For the computer artist, pixels are the medium of choice. They provide every simulated brushstroke, every subtlety of shading, and every colour on the digital palette. Yet, in the majority of modern digital art, pixels are barely visible, much in the same way that individual particles of dyed water are imperceptible when spread across a canvas.
This wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, individual pixels played a major role in the overall look of a picture. Initially, this was due to the very limited graphical computing power of which early home computers were capable, particularly when such artworks were used together in games, but it was later adopted as a style of digital art in its own right. It was called pixel art.
To this day, pixel art is popular, both for its bright colour schemes, and for its games-related retro coolness. If you find, as I do, that a 16-pixel Mario or Sonic provides irrational visual appeal, then you’ll be pleased to read about Pixaki, a new pixel art creation studio on iPad, retailing at $6.99. Packing retro console template sizes and PSD output, Pixaki is billed as being a professional-level offering. But can a touchscreen app really improve on the pleasing, inherent simplicity of pixel artistry?
Having flicked around Pixaki for only a couple of minutes, I realized that this app is not the kind to provide a soulless on-screen workspace, where the mindset is to get in, create, and get out. This is a pixel art experience, where each little graphical touch and retro reference provides its own joy, separate from the business of artistic composition.
Take, for instance, the app’s opening screen. The app’s name is lit up in the kind of multi-coloured neon-style font which used to be seen in arcades up and down the land. Below it is a beautifully presented gallery of your latest and greatest creations. Even the initial tutorial is a pixel art scene which could easily be a screenshot from a classic Bomberman game. I can only assume that the lone developer, Luke Rogers (who operates under the trading name of Rizer Games), is a fanatical pixel art enthusiast, because it feels to me like Pixaki is as much a labour of love as it is a commercial venture.
That sense of careful, thoughtful construction continues as you enter Pixaki‘s art creation area.
Well, what actually comes first in the making of a new, pixellated creation is the template screen. Eight different preset resolutions are on offer, ranging from the 16px by 16px of a NES game, right through to the “mammoth” 512px by 512px of the Wii U’s handheld screen-controller-thingy.
Then you’re into the creation station — an area kitted out all in black — with beautifully crafted and polished icons whichever way you look. To anyone who has used any form of graphic editing software before, the controls here are obvious, and the chosen layout in which they are presented is beautifully clear.
The centre of the screen is filled with a standard Photoshop-like duo-tone grid, and it is here that you can unleash your creativity.
But don’t start thinking that Pixaki provides style over substance — the engine room delivers, too.
This is a studio environment which strikes a brilliant balance between capability and clarity, providing only the graphics tools needed for pixel art, without the other UI-filling unnecessaries often found in desktop graphics suites.
Let me give you a walkthrough.
On the left is the layers palette, which has an impressive maximum capacity of 20 layers, and comes complete with layer-by-layer opacity adjustment. The little Pacman-style ghost icon which provides this slider’s “handle” is a neat little touch. Double-tapping each layer provides the opportunity to copy, paste and merge, and layers can be rearranged by dragging.
The right of the screen is filled by the colour palette. A cleverly selected array of 16 default colours will initially greet you, providing hues which are commonly used in pixel artistry. You can, however, use any colour; in the bottom right-hand corner you can trigger Pixaki‘s spectrum-style pop-up colour selector. The pop-up also includes a hex code box for a more precise choice of shade. The colours you choose here can be added to the palette for easy access, and a colour picker is also provided.
Each of these two palettes comes equipped with an accompanying hide/show toggle, so pretty much the whole screen is potentially available for artistic composition.
Along the bottom of the screen is the uncluttered sight of Pixaki‘s toolkit. First, is the selection tool. After freehand-drawing your selection, you can do the usual cut, copy and paste stuff, or you can manually move the contents of your selection around the canvas. I found this particularly useful, having drawn much of Mario’s portrait one pixel too far to the left!
The brush tool is the main weapon of choice in Pixaki, and given that we’re creating pixel art here, the only setting to be fiddled with is brush size. The centrally placed slider in the bottom tool bar offers simple, precise access to any brush size between 1 and 20 pixels.
Also provided is an eraser, a bucket tool for filling blocks of colour, and undo/redo arrows for instant rectification, an option which also happens to be snappily responsive.
Even the export area of Pixaki is accomplished. Okay, so there are only three file types offered, one of which is exclusively compatible with Pixaki. But why do you need anything more than PNG and PSD? I certainly can’t find a good answer, particularly when you can adjust the magnification of PNG exports.
Once a filetype selection is made, instant social and email sharing is on offer, along with the ability to save your artwork to your Camera Roll, send it to another app, or send it to iTunes.
How do you summarize perfection? I’m usually not the most prolific or enthusiastic of digital artists, but I found the testing of Pixaki to be an absorbing, enjoyable experience, free from bugs, slowdown and unnecessary complexity. The interface perfectly suits the flavour of the pixel art this app is designed to produce. As with any app, I imagine someone, somewhere, will pick a minute hole in Pixaki‘s feature set, but for the average user — a category into which I fall — the tools on offer provide everything that is required.
Put simply, Pixaki is a masterclass in elegant, effective app design, which will delight seasoned pixel artists and newcomers alike.