Why “Detailed” Art Is Often Less Detailed Than You Might Think


Although I’ve talked about how to make art look more detailed than it actually is before, I thought that I’d look at this subject from a slightly different perspective today. This is mainly because of the artwork in a really interesting free computer game called “The Last Night” that I reviewed yesterday.

If you haven’t played this game, then it uses 1980s-style “pixel art” graphics. What this means is that the individual pixels are large enough to be clearly visible. Given that the game itself is played within a small browser window – there are probably no more than 1000- 2000 pixels on screen at any one time. For comparison, the little sketch at the beginning of this article contains 145,800 pixels (albeit much smaller ones).

So, with a game like that, you would expect it to look fairly primitive and undetailed and, yet, it actually looks more detailed than you might expect. It certainly looks more detailed than the little sketch at the beginning of this article. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at this screenshot from the game:

This is a screenshot from "The Last Night" By Tim & Adrien Soret.

This is a screenshot from “The Last Night” By Tim & Adrien Soret.

So, how did they do this and – more importantly – what can this teach us about art in general ?

Even if you are creating photo-realistic art, then your art is going to be less detailed than real life. Even highly realistic paintings from the 16th-18th centuries are less detailed than real life. In fact, the true test of an artist is how they are able to visually represent things using less detail than can be found in real life. No piece of art (and not even an “ordinary” photograph) can be as detailed as real life.

But, although art is less detailed than real life, we still instinctively separate artwork into “detailed art” and “undetailed art”. Why do we do this?

Well, it all comes down to how much an artist tricks us into using our imaginations – regardless of whether we notice that we’re doing it or not. Although I haven’t studied the neuroscience of this in any huge level of detail, the human brain is the best image recognition system available to us. As soon as we know what something looks like, we can usually recognise it very quickly.

For example, here’s a blurry, slightly badly-drawn and very undetailed image that I made in MS Paint. Which famous landmark/capital city is it supposed to be?

You can probably guess what it's supposed to be.

You can probably guess what it’s supposed to be.

Even though it isn’t a very realistic image of the Eiffel Tower in Paris – you were probably be able to work out what it was fairly quickly. After all, even though the picture might not be a “perfect” image of the Eiffel Tower, it still looks similar enough for our brains to recognise it and “fill in the gaps” for us. Once we know what something looks like, then images of it – however realistic or unrealistic – are more like symbols than anything else.

Of course, whilst a truly lifelike image of the Eiffel Tower would be nearly impossible to replicate (unless you had an extremely high-resolution camera or made a very large painting) – an artist can make a slightly less detailed version of it that is still instantly recognisable as the Eiffel Tower.

If an “undetailed” image includes even a few extra “undetailed/unrealistic” details (eg: the trees surrounding the tower in the example are just green blobs etc..), then this gives the audience’s imaginations even more things to work with. So, the picture will appear to be more detailed – even though it isn’t.

So, by adding lots of these fairly “undetailed” details to a picture, it can quickly appear to be more detailed than it actually is. Going back to the game screenshot earlier in this article, the buildings in the background are just a collection of angular shapes and differently-coloured squares. Yet, because we all know what a building looks like – our brains automatically take those basic details and mentally add a lot of extra details that aren’t actually in the picture.

So, yes, this is why “detailed” art is often actually less detailed than you might think it is.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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