Moon phases and the urge to pixel
My grandmom had an exacting art teacher during her later school years, a nun who turned out to be the toughest teacher in the entire school. She was extremely skilled and unbelievably educated. She had once taken an entire summer course that focused on simply how to correct mistakes on oil paintings. This was a classic no-nonsense military-grade nun who one day stunned her class when, in describing the life of a full-time artist, she flat out said that there would be days when you would simply not be able to draw. You would not have the inspiration needed for work and you just wouldn’t be able to produce. To hear this drill sergeant tell you that there would be days that tough for painters, pen and ink illustrators and other career artists was pretty serious stuff.
As for my school years, I started pixelling in college after my dorm room’s T1 internet connection let me discover animated GIF sprite rips of XMen vs Street Fighter and Marvel Super Heroes. To see my favorite games’ characters up close and find out they were built pixel by pixel was a revelation. At the same time, while I had been an amateur artist for years, I was starting to take actual art courses as gen-eds, and I got quickly scooted into the advanced courses, making college the most art-focused years of my life. To add to that, the online pixel and game sprite scene was booming now that Capcom vs SNK was out and the gorgeous Street Fighter 3 was starting to get emulated.
Yes, the stars were definitely aligned for my art ventures, but I’d soon learn that those ventures would instead become aligned with the moon and its fickle phases. It started around the time the wonderfully fun Inner Circle Advanced forum closed down and its big group of hobby spriters went off in different directions. Forums like those always had a steady flow of “I haven’t pixelled in a while, but this pic by so-and-so has made me want to start up again” going around that reinforced support, and besides that, let’s face it, when you’re doing hours and hours of artwork for free, publicity is pretty much your main reward. So losing art forums of any kind can be a big deal.
Soon, the majority of games were going 3D and without the constant support and inspiration of an active, bustling pixel art community, a lot of us spriters were on our own, and I was discovering just how hard it is to get back on the wagon with neither regular inspiration nor huge communities around. So after about 4 or 5 years of going non-stop with pixels and wondering why so many others would hit random dry spells, I started hitting my own dry spell and thinking it was the end of my pixel hobby.
“It takes so long, if I get something wrong early it takes too much effort to fix, I hate the initial drawing and linework parts” and so on. For months, I just wasn’t in the mood, and if I wanted to do art stuff, I’d do the regular pencils or photoshop coloring, or other things that gave me instant gratification and results.
But then a funny thing happens and I’m sitting around one night looking at a sketch, and I think ‘that’d make a good sprite’, and I just start working on it without thinking. Suddenly it’s 90 minutes later and I discover the long and tedious trudge that I wasn’t in the mood for just flew by and the process of pixelling is rewarding again. My brain has decided it’s soothing again because I’m not in a hurry for the end result.
There’s no reason for my mind to suddenly change. The day went normally and I wasn’t overly inspired by some work of art somewhere. And even stranger, I post the sprite to an art board, and I find that someone else had recently posted a sprite after their hiatus, too. A comment is made about the coincidence, and I respond it must be a blue moon out.
But the craziness passes and eventually you’re off the wagon again. And boy, when you’re not in the mood to pixel, let alone draw, you don’t even want to touch a pad of paper. This is the reason I turn down game illustration jobs and why I don’t usually do commissions. Art is a hobby that can energize you when you make stuff you’re interested in, and when your motivation is pure inspiration or some kind of personal fulfillment, you leave the door open to making some really groundbreaking stuff. But when you have to do it because of a job deadline, and you’re in your unmotivated phase, it’s worse than just doing a desk job you don’t like. It’s making what energizes you instead something that drains you. People say they’d do anything to get a job illustrating games. I’m not one of them. I’d rather go through life with a programming job that doesn’t have the ups and downs of inspired/uninspired days, and leave art as my own personal release valve for balancing out the day’s left-brain work. I would never want to chain that to someone else’s schedule. It’s impossible to predict when the Muse will suddenly disappear.
And yet, you could probably say it’s the urge to pixel that’s the unusual event. It strikes suddenly and hard, and it’s an urge specifically for the satisfaction of working with the challenges of pixels and not just regular art. It reinforces my theory that an interest in pixel art is built in to certain personality types and that when these people are first exposed to game sprites, they respond more intensely than others, and the ticking time bombs of the urge to pixel are plugged in.
So how does it happen? When does it happen? What is it that sets off the urge to pixel? I can only think to mark my spurts of inspiration on a calendar and try to find a pattern. I’ll report back if I ever find anything. Until then, somewhere up there between my aligned stars and the blue moon sits a nun with a knowing smile on her face rooting for we fledgling pixel artists to ignore the hard days and keep up the fight.