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Pixel Art 101: The Ultimate Guide

The world of pixel art is not often considered that of the mainstream art world, but has a complex, interesting history behind it. Pixel art is essentially an art form in which small details make up a bigger picture. The phenomenon was born in the 1970s during the boom of computers and digital art in which it gained its popularity.

Castle sky pixelart by frosty_rabbid / Wildan R²
Castle sky pixel art by frosty_rabbid / Wildan R²

For those unfamiliar with what a pixel actually is, a pixel can be compared to the most basic cell in a living thing. It is the most basic structural unit of digitized media, named by its components: picture and element. With the further developments in technology that followed, pixel art began to lose its popularity as 3D graphics stepped up on the scene.

The greatest decline in pixels could be seen predominantly in the gaming and console sphere. However, recently pixel art has begun to resurface within popular media, making its comeback since the 70s. We’ve put together a guide that outlines what exactly pixel art is, how it originated, its place in the physical art world, pixel games, pixel NFTs and more!

The History of Pixel Art

Portal – Pixel art animation by Alexey

Before the age of advanced technology, gaming companies were faced with a challenge when creating visuals. Pixels made it possible for visual animations to be created out of tiny blocks of colour. Low computer memory was one of many technical constraints placed on digital artists of the time, in addition to limited colour selections and confinement to one screen display. Thanks to technological advancements, this hurdle was then overcome with further capabilities in video games, music videos and sound design.

You may have noticed that lately, pixel art seems to be resurfacing within popular culture. Now, advanced consoles like Sony PlayStation, PSP, Nintendo and PS Vita are all incorporating 8-bit value pixel art into new games. Why has there suddenly been a boom in pixel art again? Well, the answer is relatively simple – nostalgia.

For many, pixel art in games was a sign of their childhood, of better, simpler times. 2D has now become the new 3D, with pixel art making a real comeback. The minimalism and simplicity of pixel art appeals to the viewers nostalgia in a way that reminds us of our youth. Pixel art now takes a number of forms, seen in video games, contemporary art and even NFTs, and can be created by almost anyone! The small file size and ease of use are just additional factors that lend to the popularity of pixel art.

Pixels in the Art World

Although popularized by their presence in video games, pixel art made a clear mark in the form of physical artworks. Within the art world, pixel art takes many forms seen on posters, album covers, tattoos, billboards, screensavers, paintings and magazines to name a few. This unique art form is now deeply engrained in popular culture and design. Modern pixel art is now considered to be a reaction to the world of 3D graphics, turning to the nostalgic simplicity of the past. Understandably, this raises questions regarding both the complexity of art and its aesthetic value.

Pixel Art Games

If you’re a lover of pixel art and are looking to play some pixel art games, whether it be for the aesthetic or the nostalgia – we’ve got you covered. Pixel art games have proven that a high definition, highly detailed, 3D gaming experience is not necessary to successfully create a plot, storyline, atmosphere or emotion.

Celeste

Following the main character Madeline, this game is that of self-discovery as Madeline makes her way towards the peak of Celeste Mountain.

Celeste Pixel Video game
Celeste Video Game

The narrative follows Madeline on this journey through trials and tribulations, allowing the player to feel a strong sense of accomplishment and purpose.

Created in an 8-bit style, Celeste involves extreme exploration and learning the controls is relatively easy to do. The gameplay itself however can be challenging at times, adding to the engagement and dedication required of the player.

The Messenger

This action filled game follows the journey of a ninja travelling through dark and dangerous lands to deliver a scroll to his clan in order to save them. Although covering a rather dark storyline, the game makers incorporated a lot of humour into the gameplay. This game in particular uses pixel art in a very new and interesting way – the story begins as an 8-bit adventure and later changes into 16.

The Messenger Pixelart
The Messenger Pixel art

The Messenger is incredibly reminiscent of the nostalgic, retro games back in the day. In regard to gameplay, the start of the game is relatively easy and includes basic controls, however as the game progresses, more controls and levels are unlocked to conquer the missions. When playing, you can use the ‘Time Shards’ as collectible tokens in order to upgrade your character.

Stardew Valley

Known as one of the most popular pixeled games, Stardew Valley is a fan favourite. This game is a role playing game in which you are required to build a farm and restore Stardew Valley! Within the gameplay, players can grow crops, cook food, raise animals, fish and craft different tools and items.

Stardew Valley pixel game
Stardew Valley pixel game

The simplistic nature of the pixel art adds to the nostalgic, wholesome feeling of this medium. As the main character, you can also interact with other non-player characters as well as form a family. In order to accumulate currency and resources, players complete certain bundles. In addition to this single player game play, Stardew Valley also has the added functionality of playing with others, sharing resources and building a joint farm together!

Katana ZERO

Not just your average pixel game, Katana ZERO pairs pixel art with neon art to form an increasingly atmospheric gaming experience. Synth music is another predominant component in the game, also adding to the atmospheric nature of the game.

Catana ZERO pixel game
Catana ZERO pixel game

Katana ZERO follows the main character Zero who has taken the drug Chronos. This drug provided Zero with the ability to manipulate time – slow it down, speed it up and even reflect bullets. Mastering this skill is essential in order to progress through the game and complete each level. In terms of gameplay, when Zero dies he respawns at the start of his mission. This allows for mistakes made by the player to be fixed and for each level to be perfected.

Owlboy

This game covers the story of Otus, an owl boy whose life is turned upside when pirates arrive on his land. Although Otus is able to fly everywhere, do not mistake that for a simple gameplay. In order to advance onto the upper levels you’ll need to progress through dark dungeons, solve puzzles and fight his enemies.

Owlboy pixel game
Owlboy pixel game

In order to conquer these fights, Otus uses the help of his friends as well as some out of the box, creative ideas. This highly imaginative story paired with its unique gameplay adds to the charm of Owlboy. The pixel art involved in this game is rather detailed, with well-designed backgrounds and foregrounds.

Ingame Owlboy video

Pixel Art as NFTs

NFTs, or ‘non-fungible tokens’ are collectible digital assets that hold value in the form of cryptocurrency. These digital assets are issued on a Ethereum blockchain. Think of them as rare collectibles like signed baseball cards, digital paintings or limited edition clothing – value holding investments. Read more about NFT in our article the ultimate NFTS guide.

The dawn of the virtual artwork came as an extremely pleasant surprise to digital artists in the creative world. For some time, digital artists have struggled to promote their work and earn a living. Just like real estate, virtual art is now also available for purchase. Artists now have the capabilities to sell their art digitally, as well as display their art in virtual galleries for others to view – an entirely new way to sell, buy and discover new art.

A popular form of NFT art is pixel art, seen in a number of forms. You may have heart of Cryptopunks or Cryptokitties – these are both examples of pixel art that serve as digital assets. Recently, a single pixel was sold as part of NFTs for over $11.7 million! You can find pixel art on marketplaces such as Opensea, SuperRare, Nifty Gateway or Rarible.

For more on NFTs visit our Ultimate Guide to NFTs, as well as our article on the top NFT collectibles.

Popular Pixel Artists

Meet Pixel Artist: Alexey

We reached out to pixel artist Alexey to find out a bit more behind his passion for pixel art!

“Hi, my name is Alexey. I’d consider pixel art to be my hobby, a hobby to which I devote all my free time after family and work. I’ve been creating pixel art for around 1.5 years now. Alongside creating pixel art I am a programmer by profession.

Car in the Snow – Pixel art animation by Alexey

My passion for pixel art all stemmed from the fact that I had always dreamed of creating my own computer game. I realized that people don’t care how perfect or polished the code is at the heart of the game, and are instead concerned about stunning and engaging visuals. I decided to start painting myself.

Although I’m not an artist by chance, I didn’t have a definite plan for it. I then started drawing by using the code and drawing through programming. As a result, I created my own small engine for rendering pixel art in a browser window using html5 canvas technology. The next step was to create my own graphics editor in order to load its results into this engine.

The scenes I create are a tough mixture of JSON graphics and Javascript code that brings it all to life. With each new work I create, I come up try to with something new – a new algorithm for generating effects, a new approach to scene composition, or a new feature in the editor. I’m tired of feeling like I’m constantly working from a blueprint and doing the same thing. I strive to always try something new and difficult.

I really hope to one day have the willpower and courage to start making my scenes truly interactive and return to where I started – creating games. But for now, I am just creating art and combatting with social media algorithms in my quest to show my art to more people.”

Visit Alexey on Instagram.

Meet Pixel Artist: Wildan R²

“I’ve always been interested in game development, since around middle school I think. I then learnt how to code. At the time, I realized I couldn’t make a proper game because my drawing skills weren’t up to par. In addition to that, using free assets wasn’t allowing my game to reach its potential. So – I learned to draw.

I tried out a lot of different styles but none of them really seemed to match my plan. It was then that I came across games using pixel art. I did some research and found out that pixel art is reasonably easy to implement as game asset, more so than any other kind of art. And that’s the story of how I got into pixel art.

In regards to the software I use, I am currently using Aseprite. However it is not the first software I used. At first, I started off with Ms. Paint which is kind of a pain in itself. For handling PNGs I used Macromedia Fw, although have moved on from it since.”

Visit Wildan R² on Instagram.

Meet Pixel Artist: Nop

“Hi there, I’m Nop! I’ve been drawing art for around 4 years now mostly as a hobby. I also don’t have much previous experience in art. Pixel art seemed to be the perfect way to start drawing as it was a restrictive medium at its core. This ultimately pushed me out of my comfort zone.

The pixel art community really is great too, taking up a rather niche medium. Compared to the digital art community as a whole, we are a fraction of the size, creating a great sense of community and friendship.

In regards to software that I use, I’ve been using Aseprite for years now. It’s a great program created by the folks over at Igara Studio which is specialised in pixel art and sprite animation. It’s been 4 years and I am yet to be disappointed. That must mean something!”

Visit Nop on Instagram.

Resources

Pixel Art Editors

Shortlist of popular free and premium pixel editing software.

Aseprite is a popular editor

A great place with tutorials to learn how to create pixel art can be found megavoxels.

Richard Eijkenbroekhttps://www.xquissive.com
Richard is the owner of Xquissive. He is passionate about art, graphic design, print on demand and many other topics.
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