The Pixel Renaissance: Pixel Art’s Place in 21st Century Expression

My first experience with pixels occurred in second grade. During the rainy months, our teacher allowed us to stay inside, where we replaced recess with video game tournaments. Huddled over old Apple II monitors, we maneuvered game hero Panama Joe through endless levels of Montezuma’s Revenge.

Panama Joe’s image featured an incredibly low pixel count, which made him vaguely reminiscent of Indiana Jones in that Joe wore a dapper hat, but that’s about where the resemblance ended. Otherwise, Joe sported a red jumpsuit with three pixel buttons; and one black eye pixel poked out from under his hat. Pixels didn’t leave much room for detail, yet we loved Panama Joe nonetheless.

Montezuma’s Revenge was limited in its pixel techniques by the technology of the time. Developed in the late ‘70s, people mostly associate 8-bit pixelation with video games of that era. However, today’s high-resolution technology hasn’t stopped fans from continuing to create pixel games and art. What’s more, artists are referencing pixels using non-digital mediums, like paint and Rubik’s Cubes.

Most admit that nostalgia is part of what makes pixel art so successful, that despite all of the amazing digital innovation out there today, people haven’t ended their love affair with the tiny bit-characters of their youth. But pixels are also appealing to a broader, modern audience – especially to a generation that can’t tell an Atari from a typewriter.

“I was really surprised,” says pixel artist Rich Grillotti, 39. “I thought it was mostly going to be the kind of people who…would have a nostalgic memory of gaming from their childhood that would resonate with what we were doing.” Instead, his company Pixeljam’s main audience is eight to fourteen-year-olds who send fan art in appreciation of his work, much of which involves creating retro-style 8-bit video games.

Grillotti studied fine art at Florida State University. He currently lives in Eugene, Oregon, where he wears locally created hemp pants, watches movies like Joe Versus the Volcano and plays pinball on his iPad. Artists and animators like Grillotti have been playing around with pixelation techniques since the early naughts. In the mid ‘00s the producers of a fashion show asked him to create accompanying pixel art — thus, the Model Series was born. Inspired by the models in fashion photography, Grillotti created pixel versions of beautiful (often nude) women. “I kept getting more and more minimal,” he says, “and started getting excited with how good they looked in so few pixels, these little pixel women.”

Grillotti remained fascinated with pixel characters in general. “A lot of people comment on how amazing it is that these minimal pixel folks have some sort of character, personality to them,” he says, “even though there’s not much information there to convey it.”

What Is a Pixel?

Pixel characters like Grillotti’s can be created on the computer in a number of ways. Some people pixelate digital photos in Photoshop, where they choose filter options like “pixelate” and “mosaic” to distort all or part of a picture. In Photoshop, the user can select a “cell size,” which increases or decreases the number of pixels that comprise a photo. However, many artists refuse to admit Photoshop pixelations come anywhere close to art. Others worry about the possible copyright issues associated with pixelating someone else’s photographs.

Simply put, a pixel is the smallest point that can be represented on a screen, and can appear in the form of small squares, dots or lines. Pixels are organized into a grid system, which then formats to everything from a computer screen to a printed page. Measured in pixels per inch (ppi), the more pixels to appear in an image, the more closely that image will resemble real- life (think high-def television). To put pixels in context, today’s iPhone 4S boasts a 326 ppi display, whereas Panama Joe in Montezuma’s Revenge couldn’t have been made from more than 30 pixels total.

Eight-bit pixel technology continues to thrive through digital art, game graphics and “chiptune” music, electronic beats often produced using vintage sound chips. Meanwhile, artists also create “pixel” art outside the digital space by arranging items like painted tiles and Rubik’s Cubes to evoke a digital image – in the physical world.

Toronto artist Josh Chalom used 12,090 Rubik’s Cubes to recreate The Hand of God, originally painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “With 12,000 cubes, each cube has nine pixels,” Chalom explains, pointing out that only one 3 x 3 side of each Cube shows in the piece. “You have over 100,000 pixels that you have to adjust and make sure that one’s correctly next to the other.”

Chalom is a middle-aged, kind-voiced and broad-shouldered man who sports a graying goatee and shimmering neckties. He was born in Israel, raised in the Dominican Republic, and after working in life insurance for many years, eventually moved to Canada in 1990. As current creative director of a company called CubeWorks, Chalom and his team are currently working with Guinness World Records to re-create the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling in 2012, which would take 250,000 Rubik’s Cubes and would measure 156 feet long and 56 feet wide, almost half the length of a football field. In the end, Chalom says the piece will be 130% of the size of the real Sistine Chapel.

Although created entirely of Rubik’s Cubes, Chalom’s Sistine ceiling will rely heavily on a digital process. He first digitizes and pixelates a series of images. Then, he must simplify the infinite palette of the original work of art into six colors: the blue, red, yellow, orange, white and green of a Rubik’s Cube. “There is no flesh tone on the Rubik’s Cube, so you have to manipulate it to make sure that the white dots are near the yellow dots which are near the orange dots,” he says. “It’s almost like you have to go and do a complete makeover.” He has help to do so. A team of eight “cubers” not only helped to “play” the cubes into strategic color combinations, but also to assemble the entire piece in cube order.

Oddly enough, the pixel and the Rubik’s Cube are actually close cousins in the design family. In fact, the Rubik’s Cube was invented in 1974, right around the same time pixels caught on. Chalom sees a connection between the nostalgia of the Cube and a continued fascination for pixel art. “There are people coming in today that are tech-savvy — they just love the sheer pixel art,” he says. “So it really is a combination of the Cube, the iconic imagery, the optical illusion. It all forms a beautiful blend, which serves to make people smile.”

“I think people are surprised that only a couple of color cards can represent an image or icon. It’s about the essence of an image,” says Roel Vaessen, founder of Dutch design firm ixxi. The company contracts artists who piece together dozens of tiles into giant pixel-like artworks. Vaessen encourages customers to “create their own ixxis.” For example, a couple can celebrate a new puppy or their daughter’s wedding by uploading a photo. Then, ixxi enlarges the photo, pixelates the image, and breaks it into dozens of individual tiles. Finally, the recipients assemble the “pixel ixxi” on their wall.

The company also sells pixel ixxis of Elvis and Pac-Man that, when assembled as floor-to-ceiling wall art, resemble “digital,” pixel characters. These pop art (and even fine art) interpretations are quite popular. When on a wall, they appear cloudy and distorted, yet instantly recognizable for their iconic silhouettes and colors.

Copyright Issues

On the other hand, evoking nostalgia can be tricky, especially when an artist re-creates an existing work of art. People continue to question the possible copyright and fair use issues surrounding this practice.

Essentially, when a recreation of a piece of art is considered fair use, it is an exception to copyright law. There are various qualifiers to determine whether something is covered by fair use. For instance, if it can be proven that a new piece of pixel art affects the value of the original art it imitated, it is not protected by fair use.

While the Sistine Chapel falls under fair use due to its age and iconic universality (in the U.S., art is in the public domain if it was created prior to 1923), other artists have experimented with pixelating more recent art – and some have run into trouble. Computer programmer Andy Baio licensed the rights to create chiptune cover songs from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album. However, Baio ran into legal trouble the summer of 2011, when he pixelated the photograph on the album cover. The original photographer, Jay Maisel, claimed copyright infringement and sought damages of up to $150,000 for each violation. Baio settled out of court by paying $32,500. “I think this settlement raises some interesting issues about the state of copyright for anyone involved in digital reinterpretations of copyrighted works,” writes Baio on his blog.

Baio juxtaposes pieces of original art next to those same pieces reinterpreted by another artist. For instance, he compares the Jim Morrison Doors album cover with a Rubik’s Cube recreation by French artist, Invader. By posting such permissible artistic interpretations, Baio questions how his pixel art, in fact, violated fair use law.

Apart from legal concerns, pixel re-creations face ethical questions as well. Ixxi’s Roel Vaessen says The Girl with the Pearl Earring is one of the Dutch company’s most popular pieces. However, Vaessen is unconcerned with the ethics behind repurposing the famous painting, and favors a more collaborative approach to art. “A pixel ixxi with a Space Invader [is] a combination of the original piece and the ixxi system. I think that’s just a good cooperation.”

Neither did Italian designer Nicola Felaco feel moral regret when creating his digital interpretation of The Mona Lisa. By organizing and layering geometric shapes, Felaco pieced together his Monalisa from the ground-up by assembling various sized earth-toned and green triangles to evoke an image of the famous seated woman, one that unarguably carries his own signature style. He toys with an offshoot of pixels known as vectors, which he explains are “based on forms, usually geometric, on primordial patterns,” whereas pixel art is more about the process of creating on a digital platform. “I’m curious,” he says, “always in constant search for innovation, artistic movements, social and technological experiments.”

Developer Tim Wesoly encourages people to experiment with pixels using a pixel editor tool like his Qubicle Constructor, a Windows program with which artists can build their visions from scratch. Artists using Qubicle can sculpt, organize and edit pixels on a 3D grid, then layer or export the resulting creations to game or animation projects. Since they’re building from scratch, artists don’t struggle with the fair use or ethical issues that arise when manipulating copyrighted photographs or art.

“If you simply use a filter in Photoshop (like mosaic) on a photo, then it’s not pixel art, and therefore no unique interpretation,” says Wesoly, who describes himself as more of a voxel artist, the 3D version of 2D pixel art. He shares a guideline that artists should keep in mind when re-creating other people’s work: “It can’t be too pixelated. That’s impossible. The fewer pixels the better.”

When asked whether he supports an artist’s creative license to recreate iconic works of art, he admitted, “I do that myself, and why shouldn’t I? One big aspect of pixel art is to interpret things everybody knows with as few colors and pixels as possible,” he explains. “I don’t look at it as stealing somebody’s ideas. It’s more like a homage to the original creator’s work.”

Pixel Art’s Appeal

For artists and their fans, that nostalgia continues to be a huge part of pixel art’s appeal. In the rapidly changing world of technology, pixel art represents a reminder of simpler times. And they’re fun. “Pixel art has got that friendly charm. It’s really hard to make pixel art look brutal or disturbing,” Wesoly observes.

Plus, pixel art is inherently shareable and format-friendly. Because the pixel is, by nature, digital, the art form lends itself perfectly to web culture. Most every artist mentioned in this article has capitalized on the Internet community, whether that meant taking pixel characters and animating them into video games or filming a colossal Rubik’s Cube undertaking and posting the video to YouTube. “The results spread very well on the Internet,” says Wesoly. “A lot of people think that those works are cool because they see the amount of work put into it.”

For artists, they’re pleasurable to work with. “One strong trait of pixel art is that it drives the artist to find levels of abstraction. And there’s something very satisfying in transforming an idea or an object into an abstract interpretation,” artist Kai Vermehr explains. “Pixels and blocks are really good at this, they are highly modular and very, very easy to handle and understand.”

Artists at Vermehr’s company eBoy “create re-usable pixel objects” and then apply those objects to larger projects with multiple contributors. For instance, they construct individual pixel characters and scenes that the team then assembles into larger artistic representations for magazines like Wired and Fortune, and into advertising campaigns for Yahoo and Coca-Cola. In that way, each piece of pixel art has an element of teamwork. “I’m probably most proud of our object-based workflow that makes eBoy much more efficient, results in almost zero pixel waste and encourages cooperation,” Vermehr says.

EBoy is modern proof that pixel art is thriving. The company caters to a wide swath of geek culture, one that not only celebrates retro pixel technology, but can also appreciate new pixel iterations. After all, the pixel is not static. Artists can work with pixels of many shapes and sizes, can arrange them in infinite types of grids, and can adapt them according to the tastes of different age groups.

That’s one reason pixel art has been able to reach across the generations. Ixxi founder Roel Vaessen says his customers cut across age groups. “A lot of them are young and creative, but also the older generation discovered pixel art. They are pixelating their own love portraits and icons,” he explains, judging from sales of his company’s customizable tile art.

In the end, pixel fandom remains strongest among the people who grew up alongside the technology. “Pixel art has that nerdic old school charm,” says Wesoly of Qubicle, “A lot of people between 30 and 40 like that style because it reminds them of the good old times before smartphones and Facebook. I do.”

Sistine Chapel/Rubik’s Cube artist Josh Chalom ultimately views art as a great equalizer. For him, nostalgia can surface at any time for any person, whether by means of digital art or a Renaissance painting. “It brings people back. It’s a throwback,” he says. “What’s old is new. What’s new is usually old.”

1. Pixeljam

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Dog image courtesy of Flickr, Brian Hathcock

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