Happy Pixel-Art Xmas
Christmas is just around the corner! We are all caught up in the frenzy of last-minute Christmas shopping. Mum's done, dad not yet! We can tick off grandma and our little sister. Yet, somehow we always end up forgetting to buy a Christmas card for them all and we have to grab an ordinary envelope and slip in a piece of paper that just says “Merry Christmas” because our imagination and creativity has dried up as well.
In truth, it doesn’t take much to be original and creative. It doesn’t matter than we aren’t famous poets or talented artists, we can still personalise our Christmas cards with original phrases and pictures in Pixel Art style!
Pixel what?! Stay calm. Let's take it one step at a time. Do you know what Pixel is? Pixel is a compound word made up of: PIX- which stands for Picture and -EL that means Element. So, a pixel is a fundamental element that constitutes a digital image. It is the smallest part that an image reproduced on a digital device can be broken up into. Anything we see reproduced on an electronic screen is actually a huge rectangular (or square) grid made up of a massive number of carefully arranged coloured squares whose name is pixels. Each pixel can only have one single colour!
The total number of pixels displayed across the screen horizontally and down the screen vertically dictates the graphic resolution; it indicates the size of an area of digital image, establishing its aspect ratio and how well defined it is: an image with a few pixels has got more fuzzy edges and less detail. Aspect ratio is the ratio between the width of an image to the height of the image (x:y).
So, we can have images with a resolution of 32x32 px, or 128x128 px, both with a [1:1] format, like the icons on a computer desktop; or widescreen resolutions of 1920x1080 px [16:9], like the screens of most laptops; up to very high resolutions, such as 4k, 3840x2160 px [16:9], which is the most common standard for new high-resolution television sets. Over the years, both images and the devices upon which they are reproduced have become technologically advanced and quality keeps on improving. For instance, a Game Boy Advance, a handheld console from 2001, only had 240x160 pixels at the time; nowadays, the most mundane phone has got at least 1920x1080!
So, Pixel Art means a special kind of digital art whereby images are created by careful placement of a limited number of pixels and each single square is thoughtfully added by hand. What sets pixel art apart is its unique visual style in which each single pixel unit is one of many dots that go to form an image. In aesthetic terms, it has much in common with mosaic work, cross-stitch embroidery or other similar needlework. Basically, you can create a work of art of any size or on any theme (including a Christmassy one) by placing one building block after another.
Coding and Pixel Art
Dreaming up and crafting a gorgeous Pixel-Art greetings card is only the first step. You could progress to an encrypted (or encoded) greetings card by having fun with Pixel art coding, often known as graph-paper programming.
Instead of sending the pixelated image, you send a sequence of precise detailed instructions. In other words, what you are sending is the algorithm for drawing the image. The recipient of the greetings card will have to follow the code and discover the drawing that the algorithm hides. This is called Coding Unplugged, meaning coding without the use of technology, internet, a computer or digital device. All that is required is a pen and paper.
How does it work? The trick lies in choosing the right underlying code and rules, providing intelligible and easy-to-follow instructions that leave no room for doubt and can be understood by anyone.
One solution could be to use a series of arrows, each of which stands for a specific action (Figure 6). A set sequence of colours could then be decided on and the resolution code for drawing an object is programmed line by line. Once you get to the end of the line, though, you will need to take into account that you need to go back to the beginning of the line and return to the first pixel of the following line, just as old typing machines used to work (Figure 7).
The second technique is simpler and the best way to begin. All you need to do is count the pixels of the same colour and write the sequence line by line. The recipient will only need to follow the instructions to create the hidden drawing.
Now it’s your turn! Try to decode Figure 11. Don't rush it and count the squares properly. Then, invent your own greetings card and send it to whoever you want. Have fun!