A Pixel Artist Renounces Pixel Art


A million billion hours, only 45 colors!

I hope it’s clear from this image that I love pixel art. Auro was a love letter to the amazing stuff Nintendo, Capcom, Konami, and SNK produced in the 90s. That art was probably the primary reason I got into this field in the first place. It’s a beautiful form, and some of my favorite pixel artwork is being made today.

It takes a lot effort to explain how this:

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening for the original Gameboy

has much better art than this:

Bubsy for SNES

Artists of any era tend to create with the best, most current tools available to them. Technology’s primary function is to make human life as easy and efficient as possible. This is no different in the case of art production technology. Greater production technology means fewer limitations imposed by the medium.

[some stuff about how constricted early game systems were]

This constricted medium turned good artists into problem solvers. Good artists looked at the display like a mosaic artist, and not so good artists looked at it like a rock and chisel.

[explanation of dithering, and artfully using pixels to suggest shapes, rather than tracing around more-detailed drawings]

I think it’s safe to say that the tricks of the trade employed to make primitive games look good are no longer required. Yet there is a small, but vibrant community of enthusiasts who not only keep these techniques alive (art by Snake on Pixeljoint), but even add to the form with bold expressionist techniques(art by Calv on Pixeljoint).

This community takes pride in doing extremely complex work(art by jamon on Pixeljoint) while keeping the color count very low.


All these aspects of the community culminate into a sort of sport-like atmosphere, similar to the remnants of the Jazz music scene. While these communities are full of dexterous, blistering performers and highly talented craftsmen, they are also very small and very insular.

“It’s good, but kind of pixelated…”

This sort of “inside baseball” aspect of a niche movement causes problems when it comes to communicating with people.

Sometimes the word “pixelated” is used in a derogatory sense, and sometimes not. Either way, anyone who uses the word clearly doesn’t grasp the concept that pixel art is a deliberate, predetermined art style.

Lots of stuff about what people see first is the pixels. This is a "pixel tax". Animation, and how artfully those pixels are used, takes much longer to see, or is not as self-evident.

Though I never intended for Auro to be a “retro-style” game, what I intended doesn’t matter at all, and it’s 100% my fault for failing to communicate in a language people understand.

I am an illustrator/animator. The kind of value that illustrators/animators are responsible for is distinct among other types of visual artists. We must establish meaningful intent as close to instantaneously as possible. By meaningful intent, I simply mean that the audience has to internalize the concept, motion, emotion, perspective, etc. of a piece right away.


In choosing to make our game with pixel art, we have accidentally taken on a war on two fronts. My job was to make Auro’s art polished, inviting, and clear to the audience, not to also educate the audience that pixel art is a deliberate style.

It’s not their problem that they don’t know what pixel art is, and it’s not their fault. Choosing pixel art was ultimately self-serving and wound up confusing and even frustrating people. This is all because we failed to embrace the medium.

Embracing The Medium

Earlier I mentioned that every medium has limitations. I also mentioned that artists endeavor to eliminate these limitations so that nothing comes between them and their vision. Paradoxically, good artists also embrace limitations. Limitations force ingenuity and innovation, as well as push a form forward.

Pixel artists appropriate the limitations that existed 25 years ago and self-impose them. Though this causes confusion among general audiences, it has made for some of the most advanced, ingenious pixel art yet (art by Fool on Pixeljoint).

Keeping the color count low, as mentioned before, isn’t just for the sport of it. A harmonious palette creates a cohesive piece(art by Thu on Pixeljoint). This principle, along with many others, applies to all visual art, pixel or otherwise.

Not only did my purism give my audience the chore of deciphering a language they don’t understand...

As for the future, I’m planning to shed purism and do my best to mature. I plan to embrace the medium, whatever that may be, and make the best art I possibly can. No level of technology or spectacle can match the careful, hand-done touch of an artist. There are no shortcuts, and there are no algorithms. There is no cheap way to make it good, only relatively good ways to make it cheap.

Anyone think those smoothing algorithms above actually improved the pixel art? I wouldn’t blame you, as the smooth lines are speaking a more modern language. That said, I’ll close by illustrating my larger point with, well, an illustration. Pixel art, 3D art, mosaic art, stop motion art, etc. are just mediums. Don’t let the medium come between you and your audience. Speak in a language people can understand so that they can actually see what makes your work great without a tax.

Working in high resolution doesn’t prevent us from making great game art. The things that made pixel art great are the same things that make “HD” art great. Artists must make the decisions, not computers. Instead of hand-placing squares, hand-place curves. Good art is good art, and nothing beats the real deal. Embracing the medium simply ensures that everybody else knows it.

Embrace the medium!