The New Medium is the Message.

Super (Pixelated) Mario!

A good friend has alerted me to an emerging art movement that I think is vital to our times.  This new movement is known as Pixel Art, and before I explain what it is too much I will start off with several precedents that give the new movement added depth and a logical foundation.


Georges Seurat and the Eyeball:

In art, new movements are rarely without precedent.  Most artistic movements are adaptations to the means and methods of the period they were created in.  They could be thought of as almost a compromise with the available technology of the time.  Early cave dwellers had a very limited range of pigment.  They also had not invented various techniques in art that would shorten the gulf between image and reality such as perspective and light and shade. These elements of photorealistic painting were perfected around the time of the Renaissance.  During the 19th century a restless spirit began to rumble.  Photography was invented.  This new technology effectively mooted the need for artistic rendering as documentation of reality.  It was a serious crisis for all major painters. Artists began looking not only at the subject of their paintings but also the way that they were actually painted.  They started questioning the tools that they used to express a visual representation of reality.  They also started to question perception itself.  Recent scientific developments were discovering how the eye takes processes light. Rods and cones in the eye were the building blocks for vision.  It was discovered that our vision was compartmentalized into processing a complex mess of very simple colors.  Georges Seurat was greatly influenced by these new scientific studies, particularly the work of Michel Eugène Chevreul and his breakdown of colors into primary and complimentary colors.  With this knowledge Seurat invented a new way of painting deemed Pointillism by its critics.  In Pointillism the painting is broken up into small dots of pure color. When looked at from far away it creates a painted representation of reality.  This was one of the first times when a trick of perception became the message of the work. Seurat’s new painting style allowed us to question exactly how we perceive our world.  Painting was no longer just about representation; it was about the technique of representation.  Similar in concept to Seurat’s work are the later works of Monet.  Monet had developed cataracts and it seems that his paintings were a reflection of his impaired perception.  They brought attention to the fact that painting is not about capturing reality but interpreting it.

Seurat had many critics. The coined term pointillism was a mocking word invented by his opponents to deride its place in art.  Innovation in art is often misunderstood. Hindsight is the true test.

Monet: Giverny. 1922

Andy Warhol: Air Crash. 1962

Pop Artists and Pulp:

A similar exploitation of the means of perception was carried out in the mid twentieth century with the emergence of Pop Art.  Andy Warhol used the everyday mundane printing method of the silk screen to create his “paintings”.   The technique of visual media, taken for granted because of its everyday banality, was recontextualized and elevated to the realm of art. The perception of what tools could create art were questioned. (Andy Warhol is an endlessly complex and mysterious artist.  I could go on for days about what he accomplished so I think I’ll save this for another more relevant post.)

Roy Lichtenstein: Brushstroke. 1965

Roy Lichtenstein took it a step further. Like Seurat, he analyzed the building blocks of modern perception.  The newspapers and magazines of the time were printed in a halftone process. This was essentially a series of tiny dots that when combined and looked at from a slight distance created photo realistic images. Popular comics books used a similar method called Ben-Day. They are used to create complex colors with the simple use of primary colors and a mixture of white ratios. For example, pink could be created with red dots and a white background.  This is basically a systematization of Seurat’s pointillism process and thus an  imitation of how the eye perceives visuals.  Lichtenstein took the banal images of comic books and blew them up to large proportions. He created them with a facsimile of the Ben-Day process to draw attention to the way people saw printed imagery in the middle twentieth century.  One of my favorite paintings by Lichtenstein goes even further in making us question the techniques used in fine art.  In his Brushstroke series, Lichtenstein paints a caricatured image of a sloppy paint brush stroke with a smooth technique that is flawlessly even. He uses the technique of painting to draw attention to itself!  The background is a solid wall of Ben-Day dots.  The content of uniqueness and spontaneity are contrasted wildly with the rigorously disciplined technique of the painting.

Pop Art, just like Pointillism, was initially met with hostility.  Pulling the rug out from under our expectations of art and our ideas of perception naturally comes as a shock.  Hindsight has shown the profound influential nature of Pop Art.  Its presence is still strongly felt in the popular subconscious.

Atari Pong Graphics. 1970s.

The Eye of the Computer:

The new medium for visual dissemination in our time is the computer and the Internet and the building blocks for the images we see is the pixel.  This is something that we don’t even think about anymore with our new High Definition ultra fine quality screens rendering the pixel itself all but invisible.  But, at the dawning of the computer age the pixel was everywhere. The building blocks of digital imagery were clearly visible and limited in what they could achieve when trying to represent any sense of realism.  Before the Internet, the original need for any imagery via computers came with video games.  The history of the video game is essentially the evolution of the pixel and its journey from abstraction to realism.  One of the first video games ever was the Atari Pong game and one almost laughs in the 21st century at how stiflingly limited the graphics are.  Yet with simple blocks they are able to convey a bird’s eye view of a tennis court.  Gradual innovations and larger capacities for memory allowed graphics to gradually get better over time.  Dithering was a method of representing complex colors with the simple colors similar to the Ben-Day printing process. The newest game that one can buy right now is nearly as good and photorealistic as the best computer animated imagery of a Hollywood film.  The pixel went from representational to real.  In the last few years, certain artists have come to exploit the pixel as a means of artistic expression.  Once again they are calling attention to how we perceive our current world.

eboy: Pixel Art

The pixel is essentially no different from Rods and Cones and Half tone printing and Pixel art is conceptually no different than Pointillism, and the work of Roy Lichtenstein.  The pixel is the building block of image as used in the newest technology of our time: the computer.   Certain artists are carrying in the tradition of the pop artists by drawing attention to the pixel as a means or artistic realization.  The new medium is the message!  Lichtenstein used his technique and the imagery of the comic book because it was the popular and mundane content of its time. Similarly pixel artists use the vocabulary of video games as their content of choice. The pixel art group eboy uses the building blocks of pixels and the vocabulary of the video game to elevate something that was not thought of as art to that realm. Certain sculptural works placed in real places have a jarring effect that really bring to the forefront of our mind the actual disconnect between the computer image and reality.  The recontextualized pixel exploits our ideas of visual reality. The pixel sculpture lies to tell the truth!

Pixel water sculpture.

With Seurat and Lichtenstein, the original location of their exploited content was in the physical realm, but with pixel art the original medium is in the computer. Thus, many pixel artists believe the only way the art should be displayed is on a computer.  The content of the pixel (the video game) is also some artists preferred expression.  Ted Martens’ Fireplace ( takes a real activity and creates a video game out of it using highly exaggerated and limited pixelization.  The point is to use pixels in the most abstract way without losing the represented imagery.

PIxel Art as cartoon reality.

After learning about Pixel art and comparing its precedents I realized it is the most valid and perhaps important artistic movement in a long time.  It takes the very fundamental nature of our time and distills it.  It removes itself from its original frustrating purpose and keeps us from taking advantage of the computer.   I hope that it seeps its way into the popular conscience, something which art hasn’t done since Pop Art.

When one looks around their world and thinks about the current popular technology of visual expression, a rich vein of consciousness emerges regarding the fundamental way we perceive our world.  I wonder where it will take us next!

End Note:  With the help of Sarah ( ) and Ted I am proposing a new museum project to house newly emerging pixel art. This museum will be presented in a future post!

Cupcake: Ashley Anderson

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