Skyward Sword’s Art Style: Straddling the Line or Walking a New Path?

Article by The Wolfess

There are millions of people watching with bated breath and high expectations. It seemed, to us, as if the fate of our beloved franchise was on the line—this new title would make or break us, and so far all we knew was a lot of juicy rumors and a single, sketchy, dark piece of artwork. Lights dim on the stage and a chill shivers up the spines of all watching. Those familiar Zelda notes caress our eardrums while famous symbols and sounds from each Zelda Console title since 1998 drift across an eerie, smoke-like world.

The camera zooms past them, paying the games that have worked their way into our hearts no mind, as if they are of no consequence compared to what lies on the other side of that bright beacon of light at the end of the tunnel. We’re on the edge of our seats, goose bumps on our arms, barely able to contain ourselves, and then….

Our beloved hero, Link, stands alone and typically heroic-looking in the middle of a strange field. The grass has all the textural definition of the old Nintendo 64 days, and the sky is no better. Link’s figure is also somehow familiar, and yet all wrong at the same time. He is Twilight Princess’s dark, Lord-of-the-Rings-esque Link with beautiful detail in every handsome, so-real-you-could-almost-touch-him face, but then all the detail that made him unique seems to be gone. His coloring mirrors Wind Waker’s cartoonish, wanna-be-Disney-star Link, but he is clearly much more real than that.

As we see more of this strange Hero’s world, everything seems so familiar and yet so… off. Different. Unexpected. Unusual. What is this place that is somehow both childish and sophisticated, fantasy and natural? Who is this contradictory Link breaking the carefully created lines we have formed between “Real” and “Cartoon”?

After the lights of this scene dimmed, the hearts of “real Link” fans had broken, and those of “cartoon Link” fans had jumped for joy. Of course, there are those saintly fans in between who love it no matter how it looks, and I pray there will always be more of you to straddle the lines between our fan-created categories and help us to communicate with one another.

As we have seen on our own ZU and across the gaming world, Miyamoto later told those at the evening round table conference that the new graphics are neither the grungy realism of Twilight Princess nor the childish cartoonism of The Wind Waker. What seems to be an odd bastard child of the two Gamecube Zelda titles is actually something completely different—an entire world inspired by the famous Impressionist artists themselves. Miyamoto even listed a few specific painters.

I may be a modestly accomplished painter, but I’m self taught and therefore know little about art criticism or “The Masters”, so this surprising information was unfamiliar to me yet intriguing. So far we have seen the extensive use of paper and scrapbooking in “Paper Mario” and as of E3 we are about to play a game entirely made out of yarn (kitting fans rejoice!), so Nintendo is known for taking its artistic inspirations a little far. It makes sense, then, that learning what Impressionism is might help us to predict the environments and visuals we have seen and will see in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.


Developed in 1860 through 1890, Impressionism was an artistic movement in painting and music that better suited the major changes taking place in newly-industrialized Britain. The movement was called “New Realism” by the group later christened “Impressionists” by critics in the art industry.

This group rejected the widely accepted classical painters, who believed in painting an ideal of beauty—meaning what would be there if the world was perfect, rather than what was actually there, or what the artist saw with his own eye. Classical painting was beautiful and so real you thought you could step right in to it, but it was also formulaic and confining for the artist, who was forced to follow a strict set of rules, patterns, and styles rather than paint what he himself saw.

As I researched the more I learned about classical painting the more I thought of Zelda itself. What was a new, refreshing, celebrated style when it first debuted in Ocarina of Time—realistic, dark, muted colors, idealized forms, and more—was starting to become confining for developers. The same descriptors used above apply to how the Zelda Franchise began to feel 10 years+ after Ocarina of Time: Formulaic. Stagnant. Confining. Forcing players to follow set rules and patterns, rather than engage in the freedom of exploration that first inspired the series.

Nintendo tried to shake it up by going in the exact opposite direction—cartoon all the way—with little success in reviving the franchise. Perhaps going so far away wasn’t what core players really needed after all, but certainly it wasn’t classical realism either. Skyward Sword is Nintendo’s answer, and Impressionism was the answer of painters during the Impressionist Era.

Impressionists decided to “paint what they see” rather than follow the constricting conventions of classical painting. They painted what was there according to how they saw it—sometimes beautiful, sometimes sketchy, and sometimes horribly distorted. To really capture the moment of the vision the paintings had to be quick, almost like a draft. Paintings were often done in one sitting in order to fully and truly capture the essence of that particular moment.

Impressionist paintings eventually took on certain common qualities, though the nature of Impressionism is so tailored to individualism and the individual artist’s vision that it’s hard to nail down a common set of conventions. These qualities included:

  • use of light tones
  • division of tones (an orange is represented by juxtaposition of two pure colors, red and yellow)
  • form and volume resulting from colored brushworks instead of drawing-contour
  • thickness of paint
  • “quick”, sketch-like feel

Impressionist Artists and Skyward Sword

Surprisingly (or maybe not), various textures and scenes in the trailers and official artwork we have received reflect several different Impressionist styles.

Humans and Humanoids

On the left we have our first glimpse of the main character, Linkina…I mean *cough* Link. Male. Right. First you’ll notice the smudge-like grass he is standing on. Next, look closely at his bright colors and smooth textures, as well as the soft-looking feminine face.

The lines and textures in Link are not clearly defined or exactly proportionate for that matter, but in order to look natural on that particular landscape he can’t look that detailed or real. The only other option is to have him be as sketchy as the grass, and that would be difficult on the player’s eyes.

Now look at this painting by Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas. The people in this picture have similar blank expressions and features that make their gender slightly indistinguishable if not for the clothing each is wearing. Other than the black on their clothing, their skin and aprons are brightly colored, along with the wall in the background, and there is very minimal blending.

Perhaps an even better example of cell-like coloring and distorted features is Gustave Caillebotte’s painting of people walking in Paris:

Clouds and Landscapes

Miyamoto specifically talked about the influence of Paul Cezzane’s work on the clouds in Skyward Sword. Since he did not mention any specific clouds, I am going to assume that he meant all clouds. First, I want to look at the title screen shown at the end of the longer trailer at E3. Here, we see the Skyward Sword logo (note that the gold behind the logo is cracked, not solid, as would be ideal) and a background of spiraling clouds behind it. Note the colors, textures, and kinds of brush strokes. They are short, quick little strokes similar to what we saw used to paint the grass.

Here is an in-game example of those same clouds. Note the texture of the rocks that Link is jumping off of as well. They are very painting-like, and not realistic OR cartoony.

Now let’s look at a painting by Cezanne. The clouds in this painting look great when viewed in a small resolution or from a distance, but when you look at a larger version of this painting the clouds are little more than watery white smudges in the sky. Likewise, the screenshots shown above depict clouds that look great from a distance or at a low resolution, but when viewed in greater detail they are little more than paint smudges that give the impression of clouds.

This screenshot of the forest area shown below is very important when discussing the use of Impressionism in Skyward Sword’s environment and art direction. The trees and grass throughout the game utilize the painting style shown here, and we can see more of the clouds discussed above.

Compare this to the wonderfully bright painting by Camille Pissaro below. Similar bright colors are used, along with a happy, sunny landscape, and similar paint strokes as we have seen before in the rocks, clouds, and grass. It seems that the natural world Link lives in is painted in this manner, with short, quick brush strokes. Characters, monsters, and buildings, however, seem to have a simpler, more cell-shaded-esque soft style also seen in the Impressionistic Era.

Official Art

Of course, I can’t stop without mention of Skyward Sword’s amazing official art. The style in the artwork to the right, just released at E3, is clearly reminiscent of the humans painted in Impressionist work. See the section on humans and humanoids for another look at those paintings. However, what about the famous “mystery girl” artwork?

This picture is probably, and perhaps surprisingly, one of the most impressionistic images we have seen thus far. A different kind of lighting and brush stroke is utilized here than previously seen, a harsher kind, but it is still seen in impressionistic work. Look at the painting below by Claude Monet.

Though Monet uses a lighter color pallet, the two paintings still use the same colors (in different hues), texture, and brush strokes. When you look closely at the two paintings, the similarities in the brush strokes and textures are a little amazing.

The Dark Side of Impressionism

As hinted at by the last comparison and the painting by Monet, Impressionism has a dark side. Look at the two examples below from Van Gogh and another one from Caillebotte.

These three paintings are very different from the ‘happy-go-lucky” Impressionism that Nintendo has revealed this far in its art direction, with the notable exception of the first official artwork. These paintings feature people distorted to almost “humanoid” forms, dead trees, and run down towns. The color pallet is dark, with yellows, browns, blacks, and a lot of gray. Judging by the brush strokes and blurry realism we see in these and in the previous examples, however, they do clearly fit in the Impressionist category.

Zelda titles tend to have at least one dead, “scary” area that you go through in the game. In Ocarina of Time it was the Shadow Temple. In Majora’s Mask it was Stone Tower Temple and Ikana Castle. In Twilight Princess it was the Arbiture’s Grounds. I believe that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword will feature a similar area, and if Nintendo sticks with the thorough Impressionistic style then it will probably have some characteristics similar to these three artworks.

“A Link to the Future”

SS Fact Sheet

As we continue to receive new information and media concerning Skyward Sword, we should keep in mind the Impressionist movement and its famous painters. Doing this will, I believe, help us to see the game’s art direction in a unique light, separate from anything that has come before. This graphical style has the potential to satisfy both the “realism” and “cartoon” camps in one way or another, and there is room for some grungy, dark areas in Impressionism that would not have been in Cell-Shading.

Only time will tell what the rest of the world will look like, but I believe that with the Fine Art, painting focus taken by Nintendo on the graphical style of the game and its specific relationship to Impressionism specifically, Skyward Sword has the potential to bring back some of the vivid, impressive art that we saw in the beginning of the Zelda Franchise. Who knows? Perhaps Skyward Sword’s artwork and screenshots will carry the same beauty and quality as these from the first three titles, just in a different medium and style:

All Impressionism information and images from:…sm_history.htm