Home Magazine Pixel art: definitions, examples and where to find the best Pixel Art

In a world of fast-changing technological tools, artificial intelligence and online digital manipulation tools, artists have a plethora of options at their disposal to create digital and digitally manipulated artworks. This very fact makes the revival of pixel art in recent years especially intriguing. 

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What is so special about this low-resolution, retro and somewhat primitive medium? What does it say about artists’ desires to return to a simpler form of digital art—a return to a more low-fi form of visual culture? This article explores the explosion of pixel art by considering and asking: what exactly is pixel art?

Pixel Art 

What is pixel art? A definition

Pixel art is a broad term that describes a form of digital art created by arranging pixels (small squares of colour) in a grid to form an image. 

Pixel art is used to describe computer-generated illustrations, algorithmic art and any form of image-making that involves the arranging of pixels through a digital source. So pixels are the foundations of this blocky, retro-style art form. 

What’s the difference between digital art and pixel art?

While all digital art is built with pixels, what sets pixel art out specifically is the intention. Most contemporary digital artists and photographers go to great lengths to make pixels invisible. But for pixel artists, the intention is to make the pixel evident. Indeed, the key characteristic of pixel art is the low overall colour count in the image. 

The reason for this is simple. Contemporary pixel art seeks to recreate the primitive style of video game graphics, which were rendered by low-output machines like 8-bit and 16-bit computers that were capable of displaying only a few colours at once. 

The blocky aesthetic of contemporary pixel art, therefore, recalls the visual aesthetics of early video games from the 1970s and 1980s, from games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders to Zelda and Super Mario. The style has re-emerged partly due to a nostalgia for this simpler visual aesthetic. 

But while pixel art shares many visual similarities with retro computer games, the broader movement actually has a much lengthier history in art. 

Pixel Art

A short history of pixel art

The history of the technique stretches back to the mid-twentieth century and developed alongside the development of personal computers. The technique embodies multiple disciples from art and design to technology, gaming and computer science.

Some of the earliest known examples of pixel art are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and span as far back as the 1950s. Take, for example, the geometric abstractions by artist Ken Knowlton. The American computer graphics pioneer and artist experimented with photomosaics and computer-generated pixel art in the 1960s whilst working at the computer company Bell. Knowlton’s work was exhibited at the Insitute for Contemporary Art’s landmark exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity in 1968.

Other established pixel artists include David Em, who began producing computer art in the 1970s. Like Knowlton, Em worked alongside computer scientists at numerous research labs in Silicon Valley, from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre to Apple Computer’s Advanced Technology Group. However, unlike Knowlton, Em worked as the artist-in-residence, compositing pixels with specific colour values to produce computer-generated images. 

Em’s otherworldy images, such as Approach, 3D animation, 1979, have been exhibited at exhibitions around the world, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Los Angeles.

Artists, illustrators and photographers continue to investigate the visual possibility of this low-resolution form—inspired by the nostalgic visual language of primitive technology and visual culture.

Pixel Art 

Where to find pixel art?

Pixel art can be found online and in institutional collections, including:

Victoria and Albert Museum. the London museum has a rich collection of pixel, digital and early computer-based art in its collections, from 1950s artist Ben Laposky to the WeChat Bubble pup animated gif.

Video Games. Pixel art is everywhere in early computer games, from Pac-Man to newly released retro-style games that draw inspiration from the aesthetic of the 1970s and 80s.

Online Galleries. Communities, including DeviantArt and PixelJoint, are just some of the digital galleries where you can view and collaborate with other pixel artists.

Cover image: Pixel art 

Written by Kooness

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