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What is Pixel Art?

By M.R. Anglin
Updated May 17, 2024
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A pixel is a computerized dot of color. Pixel art is a type of digital art that uses pixels to make up the work. With pixel art, the artist has to place each pixel properly to create a certain effect. One dot out of place could make the piece look strange. Properly done, the artist can create backgrounds, characters, and three dimensional (3-D) effects with a limited color pallet. These techniques were used in older video games as well as in newer mobile games.

In pixel art, the artist places each dot in just the right place to create his desired effect. Most times, this means the artist will have to work placing one pixel at a time. As such, expensive graphic software is not required to create this art. A simple program such as Microsoft Paint or a more extensive program such as Adobe® Photoshop® can both be used to successfully make a pixelated piece.

One technique used in pixel art is dithering, a type of color blending technique. Since most of this type of art is done using a limited color pallet—sometimes eight colors or less—blending these colors so they transition well is an important skill. To do this, an artist will start placing dots of one color next to another in varying frequency. When the picture is viewed as a whole, the eye will blend these dots of color together into a new shade. A similar technique may be seen when some ink-jet printers print a picture.

Pixel art may be separated into two groups: isometric and non-isometric. Generally, isometric means that the object in the art is shown in such a way as to create a 3-D effect. With this type of pixilated art, the object or room is depicted in such a way that all angles are foreshortened equally. This gives the impression that the object is sitting in space rather than just being flat. Non-isometric art includes objects that are viewed from any other angle.

Video games and web sites may use pixel art in a variety of ways. Since it does not use up as much space as computer graphic rendering, this art is well suited to smaller applications. As such, older versions of video game consoles used to frequently use this type of art in their games. Some handheld video game systems and mobile games still use this art. Pixel art can also be found in various Web sites as avatars and favicons, the little icon that appears in the address bar of some Web pages.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Apr 07, 2014

@umbra21 - It might be because of Minecraft, which uses pixel art and has become very popular. It doesn't really bother me as long as the game is decent and pixel art is much, much easier to make for independent game makers who don't have access to the advanced graphics technology that big studios do.

By umbra21 — On Apr 07, 2014

@croydon - I can't understand why pixel art seems to be undergoing a renaissance though. I think it was great that back then it was all they had and they managed to make the most of it. I can remember being very impressed with games that look extremely rough to me now because they were so pixelated.

But we don't have to have that kind of game any more, so why do people still make them? I don't like the aesthetic, but even if some people do, it's just so much more difficult to see what is going on in a game that is made up entirely of pixels.

That's even more true if they use a limited color palate. I mean, maybe it's a reaction against the more advanced graphics they use in games these days, but I think there should be a middle ground.

By croydon — On Apr 06, 2014

Apparently the reason that Mario, of gaming fame, ended up with such a distinctive mustache, was because the artist who designed him just couldn't come up with any other way to make his face look OK. The pixels were just too small to really make a mouth properly, so he added facial hair to cover it up instead.

I guess it had the added bonus of making the character fairly distinctive in a world where all characters must have looked roughly the same, given the limitations they had in making them.

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