The Past, Present and Future of Pixel Art
As computer generated graphics advance, the 2D world of pixels would presumably be left in the past. In the modern world, individual pixels are only for the eyes of the designer who is permitted to see the design close up, rather than the audience who see the complete and smooth rendering of the image. However, recently there has been a trend towards pixel art that is doing just the opposite of this and proudly showing the pixels on display, warts and all. Is this new trend of pixel art just nostalgia for a bygone era or could we soon be seeing more pixels finding their way into graphic design and art work?
‘The Starry Night’ by Van Gogh re-imagined into pixel art by Joo Jaebum
What is pixel art?
Pixel art has its origins in early drawing and painting software and was popularised by computer game design through the ’80s and ’90s. It is created on graphics software that allows images to be edited at the individual pixel level. The images that are constructed are reminiscent of early computer games or amateur-made mobile phone video games, both of which would have been created by a pixel artist.
An example of a computer software interface used to create pixel art. Image from Joo Jaebum
While a greater number of pixels involved in the design results in a cleaner, smoother image, in most of today’s programs you cannot see the individual pixels. However, early computer programs and devices did not have the capability to display the number of pixels required to create such an image. It was up to the pixel artist to find a way round these limitations by constructing a believable image from a limited number of pixels. Today, with a few exceptions, the technology largely does exist; however, many artists are continuing to choose a limited number of pixels to emphasise the individual squares, giving a retro quality to their art.
The origins of pixel art
The term ‘pixel art’ dates back to 1982, and to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre where it was first published and popularised by Adele Goldberg and Robert Flegal. Goldberg and Flegal may well have coined the term but pixel art as a concept originates 10 years prior to this with Richard Shoups 1972 SuperPaint system. The 1970s may well have been the advent of computer generated pixel art, but some rightly claim that it is merely an imitation of ancient art forms, such as mosaic, bead-work and embroidery. If you take a look at the pointillist technique, developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in the 1880s, the similarity with pixel art is apparent. In pointillism, the painter uses small dots of colour to make up an image. With pixel art the painted dots of colour are simply replaced by squares on a computer screen.
‘La Tour Eiffel’ by Georges Seurat, created in the pointillist style, is reminiscent of modern day pixel art
‘The Channel at Gravelines, Evening’, also by Seurat, uses dots of colour whereas pixel art uses squares
All prior art forms that use small coloured units to construct larger pictures have undoubtedly had some influence on the continuation of the use of pixels and the popular appeal of modern day pixel art.
The rise and fall of pixel art in the video games industry
In the early days of computer and console video games, pixel art was the main way of constructing the images on screen. The results were endearing; who can forget the pixelated worlds of Super Mario, Pokemon or Zelda? All these titles may well have had fantastic game play, but it is the pixelated images that remain as symbols of video game culture. The rise of 3D graphics, and their ability to more closely mimic reality on powerful games consoles, has seen pixel art become outdated in the professional video games industry.
Despite this downward trend, pixel art continues to remain very popular among amateur games design enthusiasts, especially since the mobile gaming industry took off. Compared to computers and video game consoles, mobile phones still generally have a low resolution and memory, and any games crafted for these devices require skillful use of memory and space by the designer. Amateur pixel art enthusiasts have found this to be a great arena to show off their skills in design.
A new design trend
It’s not just in the games industry that pixel art is experiencing a resurgence, and many artists and design agencies are now employing the art form in their own stand-alone designs. EBoy are a pioneering graphic design group that specialise in pixel art for advertising and have been doing so since 1998. Their huge list of top name clients, including Nike, Paul Smith, Playstation, Kidrobot and many more, prove pixel art’s popularity and appeal as well as the power an image created with pixels can have on an audience. Kai Verschamer of eBoy explained to us that pixel art can never become outdated due to the fact it is so basic and so enjoyable to work with:
“We chose to work with the pixel because we wanted to be able to control the smallest part of the screen. It turned out that the limitations and the modular nature of pixels were big fun to make things with.”
eBoy are famous for creating highly detailed, pixelated cityscapes
Eboy are currently reconstructing the city of Miami using pixels and are planning to work on a number of other pixel art versions of cities in the future.
The new wave of pixel artists
Following the example set by eBoy, there are many modern designers that are using pixel art in interesting ways, creating what can only be described as a “new wave” of pixel art. Below are a few of these new pixel art enthusiasts who have found pixels to be the perfect format for conveying their artistic expression.
Joo Jaebum is a pixel artist who is keen to spread his practice across the world and inspire a new generation of digital artists. He recently held a successful exhibition of his pixel art work, which includes many pieces that pay homage to work from renowned artists in South Korea.
“Once I was trying to make my profile image in Photoshop. First I dotted my face onto this empty layer with 1 pixel brush tool. That was the start.
“Pixel art is a very concise expression but it gets across the essence effectively. With skill, I can express everything through the minimum number of dots.”
The familiar work of George Seurat, the master of pointillism, rendered into pixel art by Joo Jaebum
Joo Jaebum takes classic works of art and gives them an expert pixel art make over. This time it’s Mucha
This time Van Gogh gets the pixel art treatment. Joo Jaebum’s attention to colour and detail is highly skilled
Adam Flynn is a graphic designer and photographer from British Columbia, Canada. A graduate of graphic design, he has worked with a number of clients on various projects and still experiments with new design techniques. His ‘Glitched’ series, pictured below, was a graphic experiment inspired by his love of pixel art.
“Pixel and Glitch art is so interesting to me because there are many different techniques and seemingly infinite outcomes. When it comes to glitch art, the process is very unique compared to traditional art or design, since when I am working on a piece I have no idea how the final composition will look; it is all a combination of experimentation and random series of computer ‘errors’ that build the artwork. I almost view glitch art as a modern or technological interpretation of the Japanese aesthetic view of ‘Wabi-sabi’, which is finding beauty in imperfection.”
Adam Flynn’s ‘Glitched’ series uses broken pixels to produce accomplished works of abstract art
He uses colourful pixels and distorts them with algorithms to create unique patterns
Adam’s set of seven prints are available on his website
James Svard is a teacher of Architecture and the Built Environment in Sweden. In his spare time, however, he enjoys creating art using his computer and has been doing so since the 1980s, when pixel art was pretty much the only option for digital designers.
“I got my first Commodore 64 (one of the first 8-bit home computers) back in 1987 and after a few years I saw it was possible to do audio/visual concepts; what were called “demos” in the scene. On and off, I’ve kept my interests around 8-bit graphics and occasionally participate with graphics and design. I don’t see it as a nostalgic gesture or a retro dream of the past, quite on the contrary. I do images in real life and there is a translation back and forth, whether it’s going to be a purely digital image or an illustration or painting on canvas.
“There is something lovely about the restrictions and the 16 colours. They make you think differently about how to compose an image, compared to when you draw by hand, paint etc. It makes you focus on the economy of an image. I use all possible techniques available, from sketching on paper, scanning and tweaking in Photoshop CC, to return to a native graphics mode. This is also a technique I use when I do much of my paper-illustrations.”
A pixelated James Svard appears in this pixel art self-portrait
The pixels add an unnerving effect to James’s ‘Wacek’
This pixel painting, entitled ‘Yulia’ is very reminiscent of mosaic work
While at its core pixel art uses some of the basic principles and techniques of popular and ancient art, such as mosaic and pointillism, we are continuing to see more and more inventive and artistic ways of using computer generated squares of colour to create images. Even as computer design software advances, you can expect that there will always be a place in art for the pixel.
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