The pixel is an amazing thing. It is how you’re reading the text on this screen right now. It’s a unit of measurement. And for some creative folks, it’s a way to make art. Pixel art is a type of digital art that looks like it was intentionally created with the placement of pixels. Each block is a brushstroke; and, together, the bunches of pixels make a whole piece. In this way, pixel art has a mosaic-like quality to it. Many mosaics create images of tiny squares similar to the blockiness that’s inherent in pixel art.
In the early days of computers, the hard edges of pixel art were the only type of computer art that you could make. Technology wasn’t advanced enough to create the anti-aliasing that we’re used to now. But as computer graphics continue to become more and more lifelike, pixel art now references a retro style and a callback to those early computer graphics.
Read on to learn more about pixel art—its history, its waxing and waning in popularity, and how you can make your own.
How Pixel Art Got Its Start
Pixel art was born in the 1970s, albeit very crude in comparison with the digital art of today. Because of technological restrictions and the general newness of the field, users were limited to the graphics they could create. Some of the earliest pixel art was merely squares and rectangles.
SuperPaint was the precursor to modern graphic programs like Photoshop. Developed in 1972 by Richard Shoup, it was used by NASA as a way to illustrate its discoveries and data. Its capabilities included basic graphics and animation, although its contributions would get cut short. In 1979, the pioneering program was put to an end by its development company, Xerox PARC. But that was not before it showed what the future could be. It had features like adjustable paintbrushes, image magnification, and the ability to create full-color images. Its menu was replicated on subsequent graphics applications like MS Paint and MacPaint.
Though revolutionary at the time, SuperPaint was limited in its capabilities—at least what we expect from a graphics program today. As technology continued to advance and computers came with better graphics cards and memory, developers and creatives adjusted accordingly. Even with big limitations (by today’s standards), video games included more detailed graphics and pushed the limits of what was possible.
The results were iconic characters and graphics that came from the 8-bit era (spanning 1983–1987) and the 16-bit era (spanning 1987–1993). If you’re unfamiliar with what 8-bit and 16-bit are, it, in part, refers to the tonal variation of the image. An 8-bit picture, for instance, will have fewer amounts of tones available for each color than a 16-bit does. The more color tones available, the more detailed that you can get with your image-making. Early Mario (the video game character) is an example of 8-bit while Sonic the Hedgehog is an example of 16-bit.
Once Playstation and the N64 game consoles arrived on the market, it was clear that pixel art was waning popularity. Through these systems, developers worked on creating 3D models as characters, making side-scrolling games feel passé. People wanted the increasingly three-dimensional quality that games like Mario 64 or GoldenEye 007 could offer.
By the mid-aughts, 3D graphics and gaming had become the norm with pixel art much less common and considered retro or vintage.
How do you make pixel art?
Nowadays, a pixel art aesthetic is a stylistic choice that artists make. Perhaps you’d like to try it, too. Whether you’re intrigued by the challenge of working in a blocky style or want to give your graphics a retro vibe, you’re well on your way to creating pixel art as long as you have a computer graphics program. The following tutorials on YouTube will help you learn the basics of creating pixel art.
What Program to use for Pixel Art? (Paid and Free Software)
How to Make Pixel Art with Adobe Photoshop
The Ultimate Pixel Art Tutorial
Pixelart on iPad
How to Design Characters the Pixel Art Style
Do’s and Don’ts of Pixel Art
Contemporary Pixel Art Inspiration
Once you’ve got a hang of creating your own pixel art, get inspired by some of these contemporary artists keeping the blocky aesthetic alive. You’ll notice that some use fewer colors, bigger pixels, but it’s up to you how you craft your images. That’s part of the fun.
summers spent in the mountains 🌾🌿💛 pic.twitter.com/9FkG2SMIN2
— Jubilee ❣️ (@16pxl) March 10, 2022
above the mist 💜 pic.twitter.com/p6XsEBs3w4
— Jubilee ❣️ (@16pxl) January 30, 2022
i really love painting light with pixel art ✨🌿 pic.twitter.com/800oVLZ7Uw
— Jubilee ❣️ (@16pxl) February 17, 2022