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


  1. Snobs in any field are irritating. Snobs who extol the virtues of the past, confusing the details of the day with their perception of their own youths, are especially irritating. The need to hold anachronism high above its live and thriving descendants is one which will last as long as man itself, because sometimes we just feel that way.

    I love a good bit of Chronotrigger but there's ample reason why graphics have moved on since then. The same reason text based adventures weren't cutting it 10 years ago!

    We will always hold a special place though for the games of our youth. It's just important not to confuse the personal for the profound.

  2. I simply must disagree. Computer art is still very young, pixel art is in essence an form of pointilism. It's a style of art - it will - and has in many ways - moved from technological limitation to a style for use when desired. I love pixel art and have great respect for those that do it well. It's a very time consuming, handcrafted style of cg and I, for one, appreciate that dedication to technique. You can't get it any other way.

    There are many faces to any visual art, paintings weren't obsoleced by the camera and 3D doesn't obsolece 2D cg. It's just another way of doing things.

    Yes, it will make it's way to fine art. It just needs time. There are some brilliant pixel artist - but they still fall into some kid-brother-of-modern-art class. Any style or technique has a place in the artworld. Pixel art is a very difficult artform to master - and those that do and focus on those skills will eventually be recognized I'm sure of it.

  3. I have to disagree also. Good art is good art in my opinion, no matter what the style or medium. Sure if you hold yourself to ridiculous fake "technical" limitations your artwork will suffer. But high quality pixel art can look as good as any other artwork.

    There is also an issue of cost. A normal mapped character might look better than 2D pixel art, or a 3D character with no normal map, but it will also cost more. This might not be an issue if you are an artist trying to make a single piece, but if you're a game developer trying to make a game on a limited budget it definitely is.

    While I disagree with pixel art snobs, I also disagree with people that think those styles of art have been completely invalidated, or can no longer be appealing because newer technologies have come along.

  4. I tend to believe that artistic styles need to constantly be reinvented for each new generation. Chaos Engine, as much as its glorious craft causes my heart to flutter, isn't all that attractive to the modern gamer.

    Here's an example of some folks who are doing great good for the pixel art scene. This artwork by no means slavishly copies the pixel art that it draws inspiration from. Instead they use stylistic design cues as a foundation for a very pertinent and interesting look.


    The commercial artist asks a very different question. They want to know, "What techniques can I use to produce quality artwork that sells?" They really do not care about the fluffery around the medium. It is a rare commercial artist that insists on using oil paints when acrylics do the job faster and just as effectively.

    For commercial art, pixel art presents a series of strong trade offs.

    - Difficulty finding supply: Good pixel artists are quite rare since it tends to be a highly technical skill with relatively low demand.

    + Speed: If you were to get a very good pixel artist they would likely be able to create basic graphics for a game at much lower cost than someone building 20 minutes worth of environmental graphics in a high end 3D engine.

    - Demand: What the larger publisher asks is "What is the demand for such a game?" Historically, they've determined that the demand is low enough that the reduced cost of graphics production does not offset the lack of demand. You do what needs to be done to sell those 1 million copies.

    All this tends to relegate pixel artwork in general to smaller commercial projects in niche markets. Habbo Hotel, a very lovely pixel styled community site, still manages to make more profit than at least 90% of the modern games on the market. Chose your art style as part of the broader package. If your mix is right, it can certainly work out.

    I must admit that I find the folks that limit themselves to reduced palettes when we live in such a glorious 24-bit colorspace to be driven by curious motivations. But then again, we all are spending hours smearing plates of phosphor with little glowing dots, so I don't think any of us have the right to call the other silly. :-)

    take care,

  5. The fact that people forgot how to effectively and reasonably use pixelart speaks more about some other things than pixelart itself. I, for example, use it for prototyping. It's blindingly fast (I can make a realtively representative background and animated characters for whole levels in a few hours), cheap and generally convenient. Sometimes I limit myself to 16 colours, but I know exactly why I do it - because it is more optimal to compose great chunks of colours this way, not because I am nostalgic about Amiga days.

    As far as Photoshop pixelart is concerned, I totally agree with you. I see no use for it whatsoever (although I, too, use Photoshop, among other software). Best not to talk about it.

    Pixelart is like a pencil, really.

  6. A lot of us amateurs who can't design fancy 3d graphics, do what is most at hand, which is pixel graphics. 3d graphics and all tend to require 3d engines. Pixel art is usually easiest to adapt. So we make little games with little sprites instead.

  7. I used to work in the games industry (as a programmer, not an artist) back when pixel art was leading edge, not a retro affectation, and it does seem starnge to see a cult of pixel art emerging.

    However... some of it is excellent, and it forms a distinctive and attractive style, so what the hell - let's just enjoy it. While the restrictions on the style were formed by technological barriers which no longer exist, the advent of more powerful computers doesn't magically destroy the aesthetics of the art.

    I'll close with a picture of my partition at work, which says it all: http://teapot7.com/space.jpg

  8. I'll disagree add my voice in disagreement. I think that pixel art isn't quite dead yet. I posted a bit about this on my blog: http://www.psychochild.org/?p=179

    I think perhaps the most notable point is the last one I make:

    "Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 2D art is more iconic. While there's something to be said for lush, detailed 3D graphics, it is very specific. Any good artist knows that the more iconic art can involve the viewer more. I have to supply a bit of the personality to that "mess of pixels" on the screen representing the hero. Whereas the modern games all have very distinct characters that you control, because they have to be very detailed to fit in with the rest of the game. The focus has always been on making 3D graphics more photorealistic and less iconic."

    For those of us that want games themselves to be considered art, I think this is the most interesting argument.

    My thoughts.

  9. Good post! Hope things are going well with the gigs and books and things. :-)

    I would not say pixel art is 'dead'. It most obviously is not. It has however, moved on from being the dominant *technique* for creating art to a niche *style* of creating art. Whether it decays further into mostly lost art such as daguerreotyping (Still at 819 hits on Google!) or reinvents itself by remaining culturally pertinent is up to the much reduced population of practicing artists.

    I'm a relativist when it comes to artistic mediums. No medium has inherent value. Pixel art is no better or worse than 3D art which is no better or worse than acyrlics or oils or marble. What matters is how the artist uses the medium to create something evocative and meaningful.

    If pixel art does die off, it simply because great artists were not willing to invest the time to use it to make great art that clawed its way back into the publics consciousness.

    I build art programs for a living. Over and over again, I'm reminded "It's the artist, dummy."

    -Danc (who continues to work on 2D tile art in his copious spare time.)

  10. Games are being made more and more complex and intresting in terms of controls and stuff but i think the main thing that appeals a kid at the first sight is the graphics.



  11. Really disagree with you on this one Danc. The idea that "artistic styles need to constantly be reinvented for each new generation." is just built-in obsolecence by styling, a shallow marketing gimmick to try to push people to the new, and has little to do with art, either fine or commerical.

    The choice, of whether you make a commercial product in the form of pixel-art, or an oil-painting, or charcoal or 3d, or whatever is simply a matter of choice.

    Pixel art 'says' something about the subject which is quite different to what photorealistic 3d modeling 'says', the same way a drawing is different to a photo of a puppet. The sooner producers learn to use graphic-language intelligently rather than just following self-fullfilling market trends, or being slaves to the technology, the better the products will be.

  12. Whether you agree or disgree with me, artistic styles are reinvented for each new generation. Sometimes you have a painting that was intended to celebrate god reinvented as 'fine art' by a set of marketeers. Sometimes, you have new artists working in an old style, but making the subject matter more pertinant to the modern audience.

    If there was an oil painting sitting on an asteroid in a lifeless universe, it would have no inherent meaning. The existence of an audience and the audience's vocabulary, tastes and expectation riff upon the work and give it pertinence. So much of the graphical language is built into the audience, not the artwork.

    People die off and move on. Each new generation needs to be introduced to old art for the first time. Someone needs to explain to them why it matters. If that is a shallow marketing gimmick, it is a pattern that has been happening for hundreds of years with pretty reasonable consistency.

    Man, I need some spiked coffee, a jazz bar and some little black beret. Discussing art is like talking about sex; titilatting, passionate, but never quite fulfilling. In the end, you just need to do it. Make something great that speaks to your audience. Then we can talk all we want about whose medium has superior inherent value. :-)

    take care
    (who appreciates a good art discussion as a bit of foreplay to the creative act)

  13. Hi there,

    Everyone here covered the marketing aspects of current graphic trends quite well. Lots of wisdom in there.

    I want to nitpick over one of your comments, Danc:

    "I must admit that I find the folks that limit themselves to reduced palettes when we live in such a glorious 24-bit colorspace to be driven by curious motivations."

    This is nothing terribly exclusive to pixel art. In my no less than annoying art classes I learned that, in painting (hell, probably in *many* other fields as well), less is more.

    Many non-pixel artists actually limit themselves to a small color palete, in order to attain consistency. When you pick up too many colors, you end up making a salad.

    Yes, in analog mediums (I despise the term "traditional"), we often get the advantage of color mixing, and even in digital mediums there is opacity tricks, but you still limit yourself to a few effective tones. Look at monochrome illustration and cel-shading.

    Apologies if I didn't make any sense, I am posting in a rush at work ^_^;;


  14. hey danc. Yeah I agree, if you're talking about the style being re-interpreted, not styles needing to be re-invented. And of course, all meaning exists in people, not objects, it's up to us to learn to 'read' properly, and the author to make sure it can be read properly. No need for marketing folks at all.

    The idea that because modern gamers aren't going to rush out and buy Chaos Engine doesn't mean that they couldn't appreciate it, or that they're not downloading it from The Underdogs in their millions (ok I exaggerate!).

    The whole split between old and new that you're suggesting is artificial - everything is new to the next generation. I think the real issue at stake has nothing to do with old/new but rather the differences between mainstream, popular and niche.

    The dominant mode of representation within game-culture is currently towards photorealism / simulation. But that's not the only mode, look at cel-shading, locoroco or katamari - other forms do exist. No they might not be 'pixel art' - but they are as innovative as when wireframe-vector graphics (Elite etc.) started appearing on systems designed to run bitmaps.

    BTW have a look at Paul Robertsons movie:

  15. Psychochild and dave both hit on some very important points - the iconography and language of a visual art. as they both mentioned, pixel art is very strong in both of these areas. in relation, pixel art is also super powerful when it comes to expressing character emotion. just the sublest of tweaks to a pixels existence/color/position in something like a characters eyes creates a profound change in its attitude. i haven't really seen such powerful conveyance of emotion in 3d character art, yet. with a focus on photo-matching visuals, emotion becomes more subtle (like real life). the viewer must look harder to read a character's expression. in most cases (unfortunately), devers don't seem to be even striving to convey this emotion, but even when they do i've yet to see it measure up to the emotion that some masterful pixelled characters have transferred to me as i watch them animate/pose. no, i'm not holding on to the past. i love great art period - 2d, 3d, whatever. i just really haven't seen 3d art that has been able to achieve some of the things that pixel art has and still does (this holds true vica-versa, of course).

    keep pushing the limits of every artform! understand the strengths and play to them. discover new strengths and bring them out.