Sunday, January 17, 2010


I run into a lot of people that don't understand the difference between abstraction and caricature.  Maybe that's because the meaning of the words has become muddy in common usage.  Artists in general would be better off if everyone was clear on the terms, though, because while abstraction and caricature are related concepts, they are problems that have to be addressed individually.

My definition of each is:
Caricature=Distortion and exaggeration of a subject's distinctive features
Abstraction=Simplification down to a subject's essential features, eliminating unnecessary information

Abstraction is one expression of a design principle called Signal-to-Noise Ratio, which states that the Signal is any information that is important for the viewer, while Noise is unimportant information which necessarily interferes with the signal

The key in any good design is to identify how much of the detail is actually signal, and downplay/subdue/eliminate everything else.  In other words, not all detail is noise---sometimes it's part of the signal.  The best way to judge whether a detail is signal or noise is:
- Does it say something important about the character?
- Does it enhance the overall style of the piece/property? (ie. Does it say something about the world?)
- Does it significantly increase the character's appeal to my intended audience?
- Will the audience be able to see/appreciate the detail or is it just adding clutter to the scene?
If the answer is no to all four, tone it down or cut it out!

So the level of abstraction in a subject is just an expression of the signal-to-noise ratio.  I usually have to consciously abstract things after my first designs, and I often don't go far enough.  I've seen other artists who have the opposite problem and simplify things so far that they lose their connection to their audience.  I think that's why it's a ratio and not a hard and fast rule; too little is too little, and too much is too much.
With this Goldcrest, at first glimpse it may seem I didn't abstract things at all, just used caricature to push the personality and distinctive features.  But while I wanted people to react to it as a real bird, the details themselves could become distracting really fast.  So I used tricks like alignment, color, shape juxtaposition, and contrast control to keep the eye focused only on what was important.  Of course, after doing the little abstraction example above I wanted to go back and simplify about 10 more things in this image, so I'm obviously still learning this principle.


  1. Very helpful information, especially now that I'm getting into character design more. Cheers!

  2. This applies equally well to animation. Thanks a lot for sharing :D

  3. Thank you for providing the thought process and the explanation of the concepts you are using!

  4. This is great stuff! I'm glad you decided to include good advice with your great designs.

  5. Chuckle. I can imagine people all over the world fretting in the middle of the night over their inability to distinguish between these two household words. That said, and this declaration made: I, myself, don't usually confuse them, I must also say that I could not have expressed so clearly and in such a truly interesting manner, these concepts. In fact, for years, I've yearned to be able to reduce a thing to its essential character lines the way you did in the abstract - but I couldn't even find the words to frame the desire. You bring up signal to noise, which is really, of course, an aural measurement - and finally, the concept pops into my head clearly, and in the right words.

    Whatever. I still can't do what you do. I don't see the way you see. I can't use the tools you use. But all I want is to do it with a pencil and a couple of true lines - can't do that either.


  6. Geez I feel like I have to pay to after all that! come out with that that book I beg you! Another amazing piece too by the way

  7. This is great information on a topic that has never been elaborated on enough. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Thanks everyone for the comments!

    Andy: Very true. In fact, Signal:Noise is a universal design principle, so it really applies to everything.

    K: Marilyn and I were talking about your comment and how this idea also applies to writing, and it's a very interesting problem in that context. Especially with regards to story and character---is a character part of the signal, or is the signal the story, making any extra information about a character just noise?

    Mattanimation: You can just go buy my iPhone app and call us even. :)

  9. jajajaja... I like it.... And good sketch about the abstraction

  10. I find these posts very interesting. I’ve never heard of the Signal-to-Noise Ratio principle before but, it makes sense. I look forward to more posts like these.
    I also like the birds from the last couple of posts. Good Job!

  11. I appreciate your educational comments, as always. Thank You.

  12. Anonymous11:02 PM

    THis is so cute!
    I esp. love how the background lets the little character pop out.
    May I ask you, how you did the feathers? They look so "real" and still very easy...
    Thank you!

  13. Rita: I use a brush that has bristles, and I keep it small so I can stroke in details like that.

  14. Anonymous10:27 AM

    AWW - thenk you very much Sam - I made it the same way, but it doesnt look as great as your work :D

    I am a big fan of your artwork!

  15. Keep posting such an interesting blog post. Thanks very much for sharing all this great post.


  16. Caricature is a funny way to express things which should receive a more drastic view.

  17. I like the bally bird!


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