The Main Anime Animation Styles – Three Ways To Create Anime


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While we often use the word “anime” as an umbrella term for anything with a Japanese animation look and feel, anime itself, as an art form, is diverse and infinite in variation.

Like all art styles, anime has been shaped by the rise and development of new technologies that make drawing more efficient and cleaner.

Some anime artists, however, stick to the old-fashioned method of pencil and paper. Let’s explore the three anime animation styles.

Key Takeaways

  • In the early years, anime production was entirely handmade using paper, pencil, and celluloid sheets.
  • In the 20th century, animation studios started to use digital tools, such as drawing tablets and art software, to produce keyframes and the majority of the animation work.
  • In the 20th century also came the use of CGI in anime.
  • CGI was and is mostly used to create backgrounds and special effects for anime.
  • Nowadays, anime production combines all three ways of working: hand drawing (sketches), digital drawing (coloring, line art, keyframes, etc. – most of the work is done digitally), and CGI (backgrounds, liquid elements, special effects, objects, and items that take too long to draw by hand).

Traditional Hand-Drawn Anime Style

Anime, in the sense of Japanese animation, came about in the 1960s, when all animation was done by hand.

It borrowed its style from manga, which was being drawn and published as early as the 1900s. As anime grew in popularity, artists everywhere were concreting its signature style, which would last until even the days of CGI.

Drawing by hand, however, is not as simple as pen and paper. Achieving the intricate details and bright, fashionable colors characteristic of the art style requires specialized materials.

Interestingly, many of the methods used by Japanese anime artists were also used by contemporary animators like Walt Disney.

Materials Used For Hand-Drawn Anime Style

The groundwork for the anime movie Ghost in the Shell. The picture is from the anime art book Ghost in the Shell Original Collection -Archives.

First and foremost, traditional hand-drawn anime requires the use of high-quality paper. Regular printer paper is too thin and will warp if used with markers or watercolor.

Paper that’s too thick can be expensive or impractical to use, and the finish of the paper can affect the drawing experience.

Many artists who work in the traditional anime style prefer to keep a sketchbook with them for working out ideas.

Pencils are the most common drawing utensil used, although artist pencils differ from your typical number 2’s used in school. Artist pencils range in hardness and use a lettering system to indicate the strength of the lead.

The letter B represents the softer side of the scale, whereas the letter H represents the scale’s harder (or lighter) side. A 9B pencil is the softest available, and a 9H pencil is the hardest. Most artists carry an HB pencil (of medium hardness), 2B, 3B, and others suited to their needs.

Mechanical pencils are also commonly used materials among anime artists, as they are good for achieving finely tuned, even lines. Like traditional pencils, their lead also has many variations, in this case, by thickness.

Next time you pick up a mechanical pencil, look for the size of the lead used, usually indicated by millimeters.

Although we commonly call it lead, most pencils use graphite for their drawing element. Some pencils are made entirely of graphite and are popular among artists.

They’re easier to sharpen, and a thin coating on the outside of the pencil ensures that your hands don’t get dirty from the graphite.

One more crucial art supply for traditional hand-drawn anime is an eraser. That sounds self-explanatory, but artists’ erasers are different from your typical pink erasers.

Kneaded erasers are made of dense putty that can be manipulated and rolled out into any shape.

This allows artists to erase even the most minute details and carefully revise their pieces. One thing that anime art styles are known for is their number of intricate details, including hair, clothing, and color.

In contrast, however, forms are typically simplified in anime. While anatomy is true to life, things such as shading and perspective are condensed or otherwise simplified.

This affects the materials that traditional artists must use in order to achieve this look.

Felt-tip markers are popular for detailing and bright colors, whereas colored pencils are great for color-blocking large areas. Some artists work exclusively with pens, with ballpoint pens becoming increasingly more popular among traditional hand-drawn artists today.

Manga artists will often use pens, markers, or Indian ink to exaggerate bold lines and manga elements, like speech bubbles.

Production Time

Traditional hand-drawn anime styles have a look that can’t be achieved any other way. If you’ve seen a Studio Ghibli film, you can sense the hard work it took to create such dynamic and beautiful scenes.

At movie studios like Studio Ghibli, even short animation frames can take hours of work and many hands to finish. Hand-drawn anime, while visually stunning, is especially time-consuming. Hand-drawn artists don’t have the luxury of “control-z” or a color picker.

Major anime productions require an assembly line for everything from outlining to color, shading, backgrounds, and more.

Digital Hand-Drawn Anime Style

Because of the barriers that drawing by hand presents, many artists and anime studios have taken to drawing digitally. Digital hand-drawn anime gives a similar look and feel to pencil and paper but with the convenience of digital tools. 

With art software and drawing tablets, an artist can access thousands of tools, including a color picker, layers, pencils, pens, watercolor, eraser, and, more importantly, an undo button (that famous CTRL+Z).

A drawing tablet puts thousands of art supplies into the artist’s pocket. It allows the artist to work off references, 3D models, and tools previously unavailable to the traditional artist (like pattern tools, for example).

Most digital tools seek to replicate the hand-drawing process as closely as possible, making it appealing to artists in the first place.

Tools Used

Image showing digital line art and coloring guidance. Image source.

One thing that makes drawing digitally almost identical to hand drawing is the stylus. Styluses are incredibly sophisticated pieces of technology. 

The biggest barrier that kept hand-drawn artists from going digital was the lack of pressure sensitivity in styluses and drawing tablets.

Artists could not adapt to the flat, opaque lines that styluses would create. Today, almost all styluses have pressure-sensing technology that makes them function like real pencils.

Changing the drawing software’s parameters will allow the stylus to function like watercolor, a pen, or whatever tool the artist chooses.

Drawing software also allows users to manipulate settings such as opacity, hardness, stabilization, and size.

The key advantage to drawing anime digitally is that it’s much more efficient than traditional hand-drawn anime. Special tools for shading and highlighting take a significant load off the artist’s shoulders.

Most applications also offer a variety of custom-made tools by other artists, which can flawlessly produce hair and clothing details like zippers or lace or even create 3D reference models.

Because these details take so long to produce, early versions of anime art become increasingly more simplified to accommodate the amount of time and effort it goes into finishing a piece.

Simplified forms define the look of anime, but with the advent of digital art, anime has exploded with new, nuanced styles and complexities.

Traditional hand-drawn anime will always have a nostalgic feel, but today, many (if not most artists) prefer to draw digitally for convenience.

CGI-Generated Anime Style

Technology continues to reach new heights today, and one of those heights is CGI or computer-generated imagery. Recently, Studio Ghibli, a famed anime movie studio, made headlines when they announced that their latest film would be in CGI and not hand-drawn.

This film, called “Earwig and the Witch,” relies entirely on CGI for its characters, backgrounds, and objects. That doesn’t mean it omits the classic Ghibli style, however.

The animation still has a natural beauty in it with fantastical elements and 3D characters. Some people criticized the change, saying that anime isn’t anime when it’s 3D.

Even Disney recently made the jump from 2D to 3D, with “The Princess and the Frog” being the last hand-drawn film in the studio.

Most films today use CGI, so it seems self-explanatory that the legendary anime studio would jump on board with the trend.

CGI anime is slowly gaining traction in the art world. In terms of efficiency, it’s unparalleled. While not many TV shows rely on CGI today, there are quite a few video games and feature films that use it.

Characters like Hatsune Miku often appear in CGI, which has led to an increased interest in these anime art styles.

Software Used


One downside to CGI is that while’s it more efficient, it’s also more expensive. CGI requires the use of specialized animation software, which can be costly.

It also relies on animators with knowledge of both hand-drawn and computer-generation techniques, and finding an artist who can understand the software can be a challenge in and of itself.

CGI anime artists and game developers often cross paths since they often use the same software.

An example of this is the Unreal engine, which serves as the foundation for many of the biggest game titles.

It’s also frequently used for art and animation because it has a wide range of tools and is user-friendly.

Because the Unreal engine is so popular, more and more people have been using it to create anime and animations. One character model can be posed in any way, cutting down on the time it takes to produce scenes or storyboards.

Look and Feel

The use of CGI in anime art is a controversial topic. CGI anime certainly looks different from the TV shows and manga we grew up with.

It still possesses the elements that define the anime style, including simplified forms and reality. CGI artists also remain true to anime tropes, like colorful hair, large eyes, and familiar expressions and symbols.

The look and feel generated with CGI tends to miss the personality and soul achieved by digital hand drawing the characters and elements in anime.

Using CGI to create anime is more cost-effective, but anime might lose some of its beauty by it.

The Future of Anime

One important thing to consider is that many artists today use a combination of one or more of these styles to produce their work. In particular, many artists sketch an idea out on paper and scan it into drawing software to colorize it.

CGI artists still rely on concept art and storyboarding to produce their work. Some CGI-produced characters are on hand-drawn backgrounds or vice versa.

Mixing these methods is a matter of both style and convenience. Anime from years ago looks drastically different from today. The sharpness of the line art, depth, and variety of colors and effects all bring anime to a new level with today’s technology.



Digital Artist

I’m a digital artist who is passionate about anime and manga art. My true artist journey pretty much started with CTRL+Z. When I experienced that and the limitless color choices and the number of tools I could use with art software, I was sold. Drawing digital anime art is the thing that makes me happy among eating cheeseburgers in between veggie meals.

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