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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Aesthetics of Trollface

If you've been around here a while you probably know by now that I think the success and popularity of a work depends in part upon deep structural qualities--stuff that the viewer may not be actively aware of. In some cases, the artist may not even be aware of why their image works so well.

So, shouldn't this hold true for even the most unlikely of works?

Works, perhaps, such as Trollface?

This is the part where you start to get a bad feeling about where the article is headed
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, even Trollface draws upon traditions in visual communication. In fact, I think it's quite possible that its popularity stems from the unconscious qualities of the image.

To understand what Trollface is up to, however, we first have to reconstruct the lofty tradition of portraiture and, more importantly, the kind of lies that artists use to make their work more interesting. See, Trollface is interesting because of its distortions, but the distortions are actually nothing new.

Check out this face from Pablo Picasso's famous work "Girl Before A Mirror":

"My boyfriend dresses as a minotaur while making love to me. I feel conflicted about this."
He's doing relatively simple things here. The face is a very stylized profile. Interestingly, the eye that we can see is not an eye seen from the side but from the front. This is a technique that can be commonly seen in Egyptian art, where the most aspective view (meaning, the view that best shows off the most recognizable aspects of an object or part of the body) is shown for each feature. It creates an odd sense of... of... hold on, it seems like I've lost a piece somewhere, let me just...

When suddenly the third dimension happened!
Ah, that's better. That changes things a bit, doesn't it? What Picasso has done here is he's decided to show us a traditional 3/4 portrait view--a view of the face where we can see a part of the front and a part of the side of the face. Picasso has decided to totally mess with is here, though, by actually showing the side of the face and the front of the face grafted together. He's taken two aspective views and put them together to make one really weird human face.

The interesting thing about Picasso is that he's actually drawing upon quite a long tradition in portraiture of spacial manipulation. Check out this fragment from a self portrait by Dürer:

Albrecht Dürer: a man that could use a hug
And now check it out with the whole image recomposed:

He painted himself as the "Man of Sorrows" when he wasn't painting himself as Jesus. He was Medieval Kanye West.

Did you notice what happened there? The left side of Dürer's face is turned toward us slightly more than the right side. This is a deliberate distortion. It is subtle enough, after all, that it goes largely unnoticed consciously, but it creates a sense of dynamism in the piece. As our eyes move from one side of the face to the other Dürer seems dynamic and three dimensional. This is easiest to see in the eyes: the eye furthest from us is, in defiance of perspective, actually larger and rounder than the closer eye, creating the impression that we have caught Dürer as he turns toward us dramatically.

Picasso, as a classically trained realist, almost certainly knew of this technique even if he was not familiar with Dürer's specific use (although actually I would be very surprised to hear that he hadn't studied any of Dürer's works). Both artists tapped into this distortion as a way of creating a sense of dynamism in their pieces.

As did Whynne, the creator of Trollface.

Let's look at the image once more.

Alright, you have Trollface firmly in mind?

Now, look at just the right side of Trollface:

Seem familiar? It doesn't have the bold outline that Picasso's piece does, but I think it's clear that this is a side view. The grin stretches back far beyond the eye, the nose is tilted to show the side and the outline (an aspective view, remember?) and the flatness of the left side of the eye suggests the curving and flattening that takes place when the eye is seen in a 3/4 view. (I can understand if that last one is a bit of a stretch for people... just roll with me here, folks.) Most tellingly of all, Whynne's original intent was to draw the internet meme character "Rape Rodent:"

The Internet: Giving You Nightmares Since 1998
Eurgh. Not a face you want to run into in a dark alley, hence the charming name he's been given by The Internet. At any rate, what's important here is that the original piece is, in fact, drawn as a 3/4 portrait. If Whynne was trying to imitate the original picture, that explains why this side of the face appears to be a side view.

The other side, as with the Picasso, is where things get weird:

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a reasonable approximation of a front view. We can see much more of the face, eye, and cheek than we would be able to if we were looking at a 3/4 view of the face. Trollface here seems to stare directly at us. In fact, if we duplicate this side of the face:

Derp. Herpa derp.
Yuck. Actually, it looks more than a little like the Son, I Am Disappoint guy, come to think of it. Regardless, it looks like a fairly passable frontal view, despite some weirdness with the eyes.

So, what we can conclude is that Trollface is making use of the same strategies of distortion we see in Picasso, Dürer, Cezanne, Michelangelo, Ingres, and countless other classical artists. I'm not sure if this was a conscious effort on the part of the artist, but it ultimately doesn't matter. Even if the effect was accidental, the result is the same. I would suggest that the popularity of Trollface in part comes from the dynamism of the piece, the way he seems to turn away slyly while still keeping his whole attention upon your reaction.

What we can take away more broadly from this is that the techniques of fine art are present even in things that appear to be simple cartoons.

And, of course, there's one other possibility:

This whole article might be complete bullshit.

U mad bro?

This actually sums up all my articles.

I actually haven't decided whether this article is serious or not. Expect me to change my position when it's expedient. Sorry for the missed article last week. I'll try to get an extra one out this week. As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.


  1. Brilliant.

    Successfully identifying the art traditions that Trollface, of all things, falls into. That is some kind of impressive, sir.

  2. man you are freaking hilarious...!

  3. Until I saw that front view, I never realized that Trollface was Ganondorf from Wind Waker...
    Seriously, just add the beard, the weird head gem, and the eyebrows and you've got it.

  4. My friend created Trollface and he's kind of regretful that it ever existed, other than the meager cashflow he gets from merchandise through deviantART(all other merch is unlicensed and is stealing from him, though he really doesn't much care).

  5. This is pretty epic bro


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