To state the obvious, pixel art is a form of digital art that uses individual pixels as the building blocks of image creation. This is why pixel art is often considered of a kind with impressionism, pointillism, mosaic, and cross-stitch. As an art form, pixel art revels in its constraints, employing false limitations that partially or totally re-create the technical limitations of the past, such as limiting the number of pixels or colors used.
Visual complexity and color palettes were heavily constrained by the capacity of available screen resolution in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. As resolution goes up, pixel size goes down, and visual complexity can increase — more details, more colors, more fine-tuned movement.
While most modern HDTVs are 1920×1080 resolution, Nintendo Entertainment System had only 256×240 pixels to work with and the Atari 2600 only 192×160. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Super Mario, gave his most famous creation a big nose and mustache to get around the lack of facial detail.
As hardware improved and game developers and designers flocked to sharper, cleaner looks, a few game-makers lingered at the threshold. By the early 2000s, websites like PixelJoint started popping up as well as games like Cave Story, signaling the earliest blooms of a Pixel Art resurgence.
Invoking nostalgia wasn’t the only motivation. In those early days of indie games, old technology meant cheap technology, and where there is cheap, there is indie.
But with so many artists and designers flocking to and innovating within the medium, this impressionistic art form must have something more to it than a simple appeal to nostalgia. Just as buying records, playing synthwave, wearing vintage clothes, or shooting in black and white has reached a point of ubiquity that surpasses mere nostalgia, so too has (or will) pixel art, with many artists, designers, gamers, and collectors being too young for their appreciation to technically even qualify as nostalgia, per se.
Styles, subject matter, and approaches vary widely within this active and growing scene, so what follows is an attempt to showcase some of the top artists across subgenres of pixel art.
There will be two big glaring omissions here. The first is game designers, a topic so deep and wide it would require at least a separate blog post. The second is pfp projects. Though Cryptopunks has been the highest-profile (and -priced) pixel art ever, such projects and collections fall outside the scope of our focus here today.
Known as “the Godfathers of Pixel,” eBoy is a collective founded in 1997 comprising Kai Vermehr, Steffen Sauerteig, and Svend Smital. EBoy is famous for complex illustrations called Pixoramas — pixelated cityscapes and landscapes of places like Tokyo, Paris, New York, Rio, Berlin, and London. Their isometric artwork can be found on posters, shirts, souvenirs, in galleries, and besotting campaigns for some of the world’s biggest brands, like Adidas, Honda, MTV, VH1, and Coca-Cola.
Heavily influenced by both urban and rural Japan, Gutty Kreum brings a feeling of nostalgia and calmness with every illustration. His work has also been featured in the physical and digital version of the book The Masters of Pixel Art, Volume 3, the SuperRare exhibition “Invisible Cities,” and Art Innovation Gallery’s “Digital Art Exhibition” during Milan Art Week of 2022.
Former graffiti artist Diego Bergia may not be throwing up tags anymore but he’s still entrenched in street art culture by way of his pixelated animations in an early video–game style of street artists tagging buildings and freeway signs.
Credited across more than two dozen videogames and nearly a dozen cartoons artist and animator, a short list of highlights from Paul Robertson’s career would include Scott Pilgrim, Gravity Falls, The Simpsons, Mercenary Kings, Pirate Baby’s Cabana Battle Street Fight 2006, Kings of Power 4Billion%, Super Dino Boys, and more. Robertson entered the NFT space with his bizarre animated pixel art collection Universe Compendium and larger-scale scenes.
Nelson Wu is a Chinese-Canadian pixel artist and illustrator. He is heavily influenced by a nostalgia for simpler times, bringing light and color into every illustration. Nelson graduated OCAD University and is currently working in the videogame and entertainment space. Wu is also the only artist on this list who has not yet entered the NFT space.
Genuine Human Art
Award-winning pixel artist, director, and animator, Genuine Human Art has created music videos for GUNSHIP and art for acts such as The Midnight, Waveshaper, and many more. Known for his neon-drenched cyberpunk art about human connection, Genuine Human Art entered the cryptoart space in 2020, quickly becoming a celebrated artist in the scene. He now gives focus to his personal art explorations aiming for deeper forms of expression.
Maxwell Step is a pixel artist based in Montreal, Canada. He got into pixel art mid-2019 and has been using this medium to illustrate ever since. He tries to capture the essence of people with every illustration, and his work brings sorely needed black representation to a medium that is largely Asian and white.
Award-winning Japanese pixel artist (Shibuya Pixel Art Contest 2020 Grand Prize), animator, and sound designer, mae creates their art with the belief that art has the power to save the mind, drawing a world full of love and liberation. If any pixel artist earns pixel art’s comparison to impressionism, it’s mae.
Ennter is a pixel artist, curator, animator, game maker, and former VJ using 8-bit hardware and software since 2006. He is the creator of the Rare Popes collection, but we’re including him here for his stellar work creating abstract pixel art.