If you’re looking for some kind of rollicking adventure through the arts, Art Academy is not it. In fact, I’d liken it more to a textbook. It looks like a game from the outside, but it has no typical game mechanics. Not even gamification-style trappings like being rewarded stars or gaining power levels. Played on the Wii U (with a GamePad), Art Academy does have an animated little guy that gives you instructions. It’s something in between a game and a training tool.
Art Academy Lessons
Art Academy starts you off with a couple of lessons to choose from. I did both the first beginner lesson and the first advanced lesson. The beginner lesson did a good job of walking me through the steps of painting a tomato. The advanced lesson took me through an entire still life of a dish with flowers. My animated helper, Vince, was good about not only showing me what to do, but offering suggestions as to why I was doing it. Adding a certain splotch of color launched an explanation about reflected light, for example.
Basically what Art Academy does is offer you two sources to copy from. The first is the original photograph. The second is Vince’s drawing-in-progress. This isn’t unlike how a lot of art classrooms are set up, and there’s of course nothing wrong with copying. Mimicking step-by-step examples can be a great way to figure out how to achieve a certain look. These lessons were super helpful and simple, but not childish. Despite being thoroughly familiar with the concepts, I didn’t feel that I was being talked down to.
Art Academy Features
There are several cool features to Art Academy: Home Studio, to go along with the lessons (which are probably the main focus of the program). One is that there is a freestyle mode, so you can draw whatever you like. I suspect that as a child I would’ve enjoyed this more than the lessons. You can also upload any piece of art, freestyle or otherwise, to your Miiverse account. Don’t worry, though. If you’re concerned about other folks seeing your kids’ art, you can set up a private gallery that can be shared only with family members and select friends. Finally, you can record a video of the painting-in-progress and upload it to YouTube. Time-lapse videos of drawings are pretty excellent no matter what, but I can confirm how cool it is to see your own progress sped up.
Art Academy Medium
My main complaint about Art Academy doesn’t have to do with the lessons themselves, which are actually pretty great. My criticism has more to do with what they’re trying to accomplish. Art Academy is a digital art tool at its heart. But it’s trying to teach players how to draw in traditional mediums. I’m a digital artist, myself. I’ve spent the last seven years using various digital art programs (like Photoshop and Paint Tool SAI) to draw and paint. There are benefits and drawbacks to digital painting, just as there are benefits and drawbacks to physical art. Digital art is truly its own medium. Just as colored pencil does a different thing than oil paint, digital art has its own technique and specificity.
What Art Academy does is impose the limitations of physical art upon a digital medium, without offering any of the wonderful, tactile things you get from physical art. For example, the way you find a color in Art Academy is by mixing pretend paints. You click on a palette spot, then add colors and “water” to get the desired effect.
One of the benefits of digital art is that you don’t need to mix colors—most programs offer a color wheel, eyedropper tool, and more. All I need to do in Photoshop to find the color I want is drag my cursor around a box like this until I get the desired hue.
If I wanted to teach someone how mixing physical pigments works, I would much prefer to simply…use physical pigments. With physical paints, you get to really see how the colors work together. You can see how different percentages of each color make different pigments. You can experiment with water or different papers. And you can experiment with how those paints can be applied depending on how wet or dry the surface is. You can look at those colors in different lights and see how they change. These are things that Art Academy cannot—at least at the current level of technology—mimic. (Digital art tools can and do mimic physical art to an extent, but it’s much more about achieving a similar end result than it is using the same techniques to get there.)
We have some excellent technology these days that can get kids started learning digital art—which is becoming more and more prevalent, especially in the workplace. We’re not using digital art to the best of its ability. I would prefer that Art Academy, a digital art program, help kids learn digital art techniques and tools, instead creating a pale, unsatisfying mimicry of physical art. I’m passionate about digital art and the things we can do with it. And I would like it to be more accessible to more people. I also love physical art—I used watercolors and ink and colored pencils for the first 18 years of my life! But I maintain that the best way to learn traditional art is to do traditional art.
Art Academy Ergonomics
My second major criticism also didn’t have anything particularly to do with the program itself, but rather the Wii U and the GamePad. Using the tiny stylus isn’t exactly ergonomic. And bending over the GamePad—because it was too heavy to hold up—ended up getting uncomfortable pretty quickly. I might be hyper-aware of these things because I’m trying desperately to stave off carpal tunnel and early-onset back problems from drawing 5+ hours a day, but I think it’s worth noting.
Art Academy’s lessons were truly useful and I have no doubt that if I sat down with the program for long enough I might learn something new. For kids who like painting but don’t have the space for traditional art materials (or maybe you have a white carpet), Art Academy might be pretty nice. It’s more expensive than your average set of watercolors, of course, but if you already have a Wii U and are looking for a nice how-to-draw book, it’s pretty much perfect.