What Exactly is Pixel Art and How Did It Come Back to Life ?

November 7, 2015

Back in my student days, I had a rather amazing arts professor. When it was time to tackle the topic of pixel art, as one of those movements that perhaps weren’t mainstream but were interesting nevertheless, the first thing she said was “Oh, pixel art? Counted-thread embroidery meets Pointillism within a virtual reality of a computer.” And the truth is that there could be no better description of it. Pixel art, as a form of creating a bigger picture out of small details, was born in the 1970s, when computers and digital art started to gain relevance and, as you can guess, it is based on pixels. For those familiar with the term, but unfamiliar with its graphic characteristics, a pixel is like a cell in a living organism - it is the most basic structural unit of a digital image (and hence the name: picture + element = pixel). With the arrival of modern technology, elaborated computing and 3D graphics, pixel art lost its widespread presence, mostly in the fields of consoles and gaming but, contrary to the popular belief, it did not die out. Before we go dwell on its status today, let us go back in time to revisit the exciting evolution of pixel art through its biggest representative - video games.

A video article exploring the course and tools of pixel art

The Rise of Pixel Art Games

This is how it went down: at a time of the first programs, games were incapable of rendering more detailed graphics, so someone had quite a challenge - to make a visual animation made solely and entirely out of little blocks of color. This person had to be very creative, but also to stay within the confines of technical limitation, because at the time, computer memory was quite low, only a certain number of colors could be used, and this newly made pixel artwork was never meant to leave the screen display. But they’ve done it, having had the biggest success with video games and leaving a mark in sound design and music videos. As the quality of the softwares improved over time and new, 3D-supporting consoles like Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 came to be, pixel art saw a decline, and then a revival, of its 8-bit values. All of the sudden, it was hip to be square again, and many were wondering - just how come?

2D is the new 3D

Pixel art games made a comeback because, many agree, it’s a matter of nostalgia. But not just. It is the simplicity, the minimalism, the lightness of the pixels that’s so alluring, as well as the way they remind us of our childhood. The two instances became inseparable, practically unable to exist without one another. Plus, pixel art games are as easy to do as they are to play. While video games did have the biggest role in establishing pixel art as a proper form of the arts, it wasn’t the only one to do so.

page work pixel game create artist use it's created character help source drawing user page sprite animation make
A detail from Passage, a popular video game by Jason Rohrer, released in 2007

Pixellated Illustrations - The Pixoramas of eBoy

Although pixel art was never expected to go beyond its virtual, cyber representation, framed inside of a computer screen, it did happen, in the name of creation of physical artworks. Pixel art went to touch different spheres of life, as creatives went on to create pixel art posters, magazine covers, music album covers, desktop wallpapers, paintings, pixellated video ads and even pixelated tattoos. Pixel by pixel, they were born through this unique form of expression, drawing inspiration from pop culture, the news, design, you name it.

The most famous group of pixel makers out there certainly is eBoy, also known as “the Godfathers of Pixel”, composed of Kai Vermehr, Steffen Sauerteig and Svend Smital and founded in 1997. These guys are famous for their complex illustrations called Pixoramas, city and landscape scenes pixellated, of course, on purpose. To date, they have made pixoramas of places like Tokyo, Paris, New York, Rio, Berlin and London, and are currently Kickstarting the one for San Francisco. Adored by an entire army of graphic designers worldwide, their three-dimensional isometric artwork can be found on posters, shirts, souvenirs and within galleries, as well as campaigns for world’s biggest brands, like Adidas, Honda, MTV, VH1, Coca-Cola. EBoy have introduced pixel art as a printable form, as the result of many hours spent in its creation inside a software.

work page pixel game create artist use it's created character help source drawing user sprite animation make
A Pixel Art Poster made by eBoy announcing Adobe Air. From afar, it looks like a regular illustration, but if you zoom in, you'll spot all the pixels and all the amazing details. Can you also find the monkey? Open image in new tab for full resolution

Pixel Perfect - A New Generation of Pixel Artists

That pixel art holds a significant visual power and a lot of respect within the world of the arts shows a number of other names whose favourite geometric form is a square. Because, as we established, pixel art managed to abandon the computer display and become a part of the real world, there are many ways in which they interact, and in many cases, there are other art forms involved too, as you can see from the images in our slider. Think Invader, or Space Invader, whose urban interventions involve tile works all over the world. He is also known for using a Rubik’s cube in his cubic endeavors (how convenient). NASC is a French web specialist who often makes pixel art of famous images from pop culture. Kelly Goeller took her art outside, where she makes pixellated water flows. John O’Hearn uses small coloured balls processed through a computer program and a machine he invented in order to place the elements at the right place. Ben Fino-Radin is someone who must have had my same arts professor, as he makes embroidered pieces of pixel art. Masterpieces become pixellated through the vision of Jaebum Joo, while an entire list of creatives follows the idea of eBoy to create entire pixel world - among them Paul Robertson, Army of Trolls, Bugpixel, Rod Hunt, Denise Wilton. And, of course, let’s not forget those who hand-paint or draw their pixel art.

All in all - pixel art is fun! By the looks of it, it will not go out of fashion any time soon, so you might as well sit back and enjoy it - maybe even play Super Mario Bros in celebration! Or, even better - learn how to create some yourself!

Featured image: Joo Jaebum - Vincent Wilhelm Van Gogh