Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Lessons from the Land of Pixel Art

I had a lovely visit to a pixel art website recently. Wow. What an amazing community.

Back in the day, the artwork I did was, if not cutting edge, at least quite close to state-of-the-art. Game artists who drew with pixels were pushing the technological boundaries of the time. They dithered because it was a clever technique to drag the sexiest look out of limited hardware. They mapped palette indexs to assembly coded color shifters. Color cycling was the equivalent of Spore's high tech procedural animation for the day. Give an artist a pot of mud and they'll make something beautiful. Limited palettes and square pixels were the mud that we were handed. We simply made the best of it.

What we made wasn't intended to be special. We created mass market images for disposable games titles. Mere years after release and you would be hard pressed to even find hardware capable of playing the titles. Pixel artists of yore pumped out art for consumption by pimply faced 12-year olds. We did whatever was fastest, cheapest and still satisfied our customers.

Little did we know that the art we made would one day be put on a pedestal and hailed as a "style." We ended up making real art that touched people emotionally and evoked beautiful memories. There are websites filled with rants about the superiority of pixel art and the misery of today's rampant use of modern 3D graphics. Pixel art, with its accidental association with the honey and spice memories of youth, now ‘means something.’

Ironically, the innovative spirit of those early pixel pushers now lives in the crazy brains of 3D modelers and shader writers. The bizarre mix of technology and art that goes into building the subtle beauty of Halo 3 comes from the same place as the fellow who said “Ha, I’ve figure out how to use 16 colors instead of just 8!” The urge to make great and evocative images will always press against the latest and greatest technological boundaries.

And there will always be those that are left behind. Those who came to game late, after the great works have been done, defend the traditions of the past with great fervor. It has happened with commercial illustration, commercial painting, film photography, print making and laying out graphics with a razor and straight edge. The same thing is happening with pixel art.

In the best of worlds, there is enough cultural momentum that the style establishes itself as a fine art, to be preserved on its own merits instead of its value to the consumer ecosystem. Will pixel art make the transition from mainstream art for the common man into a fine art?
  • Something of it may survive as a subtle form of mosiac. There are likely more blocky pictures of Mario drawn in medium like tiles, post-its, polygons and vectors these days than are drawn in actual pixels.
  • A few bands of connoisseurs may survive on the fringes of the art world, clinging to ancient copies of Deluxe Paint and insisting that only pure, organic pixels and limited high fiber palettes be used. No index painting allowed. (It is simply evil)
  • The surreal images of spaceships, mushroom and isometric landscapes will almost certainly live on, reinterpreted in new media with a wink and nod.
But ultimately, mass market art moves on as new generations look for new thrills. The practical artist, those commercial money minded drones such as myself, moves with it.

Right now, shader-based 3D is the new pixel art. How much longer until it too becomes retro and in need of protection by delightfully passionate fine art snobs?

take care