Daniel Adams, Art Director, Graphic + Motion, is a sucker for pixel art. Popular movie franchises reduced to a few thoughtfully placed squares… Handcrafted objects done in 8-bit style on Etsy… Classic paintings suffering a case of pixelitis… Fez. Here, he discusses his inspiration and process as he created his deliberately pixelated menagerie of Canadian fauna.
The art style represents fantasy, nostalgia, and fun—its seemingly simplistic visual rules actively protest against the complications of reality and reduce expressive features into a few tiny dots, existing almost solely for our entertainment. I enjoy designing pixel art as much as I do staring at it.
When it came time to refresh T+K’s signature Well-Made lineup of merchandise, we set our sights on designing things with a Canadiana twist. For my part, I wanted to design something that was undeniably Canadian, but also blunt and unapologetic—traits typically not associated with our country. I was convinced that pixel art was the best style to combine these ideas. It wasn’t long before I was researching wildlife native to the country and developing a process to essentially transform an animal into a video game character. The intention was to produce a single animal, but it exploded into a collection: the Pixel Fauna series.
In the early stages of pixel art development, it quickly becomes apparent that you have to break down the features of any given subject to its bare bones (my apologies to the animals). Reducing colours and shapes to a comfortable place where the subject can still be identified is crucial to the process. This is nearly identical to what designers implement in brand development and identity design processes. The long-instituted task of designing a logo to look fantastic in black and white is still essential today—not because black and white fax machines are experiencing a boom in sales—but because it provides a beneficial limitation. Designing without colour forces you to simplify your design and can keep you from going off the deep end of gradients, transparencies, and other potential obstructions. This restriction parallels the limitations built into pixel art: there isn’t a lot of room to be fancy, and being limited to big, blocky squares can produce captivating results.
Another comparison to the identity design process is the use of scale in the successful execution of an idea. Logos must look good even when they are tiny, and so holds true with pixel art. If it is identifiable when small, you know you’ve created a successful pixelated piece. Some pixel artists may start small, developing their pixel art by opening up Photoshop, setting their zoom to 300% or more, and painting the actual pixels of a raster file. For my series, I used Illustrator (I can’t resist a good, scalable vector), and built a grid of squares, each representing one pixel. While I did use photo references initially, they are put aside early in the process to make way for a lot of manipulation and editing of the pixel composition. Every dot plays its part in creating a clear image, and the exaggeration of features is often essential in a successful pixel piece. Oftentimes, attempts to hold on to realistic features can hinder the ability for someone to identify whatever it is they’re illustrating, so it’s important to sacrifice realism for clarity.
All of the pieces in the Pixel Fauna series are set within the same pixel grid, creating consistency across the collection. I wanted them to appear as though they are all from the same game that you’d love to play. I envision them traversing the many diverse habitats of Canada.
I’ve got dibs on the lynx, though. She’s got a super jump and is the best at nabbing discarded twoonies. And she also has laser eyes.
After all, like pixel art, games are rarely about portraying realism, either.