Post Category: Find Your Thing

CalArts Style: What is it and How is it Used?


CalArts style. Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you’re unintentionally used it, maybe you have no idea what it means. Well, you’ve come to the right place.

While the definition of CalArts style has changed over the years, it’s usually used as a term to convey a simplistic form of drawing that uses thin-line animation. Animators have been using this style for over a decade, and with the constant demand for new shows, CalArts style has allowed many professionals in the field to produce even more content. As a controversial topic among those most involved in animation, CalArts style has attracted both mega-fans and mega-haters. Some believe it to be a great way to express a trend, while others believe it to be lazy animation. Not sure what you make of it? Let’s dive in to what really makes CalArts so very…CalArts. 

What is CalArts style?

CalArts style is…well, it depends on who you ask. To many animation fans, CalArts Style is a somewhat derogatory term used to describe an animation style that has become popularized in many successful cartoons today. The main defining factor of CalArts style is in fact the usage of thin-line animation.

In conjunction with the thin-line animation style, characters are usually drawn with rounded shapes and “noodle-like” appendages. Typically, animation that is referred to as being aligned with the CalArts style, is a cartoon that features fairly generic shapes and colors. Additional characteristics include large heads, small bodies, and saucer-like eyes.

Steven Universe watermelon sticker on gray water bottle
Watermelon Steven! by MikeCatSu

CalArts Animation Style History

While the exact emergence of CalArts style is somewhat unclear, many link the burgeoning anime influence to have contributed to its initial debut. The term “CalArts Style” is one that emerged in the late 2010’s in a blog post by animator John Kricfalusi who intended to mock the animation style allegedly being taught at the California Institute of the Arts aka “CalArts”. Despite its success in popular culture and dozens of cartoon hits, it is still used to criticize animators who have chosen to use the style in their work. 

Even though many animators who have used this style did not attend CalArts, the term has managed to stick around. In fact, several animators have debunked the idea that a specific style even exists, claiming that animation, like everything else, goes through trend periods and that thin-line animation is exactly that. They believe that “CalArts style” really just means utilizing whatever the current direction of animation happens to be based upon a few heavy-hitting animation influencers. While it is certainly not indicative of talent or the school itself, the term has managed to stick around. 

adventure time pillow case couple
M and PB by tctreasures

Calarts Style Examples

Regular Show. Adventure Time. Amazing World of Gumball. Do you know what they all have in common? CalArts Style. Popularized in many animations, CalArts style has really taken off over the years, and truth is, you’ve probably watched a show that utilizes CalArts style without even realizing it.

Steven Universe Characters

Steven Universe is a great example of a show that incorporates the usage of CalArts style. With its debut in 2013, CalArts style had been around for quite some time and certainly had an impact on the show’s animation development. From big toothy grins to bright colors, it’s easy to see why iSteven Universe has become a leading proponent and prime example of a CalArts style animation success story. 

Design-wise, a majority of the characters used in Steven Universe display elements that are often similar and interchangeable to each other. For example, a majority of characters have features that include: black outlines, large open-mouthed smiles, solid pupils, near-identical head shapes, and little shading. It is because of these features that Steven Universe is one of the most widely recognized examples of the CalArts style.

model wearing blue steven universe shirt
Crystal Gem Friends by DajonAcevedo

The Controversy of CalArts

So, where does CalArts style stand now? Well, CalArts style is still a controversial term in the animation world. Although it has somewhat adapted to refer to whatever style is currently trending in the industry, many believe that it will always describe a “lazy” animation style. It’s also thought of as being unoriginal since many of the characters that have been drawn in that style are easily copied.

While the debate on CalArts style has been going on for years prior, it had mostly died down. That was up until 2018, where a second wave of frustration was reignited when the show Thundercats Roar announced a reboot featuring characters that had been drastically changed. The new characters were now reimagined with simplistic shapes, colors, and features- making many animators irritated by the lack of details which the show had previously featured in its characters. Animators and fans everywhere went into a Twitter war over the changed style, which now incorporated the thin-line animation and rounded shapes often seen in CalArts style.

over the garden wall notebook
Greg with Pumpkin by cqdesign

While CalArts style will likely remain a hot topic, we can at least agree that it’s brought some of the best animations to light. Whether you’re a professional animator, or just a daytime doodler, you can appreciate the vast difference in design styling that animation offers. Love CalArts style? Us too. Find your thing with Steven Universe art prints, Adventure Time totes, and much more now on Rebdubble. 


Hero image is Independent Together by Anushbanush.

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