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Oliver Phillips
Oliver Phillips

Pixel Art Inspiration: 31 Retro Masterpieces

To use pixel art, simply choose a color and start drawing! The pencil will draw lines and dots, while the paint can is perfect for filling in spaces. To erase your canvas and start over, press the trash can button.

Pixel art (/ˈpɪksəl-ɑːrt/)[note 1] is a form of digital art drawn with graphical software where images are built using pixels as the only building block.[2] It is widely associated with the low-resolution graphics from 8-bit and 16-bit era computers and arcade video game consoles, in addition to other limited systems such as LED displays and graphing calculators, which have a limited number of pixels and colors available.[3] The art form is still employed to this day by pixel artists and game studios, even though the technological limitations have since been surpassed.[3][4]

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The precise definition of pixel art is a subject of debate, but an artwork is usually considered as such if deliberate thought was put into each individual pixel of the image. Standard digital artworks or low-resolution photographs are also composed of pixels, but they would only be considered pixel art if the individual pixels were placed with artistic intent, even if the pixels are clearly visible or prominent (see Definition).

The phrases "dot art" and "pixel pushing" are sometimes used as synonyms for pixel art, particularly by Japanese artists. A much more popular variation is the term spriting, which sometimes refers to the activity of making pixel art elements for video games specifically. The concept most likely originated from the word sprite, which is used in computer graphics to describe a two-dimensional bitmap that can be used as a building block in the construction of larger scenes.

The majority of pixel artists agree that an image can only be categorized as pixel art when the pixels play an important individual role in the composition of the artwork, which usually requires deliberate control over the placement of each individual pixel. When purposefully editing in this way, changing the position of a few pixels can have a drastic effect on the image. Modern pixel art software incorporates tools that automatically place multiple pixels at once (such as fill tools, line tools, and brush tools), therefore defining pixel art as "art in which an artist has placed each individual pixel" is not accurate anymore. The following is a better way to interpret it: "The process that leads to the final artwork is less relevant than the final result. If the pixels play an important individual role in the final composition, it will be broadly regarded as a pixel art piece by most artists independently of the techniques that may have been implemented to achieve that result."

A common characteristic in pixel art is the low overall colour count in the image. Pixel art as a medium mimics a lot of traits found in older video game graphics, rendered by machines which were capable of only outputting a limited number of colours at once. Additionally, many pixel artists are of the opinion that in most cases, using a large number of colours, especially when very similar to each other in value, is unnecessary, and detracts from the overall cleanliness of the image, making it look messier. Many experienced pixel artists recommend not using more colours than necessary.

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As images get bigger in resolution, pixels get harder to distinguish from each other and the importance of their careful placement is diminished, to the point that the concept of pixel art falls apart. The exact point at which this occurs and the conditions for a piece to be reasonably called "pixel art" have been the source of great disagreement among professionals and enthusiasts.

In general, the construction of a pixel image can be very similar to that of a digital artwork, particularly during the early sketching phases. The part in which the biggest distinction is made is the final pixel-by-pixel polishing.

Oekaki is a form of digital art done at small resolutions that presents many similarities with pixel art. However, in Oekaki, the placement of individual pixels is not considered as important compared to the general feel of the artwork, giving it a characteristic "messy" or jagged look.

There are plenty of algorithms that have been used to facilitate the creation or editing of pixel art, such as using 3D shaders within software like Blender to generate complex effects or rotating objects, that are later imported into pixel art software.

Some traditional art forms, like counted-thread embroidery (including cross-stitch) and some kinds of mosaic and beadwork, are very similar to pixel art and could be considered as non-digital counterparts or predecessors.[2] These art forms construct pictures out of small colored units similar to the pixels of modern digital computing.

Some of the earliest examples of pixel art could be found in analog electronic advertising displays, such as the ones from New York City during the early 20th century, with simple monochromatic light bulb matrix displays extant circa 1937.[5] Pixel art as it is known today largely originates from the golden age of arcade video games, with games such as Space Invaders (1978) and Pac-Man (1980), and 8-bit consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System (1983) and Master System (1985).

The term pixel art was first published in a journal letter by Adele Goldberg and Robert Flegal of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1982.[6] The practice, however, goes back at least 11 years before that, for example in Richard Shoup's SuperPaint system in 1972, also at Xerox PARC.[7]

Because of severe restrictions of early graphics, the first instances of pixel art in video games were relatively abstract. The low resolution of computers and game consoles forced game designers to carefully design game assets by deliberate placement of individual pixels, in order to form recognizable symbols, characters, or items. Simple function-based avatars (or player-surrogates) such as spaceships, cars, or tanks required a minimum of animation and computing power, while enemies, terrain, and power-ups were often represented by symbols or simple designs.[8] Due to the limited hardware of the 1970s, abstraction, as in the case of Pong's relatively simple design, sometimes led to better game readability and commercial success than attempting more detailed representational art.

Although computers had been used to create art since the 1960s and microcomputers were used in the late 1970s[9] and there are examples of digital art utilizing a more pixelated aesthetic,[10] there is no well known tradition of pixel art from the 1970s that differentiated between the deliberate placement of pixels or the aestheticization of individual pixels in contrast to other forms of digital painting or digital art. For this reason, one could argue that pixel art was not a recognized medium or artform in the 1970s.

In what is sometimes referred to as a golden age of video games or golden age of arcade video games, the 1980s saw a period of innovation in video games, both as a new artform and form of entertainment. During the early 1980s, video game creators were mainly programmers and not graphic designers. Technological innovation led to market pressure for more representational and "realistic" graphics in games.[8] As graphics improved, it became possible to replace hand-drawn game assets with imported pictures or 3D polygons, which contributed to pixel art developing as a separate art form.

Nevertheless, the aesthetic of 1980s video games had a major impact on contemporary and future pixel art, both in video games, the demoscene graphics and among independent artists. As computers became more affordable in the 1980s, software such as DEGAS Elite (1986) for the Atari ST, Deluxe Paint (1985) and Deluxe Paint 2 (1986) for the Commodore Amiga, and Paint Magic for the Commodore 64, inspired many later pixel artists to create digital art by careful placement of pixels. In the case of the Commodore 64 and the Amstrad CPC, some early pixel artists used joysticks and keyboards to pixel.[12]

With the rise of the demoscene movement in Europe in the late 1980s, artists who were proficient with creating pixel art using 8-bit computers like the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum or 16-bit computers like the Atari ST began to publish their pixel art as demos. Demogroups would often include coders (programmers), musicians, and graphicians, where graphicians were a common name for graphic designers and/or pixel artists. Although some graphicians worked on adding art to cracked video games (cracktros), the demoscene contributed to artistic communities creating pixel art for its own sake as art. These were often shared via floppy disks that were handed from person to person or via the postal service.[13] The golden age of the demoscene and its associated pixel art milieu, however, is often regarded as beginning in the early 1990s.[12]

Before the 1990s, display systems were mostly based on a small 4-bit palette of imposed colors (16 fixed shades innate to each system, often incompatible with one another). The coming decade greatly improved the graphics standard with the appearance of increased color depth and indexed color palettes (For example, 512 colors for the Atari ST and the Mega Drive, 4,096 for the Amiga ECS, 32,768 for the Super Nintendo, and 16,777,216 for the Amiga AGA and the VGA mode of the PCs). During the 1990s, 2D games with manually painted graphics saw increasing competition from 3D games and games using pre-rendered 3D assets.[14] Still, pixel art games like Flashback, The Secret of Monkey Island, The Chaos Engine, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past had a major influence on future artists in the game industry, the contemporary demoscene and the aesthetic of pixel art in later decades.[11]

In addition to pixel art influenced by video games, pixel artists (or graphicians) in the demoscene continued to make pixel art for demos and cracktros. Some demoscene pixel artists active in the 1990s have cited movies and urban graffiti as important influences for their art, particularly in designing logos.[15][16] In addition to copying sprites from existing video games, demoscene pixel artists also copied the work of popular artists and illustrators such as Ian Miller and Simon Bisley.[17] Competition gradually became an increasingly important part of demoscene gatherings, including pixel art (graphics) competitions, and as teenagers and young adults were the major demographic in these gatherings, a lot of demoscene pixel art referenced familiar fantasy, science fiction and cyberpunk tropes. Demoscene competitions had a major effect in shaping the direction of pixel art. Prominent artists would look for ways to innovate, display superior technique, overcome technical restrictions and in many cases aim for photorealism through anti-aliasing.[18]


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