The beauty of Pixel Art and why it’s every bit as relevant today

The idea of the pixel might seem a little primitive to many of us, especially those excited about the next big jump in resolution, VR, or vector programs. However, the nostalgic connection pixel art has on us helps this niche artistic form cling on, pulling at our heartstrings and screaming at us to not forget the good times! From scrolling 2D arcade games to retro 80s graphic design, the past was dominated by blocks of 8-bit color. In this riveting read, we will explore the pixel culture as it unfolded and where it is now and perhaps even discuss where it’s going because it’s not over for our little pixel friends. Not just yet.

What is Pixel Art?

The answer is simple. Pixel art is an art form that uses singular pixels to build a digital 2D image block by block. Each pixel carries its own color and color range, known as bit-depth, which allows us to create typography, icons, logos, and animated characters in striking detail and vibrant colors. Since its debut in the early 80s, it has become an artistic style in its own right.

The origins of the pixel

The pixel, one of the most iconic inventions in computing and imaging.

The pixel, one of the most iconic inventions in computing and imaging, began as an idea from physicists Russell Kirsch, William Fetter, and physicist-turned-businessman Gene Lovell in the 1950s. As a computer scientist himself, Kirsch proposed a concept inspired by television images: to store an image as a pattern of squares known as pixels. This was no small task, as pixels could only be arranged horizontally to make up lines. However, in 1957, Kirsch developed the first digitally scanned image of his son, heralding a new dawn in visual communication.

This earth-shattering breakthrough saw the beginning of a tidal wave of digital creativity, even creating new visual concepts like computer games and new art forms. It was a colorful revolution that was visible everywhere you looked. A new culture wave was brewing.

What is the relationship between pixels and bits?

To really understand pixels, we need to understand what bits are. Pixels and bits are two essential components of digital media. A pixel is a single point in an image or video, while a bit represents the color or level of darkness of that point. By combining multiple pixels in a grid pattern, detailed images, and videos can be created. The number of bits associated with each pixel corresponds to the number of available colors or levels of darkness, which are known as bit-depth. The higher the bit-depth, the more detail present in an image as there is a larger range of shades and smooth transitions between them. This makes images look much more lifelike than they would with a low bit-depth. In short, pixels generate a digital representation of visual information, and bits determine how many different shades it can contain.

Games impact on the pixel

Pixel art infography

Thanks to Russell Kirsch and his pixels, a series of events would then take place that would change the world forever. The gaming boom! Today, the gaming industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with revenues far surpassing the likes of the film and music industries combined. But what has this got to do with our pixel’s story? In short, the gaming industry was shaped around the pixel, and with its primitive limitations, graphic elements such as icons, typography, and animated characters were designed with limited detail. This constrained pixelated look has defined this nostalgic genre for generations and, as such, has become a significant part of the pixel’s history.

The 8-bit era 1983 – 1987

The 8-bit era, roughly between 1983 and 1987, was a magical time for gaming. These days we tend to think of 8-bit graphics as primitive, but the fact is, many iconic games that stand the test of time were released during this era. Classic titles like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, and Metroid all hit shelves during this five-year window. During this period, the industry was evolving rapidly, with an abundance of creativity taking shape through hardware innovations and heartfelt storylines. While today’s games have amazing visuals, lush worlds to explore, and stupendous soundtracks; for many gamers, nostalgia still evokes memories from this unforgettable era.

The 16-bit era 1987 – 1993

The 16-bit era of 1987 to 1993 ushered in a period of revolutionary advancements in video game technology. This era represented a major transition from 8-bit consoles and games to powerful 16-bit systems which had the capacity to process more data, richer graphics, better sound effects, and improved controls. You might recognize titles like Final Fantasy, Street Fighter II, Sonic the Hedgehog, and many more as examples of classic and timeless titles released during this time frame. It was an exciting period for gamers around the world, with genres ranging from beat-’em-up action, side-scrolling platformers, flight simulators, and RPGs providing something for every kind of video game enthusiast. Overall it was an important era that laid the groundwork for some truly remarkable video game experiences over the next decade leading up to the present day.

Pixel art has become synonymous with the gaming industry since its emergence in the 80s. It’s a unique and attractive form of artwork, harkening back to the days when 8-bit systems were all the rage! Today, this vintage style of design still has a firm place in our creative world. Just look at the increasing popularity of indie games and iconic titles such as Minecraft. This type of art is associated with feelings of nostalgia and innocence, a testament to its remarkable staying power. As technology continues to take giant leaps forward, pixel art rightly ensures its place within today’s digital landscape.

Contemporary Pixel Art

So what about today? Pixel art is still a very integral part of contemporary design. On the web, it plays an important role in game design, apps, and graphic design. It’s also used in creating logos and illustrations, allowing digital artists to create stunningly detailed masterpieces. Apparel manufacturers are increasingly using pixel art to create unique designs with incredible detail. This style is becoming more popular each day as lovers of timeless vintage aesthetic appreciate this trend and gives digital media a modern touch with nostalgic vibes. In addition to its fashionable appeal, many people prefer pixel art because it renders fast, which helps when designing for mobile devices or low-end PCs or consoles. Ultimately, pixel art can be used in a variety of creative ways today and continues to be a prevalent tool for design projects due to its charm and efficiency.

So how do today’s digital artists create such imaginative pixel creations in a world dominated by high-resolution detail? The number one tool for today’s contemporary pixel artists is Photoshop. With such control of your artboard and the fact that most designers are familiar with the software, it goes far beyond the needs of simplistic pixel art. You can go as far back into the past as you like, creating traditional 8-bit designs, or bring this nostalgia up to date, using high resolution and bit depths. You can even create animated gifs in Photoshop, another appealing feature. However, for those who simply want to have fun without the need for professional software, there are plenty of mobile apps available that are perfect for some personal creative fun.

The sheer simplicity of this art form makes it accessible for anyone to just think their mind, with barely any skills at all. It’s perhaps the justification behind its popularity and a reason for its bright future.

Is the pixel shining bright for the future?

The short answer is a definite yes. Even younger generations find this simple art form highly appealing with the rise of indie games and a growing online social demographic, a breeding ground for pixel art enthusiasts who want to create striking pixelated branding for the next video game craze. The world seems to yearn for nostalgia. We see it in the record industry with increased sales of vinyl. We see it in retro social media filters. The past is with us and is not letting go because it gives us security and the fact that where we came from was solid and perhaps even better to some.

Pixel art has warmed our hearts for decades, inspiring generations with functional simplicity and memorable designs. However, since this is not the end of the story for the pixel, perhaps you could be what steers the narrative of this beloved art form into the future, creating the next wave of pixelated sensations for the whole world to enjoy.