Hey readers, it’s been a long while. I seem to go through alternating cycles of being either extremely busy or extremely lazy. Neither of these is conducive to getting a blog entry done. But here we go with a little something the graphic designer/illustrator in me thinks is really neat.
Isometric Pixel Art.
What does this mean? Let’s break it down!
“Isometic” is a style of graphical projection. A projection is simply a method of representing a 3D object in 2D space, used everywhere from Renaissance perspective painting to architectural modeling software. Every time you draw a cube as something more than just a square on your page, you’re using a form of projection. In fact, even if you draw just a square to represent a cube, you’re still using Orthographic Projection, which repesresents just one side of a 3D object at a time.
Isometric Projection is special because every dimension is equally foreshortened. When the axes of height, width, and depth meet, the angles formed are all equal (120 degrees), like so:
All this is in the word: iso meaning “equal” and metric meaning “measurement”. It is quite common to represent 3D objects using projections in which these angles are not equal. In fact, non-isometric renderings often look more natural to many viewers as they cause less distortion to the “front” face of an object. See these three different projections of the same desk:
However, because all axes meet at equal angles, isometry is often easier to draw and also allows for interesting illustrative possibilities, including optical illusions like one found on this Swedish postage stamp:
This illusion is only possible due to the equally foreshortened axes of an isometric projection. Many of M.C. Escher’s famous illusions were achieved through the juxtaposition of placing an isometric object against a non-isometric background.
Because isometry is built around a very specific set of angles, it actually represents the view from a precise camera angle above and in front of the object. Knowing this, a photographer may actually place him/herself at this exact location in relation to the subject, and replicate isometry through photography, as in this real photograph of a corner in NYC:
This is not an illustration, and the photograph has not been altered in anyway. The artificial, toy-like “computer-gamey” feel is due purely to our cultural associations of isometric projections with artificial illustrations. This association is so strong that our minds actually read real photographs of isometry as some sort of replica or computer graphic. This brings us to one of the prominent uses of isometric projection in our culture: computer game graphics.
Before the dawn of complex 3D physics engines, early low-power gaming systems needed to represent 3D environments in a simple, yet passably realistic manner. Enter: Isometric projections! The classic SimCity is a great example of this:
These early computer games (and any other software that required graphics) did not have access to nearly as much computing power as we do today. Images and gaming environments were simplified by limiting the color palette, resolution, interactivity, and level of detail. In these simplified low-resolution images, the pixels, small grid squares of color that make up all digital images, were still quite visible:
These are both screenshots of video game aliens. The left character hails from 1978’s Space Invaders, is 10 pixels high, and is rendered in 1-bit color (each pixel is either ‘on’ or ‘off’). Next to him is a direct descendent from nearly 30 years in the future, a creature from 2007’s Halo 3. He, in contrast, is 389 pixels high and is modeled in the 16,777,216 colors of 32-bit graphics.* Both images are essentially the same: a grid of pixels tuned to specific color values. The difference is the number of pixels in each image (resolution) and the number of colors each pixel can be tuned to (color depth). The rapid advances in computing speed and memory capacity in the past 30 years are all that separate the generations.
However, a glance into any Urban Outfitters will reveal, through racks of Transformers T-shirts and cassette-tape belt buckles, our youth culture’s obsession with appropriating the aesthetic of the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s. While this is largely irony-driven, the nostalgia of first-generation gamers who are now reaching adulthood is sincere. Whatever the motivation, there has been a huge interest in creating art and graphics that return to that blocky, bright-colored, low-fi look of early video games. Hence the rise of “pixel art.” Simply Google the term and you’ll find the trend
This spark in interest is also fueled by the accessibility of pixels as an art form. Although many artists use the Adobe Creative Suite for their creations, the very simplest (and cheapest) of raster image-editing programs are quite sufficient, including MS Paint and a number of freeware programs like Pixen:
So what makes something pixel art? While it is technically true that all images created on a computer are made of pixels, “pixel art” generally refers to illustrations in which the individual pixels are intentionally visible and are not blended to create smooth gradients and shadows (think Space Invaders, not Halo). Blockiness is the desired aesthetic, and pixel artists specifically avoid the anti-aliasing capabilities of most image-editing software. Additionally, pixel art involves the painstaking dot-by-dot manipulation of each individual pixel, making it much more similar to mosaic than painting. Most pixel art also embraces a cartoon-like form in which each shape is outlined by a black line, and filled with a solid, bright, color.
So, as pixel art has been seized by the internet zeitgeist for it’s easy-to-make retro charm, isometry has come with it. Most pixel art made in recent years has used this specific projection. The grid-like nature of pixel drawings also lends itself well to the mathematical manipulations needed to convert a 3D image into a 2D isometric one. To create the 30 degree and 60 degree lines key to isometry, game designers and pixel artists use a stair-step system of 2 pixels over-1 pixel up, 2 pixels over-1pixel up, like this:
Do the trigonometry, [arctan(1/2)], and you’ll see this arrangement actually creates lines of 26.6 degrees and 63.4 degrees instead of the true 30 and 60. However this 1-over-2 stair-stepping creates an easy-to-use, smooth line. A true 30 degree line made of pixel blocks is messy and jagged. So, technically, isometric pixel art only employs a close approximation of isometry.
So while the building blocks and methods of creating isometric pixel art are simple and easily taught, artists can create some amazingly complex and beautiful works of art and illustration. In recent years, the style has leapt from the online art community to appear in mainstream advertisements for Coca-Cola, Bell Telephone, and Adidas as well as in print illustrations for magazines Fortune, Wired, and Popular Science. You’ve probably seen a few.
Arguably the current godfather of the isometric pixel art world, and certainly the most commercially exposed, is the illustration firm eBoy. Their signature style creates whimsical toy-like portraits of world cities, such as Baltimore, Singapore, and Dublin. In fact, cityscapes seem to be the most popular subject for isometric pixel drawings, and I can’t help but wonder how much of this is directly inspired by SimCity’s early use of the form.
Just to wrap things up, here’s a short gallery of some of the neat things that illustrators have been creating with IPA:
Outside of the large design firms, amateur pixel artists have united in a number of great collaborative projects, in which each contributor draws their own block of a massive city, or floor of a high-rise tower
The website of the city of Washington DC has seized on another great application with an interactive isometric pixel map to help tourists navigate the city in friendly 3D format.
And finally, here’s a little something I made, just to try my hand at the style. This was made in Photoshop CS2 and took about 30 min. Maybe I’ll populate it with some details and characters sometime.
Food for Thought: What sort of products/services lend themselves best to advertisements featuring IPA illustrations? What sort of associations does this style of ad connote for a product/service? Due to the readily available tools and universal grid format, IPA lends itself to massive collaborative projects, do you know of other forms of art that allow for this level of democratic cooperation?
Continuing Research: I’d like to follow this trend, to see if it takes off and appears in increasingly widespread and mainstream venues or if it becomes proves a forgettable few-year fad, like so many items of the fickle internet zeitgeist.
*Well, it was originally in 32-bit color. Depending on your computer, the actual color space you’re seeing on this page probably has fewer bits. But you get the idea.
Well, there’s my epic 4th entry. I promise future entries will never be this long or far between…I don’t have the time to write them, and I’m sure few of you have the endurance to read them. My plan for TBIAM is to update much more frequently, with much shorter entries…you know, like a normal person’s blog. So expect quick “I was just thinking about this the other day” blurbs…and keep your eyes on this page, I haven’t abandoned it yet! In fact, I already have some ideas lined up for future exhibits.