Japanese artwork as a whole can be a hugely informative experience for any artist in any genre. You can never have too wide-reaching a pool of influence, especially since anime has very steadily been making its presence huge in the West.
And while I don’t recommend filling your portfolio to RISD with Yu-Gi-Oh! fan art, I don’t believe that having a background and an interest in manga-style artwork is anything to be ashamed of, or anything to be taken for granted.