The Basics of Pixel Art: What is Pixel Art?

In this series of articles, we look at the very basics of pixel art; things you should know before jumping in. Want to just go ahead and jump in anyways? Have a look at our series of tutorials, but be aware you’re missing out on some important knowledge.

This series consists of four articles:

What is a pixel?

Unless you’re reading this as a printout, you’re looking at pixels right now. Your screen is made up of tiny little dots: pixels. A pixel is the smallest possible dot a screen can have. Every single thing on your screen is made up of them.

Pixel art can be defined as ‘an artwork in which every single pixel was placed with an express purpose in mind’. While in other digital art forms you generally don’t look at single pixels but rather at the shapes they create as a whole, in pixel art you think about every single pixel on its own and how it relates to the rest of your piece. Every pixel in the piece has a role to play, and changing it has an impact on the whole piece . Since thinking about every individual pixel can be quite a time-consuming process, pixel art is generally small- however, there are plenty of artists who do pixel art on a larger scale.

History and Origins

Pong screenshot
Pong – some of the earliest pixel art in gaming

To understand more about the art form, let’s have a look at the history and origins of it.

Long, long ago (well, not that long ago, really), computers weren’t as powerful as they are these days. They had incredibly limited processing power, so images had to take up very little space and power. Do you remember the game Pong? The visuals in it could be considered a very basic form of pixel art.

Legend of Zelda screenshot
A Legend of Zelda screenshot, showing the use of very limited colours in early gaming pixel art

From Pong it soon evolved into Pac-Man– lo and behold, circles! More colours! As computers evolved, so did the images. On early gaming consoles all games used pixel art, because those images (in games often called ‘sprites’) were the only way to cram everything onto the gaming cartridges. The practice of making images as small as possible (data-wise) for games is still used today, most notably in mobile gaming. However, the need for small images is disappearing as computers grow in power.

One of the restrictions in those days, was the amount of colours that could be used. Each computer/gaming system had its own specific restrictions, but none of them could show the massive amounts of colours computers can nowadays. The restriction in colours is part of what makes pixel art what it is. It’s considered good practice to use as few colours as possible.

These days pixel art is mainly used to get a retro style reminiscent of the early days of gaming.

Types of Pixel Art

As with any type of art, pixel art has several styles in itself. There are two main categories: isometric and non-isometric.

Isometric pixel art
Isometric pixel art

Isometric pixel art is used to create a 3D look. Technically, Isometric perspective is 30 degrees from the horizon, but this wouldn’t translate into neat pixels well so the closest possibility is used (roughly 26 degrees). This style is often used for cityscapes and other images involving a lot of architecture. Isometric images are often very sleek and modern-looking, although there are very notable exceptions to this. Isometric pixel art is often characterised by having a lot of square and cube shapes, since those are by far the easiest shape to make in the isometric perspective.

Non-isometric is a bit of a catch-all term. There’s no one defined style that can be called non-isometric – the only requirement is that it isn’t isometric. There are far too many different styles and types of pixel art to name them all, and it’s hard to properly categorise them. There are full pieces with backgrounds and foregrounds and a fully filled canvas, there are pieces made specifically for games, there are dolls… the list is truly endless.

Non-isometric pixel art

Of course you can also think outside the box of a single art style, and combine them. Why not put your pixel art character in a photograph? While many pixel artists frown upon the use of non-pixel methods and tools in pixel art, it certainly has its merits. As with all art: use your imagination! Be creative!

Picture Credit:

-Pong, taken from Wikipedia, copyright Atari
Legend of Zelda, taken from Wikipedia, copyright Nintendo
-Fragment of Coca Cola by eBoy
-Other images made by Rhynn

About Rhynn

Rhynn picked up the pencil as soon as she was physically able to, and never put it down again. She currently focuses on pixel art, but is trying to brush up on her digital painting skills and general art skills at the same time. In her daily life, she's a canal boat skipper in Amsterdam.
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