Haley: [whispering] Pssst! Elan, it's an art upgrade, we're supposed to pretend we were always drawn this way.
When an artist begins drawing a series for the first time, chances are that the art and character designs will be crude or basic due to lack of practice. As the artist gains expertise during the run of the series, there will be a gradual shift in the art as rough lines are smoothed out and designs refined. This evolution normally stops when they are satisfied with the art quality and it crystallizes into its final stage for the rest of the series.
First-time series for new animators are most susceptible to this, but arguably almost every animated and graphic series undergoes this to some degree as the animator finds out how best to make the characters look attractive while saving maximum time and money.
Art evolution will be most noticeable in evolving character designs, but more subtle things can change too, including better shading and more detailed backgrounds. Every long running series involving artwork tends to show the effect to a greater or lesser extent. This may or may not be caused by the fact that the show has been running for a long time, and may had multiple artists, and/or different animating equipment.
An art evolution, however, is not necessarily an upgrade. The animation may actually become worse if the animators become lazy or their budget is slashed, especially in long-running series which are more likely to have an Off-Model episode or two. Artistic quality is also highly subjective, which can lead to some fans becoming displeased with the new art style over the familiar old one, even as others praise it.
Very obvious in webcomics, since the vast majority of webcomics are amateur work; it may be the artist's first sustained attempt at drawing at all. Professional artists often recommend such artists continue honing their style rather than becoming too comfortable too soon. Genuinely good artists tend to have fifty bad drawings for every good one, even if they hide them away from the comic's archives.
Not to be confused with Art Shift, which is a sudden, temporary change in artistic style as homage or parody. However, lampshadings of Art Evolution are often accomplished by means of an Art Shift. In a series with significant Art Evolution, the older style may reappear for a Retraux Flashback. Sudden Eye Colour occurs when a character goes from having generic "colourless" eyes to having a defined eye colour.
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