Digital Art: From Pixels to Voxels



8-bit graphics (Contra – 1987 Konami)

Pixels are, in the most basic sense, a single point of data on a two-dimensional grid.  Anything that displays images digitally – your computer, your TV, even your calculator – is using a pixel grid format.  If your TV is an HD television with a resolution of 1920×1080, that means your TV is displaying 2,073,600 pixels at any given time,  with a color palette of tens of thousands.

But back in the day, computers couldn’t display that many pixels at one time.  In fact, the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) had a resolution of only 256 x 240, and it could only choose between 256 colors. As you can imagine, making a video game look as ‘real’ as possible with the current technology was quite the challenge.

In the beginning, there were pixels… and pixel artists.  In fact, pixel artists were the driving force behind just about every great video game of the 80’s and 90’s.  These dedicated artists spent hours making games look as real as possible while using just a limited selection of colors. As the progression from 8-bit to 16-bit video game systems continued in the late 20th century, digital artists were able to use more and more colors, resulting in increasingly detailed and amazingly beautiful work.


Garou – Mark of the Wolves (SNK 1999) 16-bit

The advent of 3D graphics caused a revolution in the gaming industry. This led to a significant decrease in the use of pixel-based artwork as game studios and artists switched from two-dimensional ‘sprites’ (such as in Super Mario Bros.), to three-dimensional wireframes that used colors and textures. Different sections of the wireframe were then simply colored the appropriate color, resulting in a more ‘realistic’ artwork style.


A wireframe model – (Tomb Raider – 1996 Eidos)

As computers and graphical hardware became more powerful, more and more detailed wireframes were able to be used while pixel art – which was a two-dimensional medium, began to slowly die off.  Fewer and fewer games were made using the particular graphic style, and automated programs simply converted painted or drawn artwork into pixel-style artwork. Making anyone a pixel artist.

Enter the Voxel

In recent years there has been a rise of interest in a modern and beautiful mix of 3D and the old pixel-art style – Voxel art.  While pixel-art was two-dimensional, a voxel represents a single sample, or data point, on a regularly spaced, three-dimensional grid. Essentially, artists have started using these three-dimensional blocks as three-dimensional pixels to create artwork in the old style, but with a new flair.

While many artists are now working with voxels, using programs like MagicaVoxel, perhaps the most skilled and recognizable name in the medium is ‘Sir Carma’ an artist living in Paris, France who makes these wonderful worlds in his spare time.

Sir Carma, who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, spends hours building each world voxel-by-voxel. For his animations, he uses Unity, a 3D engine that powers many contemporary video games – including Nintendo’s new ‘Super Mario Run’. While the artist is currently working for a web agency, he hopes to one day create his own videogame. I’m sure I’ll be one of the first standing in line to play it.


Sci-Fi City in Animated Voxel Art by Sir Carma


New Sci-Fi City in Animated Voxel Art by Sir Carma







See more of Sir Carma’s voxel art: