What is Pixel Art?

Pixel Art Definition

Pixel art is 2D digital art that is drawn and edited on a pixel by pixel basis. It is often low resolution and uses a restricted colour palette.

It has it’s origins in early video games where resolution and palette restrictions were imposed by computer hardware limitations. Now it is often used as a design choice for digital artwork and video games, to give a retro aesthetic to visuals.

Pixel art visuals example

History

What are now referred to as pixel art visuals were once all home computers and gaming machines were capable of.

The first games machines such as the Atari 2600 featured extremely low resolution graphics and only a handful of colours. Game artists had to make the most of the limited capabilities of the graphics hardware.

As time went on, through the 80’s and 90’s, technological advances allowed increasingly complex visuals. Resolutions gradually got higher and colour palettes got bigger.

Through the 80’s, game visuals could be designed in a number of ways. It was not uncommon to use graph paper to design artwork and game levels that would then get programmed in as values for the different pixels in the grid. Or some early, often custom software and/or hardware setups could be used to do this digitally.

Eventually, commercial paint packages were available, which could be used for drawing/editing pixel art graphics.

Fast forward to present day, where computer graphics hardware and screens allow extremely high resolutions and almost limitless colour palettes. This, along with the advent of 3D hardware accelerated visuals, has almost completely removed these restrictions on computer art.

Dithering

Dithering is a technique sometimes used to mix colours where limited palettes are used. It can be used to give the appearance on more shades, smoother transitions between colours and for semi-transparent effects like shadows. This is usually achieved by overlaying pixels of the colour you want to mix in an even alternating pattern.

Dithering can be thought of as the digital pixel art equivalent of cross-hatching or paint texturing sometimes used in traditional art. In much the same way, it can also be used as an artistic choice to add texture or noise to particular objects in an image. Various dot patterns can be used from alternating pixels to more sparse arrangements in order to achieve the desired texture and mixture between the colours.

Dithering

Dithering can be undesirable and visually unappealing in certain instances (e.g. on smooth, hard or metallic objects), due to the unavoidable texture it adds. Too much can make the overall image appear excessively noisy. It’s therefore necessary to be selective about where dithering is used, in order to produce a clean, visually appealing image.

Dithering is most commonly used on highly restrictive palettes. As graphics hardware became more capable (with larger overall palettes, as well as greater numbers of colours allowed on screen at once) dithering became largely uncessesary. It is however still used in modern pixel art, where highly restrictive palettes are self-imposed.

Modern Pixel Art

Pixel art has experienced a resurgence in recent years (along with retro gaming in general).

It’s now common to deliberately impose the limitations of old computer hardware to create visuals that effectively emulate retro computer and gaming system visuals. The degree to which pixel artists do this varies. Some use exact resolutions and conversions of the actual gaming system palettes, some are less concerned with authenticity.

Pixel art has become an art form in itself. It’s also often used in modern, small scale indie game development to give a retro feel and elicit nostalgia.

Today, commercial art packages, or even dedicated pixel sprite editors are used to create pixel artwork.

Difficulty of Creation

It’s a common misconception that pixel art is easier to create than modern, high resolution 2D digital art. This is not the case.

Drawing pixel art is a very particular skill, to get good results. The restricted colour palettes and resolutions actually require artists to be much more precise in their choices, with slight changes making huge differences to the resulting artwork. Plus, it’s impossible to resize or rotate artwork and maintain the crisp individual pixels. So changes can require elements to be redrawn again from scratch. This often makes it much more time consuming to produce.

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