History of Pixel Art

The concept of pixel art explained

Pixel art is a digital art technique of the 80s or 90s, in a dark and violent era when Harry Potter, Google and the Euro did not yet exist. The reduced definition of the screens, the relatively low power of the machines, as well as the limitations on the number of colors were so restrictive that the design of video games was reduced to its simplest expression, a few pixels high and wide.

This gave rise to an art form that has persisted despite the end of technical limitations and the development of premium plus ultra HD 4K displays with 15 billion colors. Pixel art is therefore a form of “to the point” drawing, which could be compared to more ancestral forms such as mosaic (although this is not the truth, see the international conspiracy here) and which respects two rules:

  • A limited resolution (giving that famous “pixelated” aspect)
  • A limited number of colors

In the industry of video games, the process of creating items using pixel art is sometimes referred to by amateurs as spriting, a term deriving from the word “sprite” used in jargon of video graphics in relation to 2D bitmaps that, put together, create a larger image.

The history of pixel art

Pixels appeared around 1972, with the first video game: Pong on the Atari console. In 1985 appears the Nintendo console and the first game: “Super Mario Bros”. One can see the pixels that make up the character very clearly because the quality of screens did not allow drawing smaller pixels. Mario has a cap because it was too difficult at that time to draw realistic hair. He also had a mustache because graphic designers did not know how to draw a thin line of a mouth.

Over the years and technological advances, the screen resolution has improved and today’s video games are of such quality that you can no longer see the pixels. They are still there, but so small that our eye cannot perceive them.

In 2011, in Paris, two companies embarked on a “Post’it War”. It is about representing video game characters using Post’it. The idea quickly gained momentum and we could see these representations on many office buildings.

In 2011 appears the game “Minecraft” which presents a world composed of “voxels”, that is, pixels in 3D.

Terms and definitions

Pixel art is a kind of digital art that occurs and is popular in “art communities”, for example DeviantArt.  Pixel is the smallest element that makes up a digital image (an image on a screen). It has a square shape and is in one color. Pictures taken by EG digital cameras are made of pixels. It is also popular to animate pixels, so-called “emoticons” or “smileys”, considered as a kind of pixel art. The Microsoft Paint program is based on pixels and therefore everything that is done in the program is a kind of pixel art. There are two different types of pixel art, isometric and o-isometric. Isometric means that the image is 3D.

Pixels in graphic design

Pixel is the smallest element that a graphic image is made up of. The word “pixel” comes from the English picture element, where “pix” is an abbreviation of picture. The abbreviation “px” is often used and when talking about pixels in everyday life, you usually use an SI prefix, such as megapixels.


Resolution is defined as the total number of pixels in an image (or screen). Thus, a photo containing 2000 pixels wide (row) by 1250 pixels high (column) will have a resolution of 2000 x 1250 = 2,500,000 pixels, or 2.5 million pixels. That’s right, just like on the camera. The higher the resolution is, the more pixels the image will contain (and therefore the less visible these will be) and the more detailed it will be.



Anti-aliasing (AA) is a technique (or filter) that allows the reduction of image distortion, creating more linear surfaces and edges. Anti-aliasing is obtained simply by scaling the color of the element to be smoothed with the color of the element to which it is placed side by side or superimposed. This process is automatically carried out by digital editing software and can be adjusted through a few values ​​and the activation or deactivation of some functions. In pixel art, anti-aliasing is manual, i.e. each pixel is placed by the artist in a manner consistent with his choices.


There are many situations in which it is necessary to blend one color into another. The solutions to this need are various, but one of the best known is dither. Dither is the creation of a pattern that gradually mixes two tones. This technique was used especially in older generation games, as the restriction on the palette did not often allow you to blend one color into another by adding an intermediate one.


The grid on which the pixels are placed is the greatest possible restriction in differentiating shapes. A pixel can only lie in one square of the grid and cannot occupy two squares at the same time dividing in half for each.

Graphic designers developed a technique that made it seem that on the screen there was a grid of more pixels. This system is called sub-pixeling. With sub-pixeling, a fraction of the pixel unit is simulated by increasing the opacity of the edge of a cluster, so that it mixes with the underlying color. This is a principle similar to that of anti-aliasing.


With numerous remakes and remasters of retro video games, pixel art has made a comeback during the past decade with bitmap images, still present in smartphones, graphic calculators and retro toys. Susan Kare, original designer of icons for Mac, is one of the pioneers of pixel art in her Flickr.


Photoshop. To create pixel art with Photoshop it is necessary to set the work area first by changing the brush to pencil (pencil) and removing any type of setting applied on the tool (such as the reactivity to pressure if you use a graphics tablet) .

GraphicsGale: shareware product. It is the ideal software to start producing pixel art, easy to understand and intuitive, although limited in some respects.

Promotion: professional software specially designed to create pixel art for video games; many high-level software houses use it to work and it is perfect for both static illustration and animation, for creating tilesets and for managing palettes.

Aseprite: It has everything you need to be able to do pixel art and pixel art animations.

Other programs that can be used to create pixel art are GrafX2, Pyxel, Krita, Gimp, Piskel, GraphicsGale, Pixilart, Pro Motion NG, Ardesia.

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