Gifs by Katie Belton.

Gifs by Katie Belton.

Welcome, Trekkies! In this installment of Tech Trek, Amber delves into the pixel-by-pixel art-making process with artist Katie Belton, and Maggie provides a gadget review of the Yi action camera with her cat.


Explore: Pixel Art

While HD (high def) and 3-D have become these venerated, practically fetishized concepts, modern pixel art defiantly celebrates the two-dimensional, blocky, low-resolution graphics you’d find in the classic video games of the ’80s and ’90s. Of course all digital art is technically pixel art because the resulting images are made of pixels—small points of color on a digital display that combine to form the pictures that we see on our computer and television monitors. But the term pixel art is typically only used to describe a type of digital art in which images are created on the microlevel, pixel by pixel. The process is similar to the way that mosaics are pieced together and can be incredibly time-consuming. But part of the beauty of the medium is in that process.

Many pixel artists impose limitations on themselves. Not only are they dedicated to the pixel-by-pixel construction (when it would obviously be easier to just go into Photoshop and bust out the shape tool or the paint tool), they also often work with a restricted color palette—a nod to the limited color display of the classic video games that inspired the art form. In order to bring their digital worlds and characters to life, they use techniques like dithering, in which two colors intersect each other like a checkerboard, to imply tonal shifts and depth. Like their aesthetic forebears who designed the totally rad ’80s and ’90s video games that are so dear to many of us, contemporary pixel artists are an inventive group.

Katie Belton’s Galactic Castle is a perfect example of just how imaginative pixel art can be. Katie crafts intricate, pastel environments and sprites (2-D characters or objects) that have an otherworldly, nostalgic quality. Her artwork is linked by an adventure-fantasy-space theme and many of her pieces are animated gifs that really capture that retro video-game vibe. The worlds that she makes—or, as she calls them on her Tumblr, the “dreamy pixelscapes”—are so exquisitely rendered that you might just want to live inside of them. I recently had the chance to talk to Katie about her process and got some insight into how she turns simple pixels into ridiculously cool artwork.

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AMBER: How long have you been creating digital art?

KATIE BELTON: I got really into it five years ago. I’d done mostly traditional media in high school. But I’m also a photographer and have a lot of Photoshop experience. And I was like, Hmm …maybe I could do stuff with Photoshop that’s not photography-related.

Did you study art or photography in school?

I’m actually self-taught.

How did you learn? Did you watch YouTube videos?

My older sister got a copy of Photoshop when she was in high school and I was, like, 12 at the time. […] I had a bit of a background with being artistic in general and having a very artistic family and having that tool at my disposal. A lot of it was experimenting and copying and eyeballing in the early days.

What drew you to pixel art?

It’s hard to say exactly what [was] so appealing about it or why I started with it. It was very therapeutic for me because it’s so repetitive and very controlled. When I was younger, too, I used to download video-game sprites from my favorite Super Nintendo games. And I would go on MS paint and mess around with all the pixels. So, I’ve always had an inclination to work on that really tiny scale with the edits. Eventually I was like, I could just draw like this from scratch.

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What were some of your favorite video games? Which ones inspired you?

I think probably my favorite game of all time is Breath of Fire II. There’s actually a whole Breath of Fire series. We were only able to rent the second one when we were growing up because our video store never had the first one. So it was our favorite game to rent growing up and no one ever knew what it was. Even now it’s a relatively weird, obscure game. But definitely the style and all of the art in that game is very pastel and very ’90s and very electric. All of the characters have glam-rock mullets. If you looked up screenshots of it, you’d go, “Ah, I see.”

Do you remember what your first piece was or some of your first pixel art creations?

When I was about 10 or 11, I would edit sprites and then I would do my own. I’d zoom in and look at how video-game sprites were put together, pixel by pixel, and then make my own little sprites based on that. One of the first completely from scratch pieces that I did was later in high school. I’d done a little birthday gif for a friend of mine that was a picture of her with some balloons and one of her favorite rock stars. It was very rudimentary pixel art.

Pixel art is becoming more popular, but I think that your style is really distinct with the pastels. Can you tell me a little bit about how you developed your style?

A lot of my inspiration comes from ’90s stuff. Again, going back to old video games. And Sailor Moon is a huge inspiration—all of those gradient, pastel, super ’90s backgrounds. I think I’ve always been drawn to pastel colors in general. There’s just something very dreamy and cute about that color palette that appeals to me. I think that’s why I lean toward pastel, sometimes bordering on neon, but generally staying to pinks and blues and purples. I think it’s definitely a childhood nostalgia thing for me.

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Where did the name Galactic Castle come from?

It’s funny you ask that because it’s kind of a dorky story. When I was in high school, I used to keep a journal. I had a section in it where I would make a list and add words that I liked that had a nice ring to them. When I graduated from high school and I was starting to actively do pixel art as my kind of art pursuit, side hobby, I was like, OK, I should come up with a name for my blog. So I consulted my collection of nice-sounding words and I just decided that galactic castle sounded good together because those were two words that were fairly close to each other on the list.

How do you prepare to create a piece? Do you do a drawing?

Sometimes I do thumbnail sketches ahead of time if it’s going to be a more complicated piece. Some of my work is from a complete head-on, side-scroller view, which is very simple. But some of the more complicated pieces that require a different angle, like more isometric, I usually will sketch those out because that’s a lot more challenging for me to do from scratch. But for most part, sometimes I’ll just get the idea for something. Or I might remember something I saw a couple of weeks ago and be like, Oh yeah, I remember that was a really cool thing that I want to make something inspired by. Like, if I [saw] something that was a really cool ice cavern or something. Or if I have a dream about something I might go back to it and open up Photoshop and start making shapes. I usually will start with the background, like those gradient backgrounds, and then I’ll start putting buildings or cliffs in front of it. If I get burnt out on that, I’ll come back to it a few days later and add additional smaller details and finalize it. So it’s definitely very spur of the moment. I think it’s because I don’t do it as my main job. I don’t do freelance and because it’s just kind of a fun hobby for me, I’m able to do it when the mood strikes me.

So how long does it take to make one image?

On average, maybe four to five hours. Depending on how complicated it is, I break it up across multiple days. I’ve definitely finished pieces in, like, two hours and other ones I will have spent a week on and I’ll come back and do an hour every night. Because I don’t necessarily have a fully fleshed out plan in mind when I start, I have to keep going back. Sometimes I’ll delete the entire thing and start over completely. So that can be time-consuming.

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What are your goals with this medium? Is there something specific that you’re trying to accomplish with your pixel art? Like, you said it was therapeutic.

The therapeutic aspect of it is really important from my side of things. But I also view it as what it does for me versus what I want it to do when I put it online. For me the calming, therapeutic aspect is really nice and also the satisfaction of having something very colorful and candy-like that [makes me think], Ah, I want to live there, is really fulfilling for me. In terms of what it does out online, it does tie in with some products that I design on heychickadee.com. I’m in this weird zone between posting random cute artwork and trying to establish a brand or a style.

Would you ever consider making a video game?

I would love to do that. Even to just work on a game doing graphics for someone else. That would be awesome. I actually get a lot of questions, like, people will send me Asks on Tumblr or my Instagram feed and be like, “Is this from a game?” Or, “When is the game coming out?” And I’m just like, “I’m sorry that I’ve misled you. This is not a game. This is just my art.”

What advice or tips would you give to someone who wants to start making pixel art or pixel gifs?

In terms of learning, the best thing to do is just go and get Super Nintendo screenshots. There are tons of websites like Spriters Resource where people have ripped sprites and backgrounds from all of these old Super Nintendo games. And you can zoom in really close on them and start copying them. Just for learning. I’m not saying that people should go out and copy and post stuff that’s a total rip off something else. But just to learn how the pixel art actually works and how it’s structured, you have to take something that already exists in a pixel form and follow it and mess with it. Sometimes the way something looks can be completely changed just by two pixels and you don’t really know until you start getting in there and messing with it and moving it around and trying to make your own shapes. —Amber

Gadget Review: Yi Action Camera

An action camera is a teensy daredevil of a device that could forever banish the camera-phone doldrums. These rugged, wide-angle lens cameras are designed to really go places. NASA astronauts recently took one to outer space! (Mostly I use mine to follow my cat around.) Today I’m reviewing the Yi Action Camera, which is currently one of the more affordable options on the market. Check it out, and see if this li’l guy belongs in your life! —Maggie ♦

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