(this journal got a bit out of control, but oh well)
I was looking at some "Draw this again" pics the other day (that's where someone shows a pic they drew a long time ago, then draws it again), and I noticed something interesting. For a lot of the first attempts, you'd see a lot of what I'd say are "generic" anime styles that were popular at the time. The "now" images were drawn in a different, more unique style. They were technically more proficient, but in some ways lacked the earlier pictures "energy". I think that with a bit of that technical skill, the original image in the style it was originally drawn would have looked great.
There's a lot of good in a unique and interesting style. There's also a lot of good in those "generic" styles. To look at anime for a moment, those generic modern styles are used for a purpose- they are appealing, easy to draw at any angle, and expressive. There's a reason why it was created, after all.
Sometimes by trying to force our own styles, we end up moving away from those three positive elements without even knowing it. It's important to break away from the idea that drawing in a generic or standard style is always inferior to an original one. You need to think about exactly what you are trying to do with your art, and act accordingly.
So let's talk about some of the best generic styles. I'll pick out a few that really show what I mean (and that I'm familiar with): cartoons from the 40s, anime from the 80s, and modern anime. I want to talk about what makes them good. If you understand these styles, you'll do much better later on as you grow as an artist- whether you use them or make your own style.
Note that I'm focusing on the more generic styles of the period. I know there were some amazing artists who pushed boundaries and achieved incredible results. I'm looking at the styles used for large-scale production- the styles used when you had to make sure your team of animators or comic artists were being consistent.
Three Key Points to Good Design:
These designs have instant appeal. That doesn't mean they have to be cute- but rather, that they immediately draw your eye and keep your interest. They don't tire you out looking at them. This is a hard point to explain, but if you look at a bunch of characters from these eras (cartoons or anime) you'll get it. Perhaps one way to say it is that the shapes flow well, and don't clash against one another.
2. Easy to draw at any angle- Solid and 3d
When you turn a figure around, it makes sense. With only seeing a couple angles, you can easily visualize pretty much any other angle- and it will look solid.
40s cartoon designs are a great example of this. You can quickly and easily draw them up at any angle. This is because their basic construction makes it simple. Everything is built on that basic structure. It's just complex enough to challenge you. 80s anime characters (and many modern ones) are similar in that they are solid and have a good 3d nature. You can see this in real life figures made of them. They work like something real works, and there are few cheats in their forms.
Look at old 40s cartoons- they are designed to move, even when there's a fair bit of detail. That's because the detail is built up over the basic form- it conforms to the form, it never fights against it. You'll always know where to place something if you build that form correctly.
A good generic style is readable no matter the angle it is drawn at, or the distance away (within reason).
With a good style, you can quickly draw suitable emotions. You can convey whatever action you need to convey. The underlying forms make it look good, because they are straightforward and easy to understand. The styles lend themselves to expression via so many different means.
It's easy to get the point across when drawing them.
Good Generic Styles
So with all that work put into making those good styles (80s/modern anime, 40s cartoons), you can take it and benefit. You can draw in those styles and learn what makes them good. You can work at building your own artistic vocabulary.
As for your own distinct style- it will grow organically. The strongest styles tend to build on previous work in an evolutionary fashion. If you can master the three key points (appeal, ease, expression) by understanding how others have done it, your own unique style will be quite strong. Of course, there are many good points to sticking with those generic/standard styles- if you can do a good job in them, if you have fun drawing with them, and if it turns out well in the end- it's a fine choice to make.
(Special note: You'll notice I specifically left out 50s cartoons and 90s anime. They meet all three points, but require an expert's touch to do so. Take 50s cartoons- many are deceptively simple. Get the underlying forms wrong and they end up looking flat. Because they are so simple, it's easier to misunderstand their form. Then there's stuff like the mid 50s Warner Brothers Cartoons, which again take a tremendous skill to get right.
With 90s anime, get the structure wrong and everything looks weird. 40s cartoons are more obvious. Both 90s anime and 50s cartoons were created in a really unique environment- their creators had worked in the 40s or 80s and were now real masters of the style. They could work wonders with those unique looks.
I'll give a somewhat overused example- Saber Marionette J. You better be at the top of your game to draw those designs consistently- while making them look good.
You'll also notice how this started to go downhill for cartoons at the end of the 50s/start of the 60s, and for anime at the end of the 90s/start of the 2000s. Put simply- the new up guys struggled with the styles and work because they didn't have those years of growth to help them understand. Anime bounced back for many reasons, but cartoons had a period of stagnation into the 70s that is way beyond the scope of this journal.
I'm sure there's plenty of room to disagree with what I wrote- but I think the central point that 50s style cartoons and 90s style anime aren't the easiest to learn from stands.)