Let's get utterly adorable with kawaii-style art! In this article we'll break down 10 top tips for creating truly cute artwork, from color palettes to shapes to various design styles and more. Get to know what it takes for your artwork to be completely “kawaii” for all of your cute design needs. We'll use examples from Envato Market to illustrate truly kawaii design.
1. Simplicity Is Key
This is the best place to start: simply. Simplicity in
kawaii design is the key to getting that cute feel to your artwork.
Overwhelming a character design or icon with details can change something cute
to something that comes off as creepy. Too many details or something that
approaches too much realism hits an area that’s similar to the uncanny valley
in how it can be perceived as unsettling versus adorable and welcoming.
Let’s check out the illustration above. It’s incredibly simple and cute. The little faces on the peas are tiny dots and a curved line. Note how devoid of additional features this design is. Noses, ears, and detailed eyes need not apply for simple, cute design. Little spots of blush, however, don’t overwhelm the design in any way and are more than welcome.
Additionally, you’ll notice how flat the design is. Flat colors, simple line work, and tiny features. It’s simple; it’s everything it needs to be and not a drop more.
How about how a cute design would be formed? Above is an example from How to Cute, a blog dedicated to illustrating how simple shapes or objects become cute (and kawaii especially). Note how everything can be done within six simple steps and minimal details.
2. Color Palettes to Keep Things Cute
While all colors are a valid form of artistic expression, some color palettes are just cuter than others. A lot of this has to do with kawaii artwork having an air of innocence about it and having a lot in common with kid-friendly design and children’s media.
This isn’t to say, at all, that kawaii art is for children only or aimed at children at all; it’s to say that they hold similar colorways and design sensibilities, and we’re going to make some notes about common color palettes that work well.
Rainbows, brights, and pastels are especially common amongst kawaii artwork. Bright colors often work well for a variety of needs: cute fruits and candy, various objects, little delicious scenes featuring kawaii characters, and more. Since the artwork itself is often so very simple, vibrant colors are attention-getting, and using a rainbow of brights within a design makes cute artwork so much more adorable.
Pastels are soft and sweet, much like a lot of kawaii character design. Think small little bunnies, marshmallows, or an assortment of sweets. Again, you have the option of a pastel rainbow for your color scheme, or you could even include actual rainbows within a design to keep it so very cute.
Limited color palettes can absolutely work as well. Consider palettes of two, three, or four colors when you want to limit things. Often this has to do with screen-printing cute characters or artwork onto products, but it can also serve as a fun design challenge. Check out some cute limited color palettes below.
3. Soft Gradients and Flat Colors
Building upon the idea of simple being better when it comes to cute art, flat colors are more than welcome in kawaii-style design. No need to go to great lengths to render artwork when you can simply go for a thick outline and flat colors, or even some cel-shading to add a small bit of depth to a design.
If a higher variation in color is needed, whether it’s a traditional or digital work, consider soft gradients, like the glow of this adorable sun, as a good guide for keeping artwork cute while adding some additional details. Soft gradients won’t overwhelm a design and will keep things sweet and friendly without adding a harsh light source or making a design overly realistic.
There are, and can be, exceptions to these “rules”, of course, but starting off with these ideas allows you to explore tiny variations with your kawaii design without it becoming “a whole lot of look” (aka “too much”).
4. Rounded Shapes and Corners
Another thing you’ll notice the more you look at kawaii-style design is how devoid of sharp edges it really is. Again, this is something it has in common with design meant for children or young people: cuteness is often rounded. It gives artwork the look of being soft, squishable, or even huggable.
Rounded corners are friendly, which keeps from design work seeming creepy when a face on a cartoon plant has giant, shiny eyes. Suddenly, said spiky plant, with the spikes slightly rounded, looks more like a squeaking dog toy, friendly to chew on, than something that will hurt the viewer.
Think of converting objects from scary to cute as baby-proofing a room: protect those sharp edges with a radius of space. In this case, it’s rounding out corners slightly or quite a lot, depending on what sorts of designs and how squishy you’d like them to be.
5. Put a Face on It!
This is probably the most common trope of kawaii-style art: faces, faces everywhere! From teacups to snowflakes, everything gets a face. Personified objects have the capacity to be adorable and fun, appearing in artwork for a variety of demographics.
Whether you’re creating stickers or icons, textile prints or packaging designs, toys or games, little faces on little objects are a sure way to instantly transform something normal into kawaii-style design! When in doubt, add a face! It’s just that simple.
6. Get Emotional
Now that you’ve got faces all over everything, you may wish to do more than draw a bunch of smiles on whatever adorable object or character you’ve created. This is where we get emotive with design and create a plethora of feelings to portray on funky little characters, for instance.
See the image above. Happy, mad, sad, and more are all represented with simple shapes and a limited range of details. Sideways 'V's make for closed or winking eyes. Is the prickly character mad or furious? Show this with an unhappy face or a simple change in color. Is the prickly character sleepy or relaxed? Show this with closed eyes or half-closed eyes.
Make faces in a mirror, and see how few lines or shapes you need to convey that message. Then get to varying the faces you’ve lovingly added to all of the things you’ve drawn.
7. Food, Glorious Food!
As I’ve mentioned in the various items above, food is a common subject for kawaii art. Perhaps it’s because we, as a species, need it to survive. Perhaps it’s because it’s a common object found pretty much everywhere. Perhaps it’s because secretly food is your friend.
Whatever the real reason, food is ripe and ready for kawaii design. Fruit, sweets, veggies, and savory goodies are all ready for you to draw them up, with bright or light colors, slap a face on them, and add them to your designs.
8. Big Heads, Little Bodies
We’ve talked a lot about objects, but what about people or humanoid characters? Normal human proportions can be cute, but they’re not really “kawaii”. You have to go further than the usual distortions of cartoon design and dive into the world of mind-numbingly cute. Giant heads, often giant eyes, and teeny tiny bodies.
There isn’t much room for detail with design in a tiny body, but there is some. Check out the little characters below, whose clothing have enough room for little details like sashes on dresses, tiny collars, and prints on the clothes themselves.
Think of the details that can go into the clothing designs of tiny dolls: some for sure, but really showing the folds, stitches, or rendering that would go into realistic clothing design would be an impossible task. Instead, the focus is put on the head, hair, and face.
The law of gravity has no place in kawaii design, which regularly defies it with heads so large they’d snap the neck of a living creature. In kawaii design, however, giant adorable character heads easily float above their tiny bodies and remain adorable.
9. Animals Are Automatically Adorable
As if we’d leave out the cutest of the cute: animals! Cats, bunnies, dogs, baby birds, and more. We love and adore animals, so drawing tiny ones in a rounded, simple form is undeniably cute.
Big heads and little bodies are another tip for animals. Think of one of the most famous kawaii animals in history, Hello Kitty, and how her proportions are completely insane when compared with a real cat. For a kawaii-style character, however, they’re perfect.
Let’s look at the jumping animals above. Note how cute and round and simple they are. Flat colors, rounded limbs, simplified forms, and little faces all make for cute animals, jumping into our hearts.
10. Nearly Anything Can Be Kawaii
We've talked about food, animals, everyday objects, people, and weather, but what about something like teeth? Can teeth be kawaii?
Of course they can! See below for an excellent example of how something that isn’t usually adorable can be turned into cavity-inducing sweetness. Look at the pirate tooth and try to tell me that you didn’t wish you had an adorable pirate tooth hanging in a frame on your wall. It’s impossible; don’t bother trying.
Pretty much anything, ever, can be cute and fit in with kawaii style so long as it exhibits qualities of the previous tips: simplicity, cute faces, rounded corners, etc. Cars, stomachs, tweezers, a tax document… they can all be cute and made to look like your best, adorable, huggable friend. Imagine the possibilities for taking scary or creepy objects or ideas and turning them into cute and friendly concepts thanks to kawaii style concepts.
Let’s Break It Down
Now that we’ve run through ten tips for kawaii design, let’s break it down into an easy checklist:
- Simplicity Is Key: Use the least amount of details necessary to get your design across.
- Color Palettes to Keep Things Cute: Rainbows, brights, and pastels are all perfect for kawaii style.
- Soft Gradients and Flat Colors: Flat colors are simple, and soft gradients don’t create heavy light sources to overwhelm the design.
- Rounded Shapes and Corners: Rounded corners are friendly, soft, and huggable.
- Put a Face on it! Faces mean for a friendly, cute design.
- Get Emotional: Get expressive with your cute faces on your cute objects.
- Food, Glorious Food! A perfect and quite common subject for kawaii art.
- Big Heads, Little Bodies: Focus on heads and faces for kawaii character design.
- Animals Are Automatically Adorable: Especially baby animals.
- Nearly Anything Can Be Kawaii: Look around your desk or home; everything can be transformed into cuteness!