Back to the Eighties Pushing Pixels

Back to the Eighties – Pushing Pixels

Back to the Eighties
Back to the Eighties - Pushing Pixels

This time, we take a step back in time to the 1980s, the decade that provides the subject matter of many of my own artworks. It was also the decade where my life as a professional digital artist began, one pixel at a time. In my latest discussion we take a deep-dive into what it was really like creating digital art in the 1980s and why todays image editing tools and modern equipment can never quite achieve truly authentic retro recreations.

The Future Was 8-Bit…

Being what some would call, a dinosaur of the 8-bit era, I tend to get asked more and more of late what it was like creating digital art in the early days of home computers and whether or not it’s easier today with all this new-fangled technology. I’ve been surprised at just how many people are now taking an interest in a decade that many of them were born way after, but it’s easy to figure out why, for a new generation it’s just like a previous generations fascination for the 1960s.

So to answer that question about whether things have become any easier with all of this brand new technology that can seemingly be made to do anything, in short, it is massively easier to create anything today and do so with so much more precision but it’s also massively more difficult to create digital art if you want to create a specific or authentic vintage look. Sure, you can make a facsimile but that’s not quite the same.

So this time we will be going on a journey through time. We will take a look at the early home microcomputer market and how it gradually began to influence how the production of art would make the transition from canvas to screen. We’ll also take a look at just how much digital art technology has changed since the early 1980s. It’s a deep dive for sure, but one that merits the three months or so that this article has taken me to write because those early moments in tech-history are worthy of preservation.

We’ll also take a look at how early digital art was created and why recreating authentic vintage style art today for retro and vintage collectors is massively more complicated with modern tools than it was back in the decade that also gave us Rick Astley and Madonna. To top it all off, we’ll also be exploring the very reasons why so many people are suddenly finding comfort in collecting pixelated memories from their childhoods, a trend that continues to keep us original pixel artists busy.

Eighties Toy Keyboard artwork by Mark Taylor
Eighties Toy Keyboard by Mark Taylor - I think every kid had one of these, this one doesn't make any noise!

But first,

Everyone who knows me will know how much I love the 80s. It was a decade that presented me with career opportunities that would last a lifetime, or at least a lifetime up until now and I hope it will continue for many years to come. The 80s was also the decade that handed me a collecting/hoarding habit that makes my studio and office feel more like a museum at times.

I collect everything from 1980s video games to the ephemera that came alongside them, right the way through to early editions of some of the most iconic early computer magazines and of course, I collect the artwork from the period. Much of that artwork from the 80s was inspired by The Memphis Movement, a style which defined the eighties and is still used today. The eighties gave us a lot of history that we don’t always necessarily or immediately associate with the decade and its importance in society, art and design and popular culture.

It was a bit bleak too…

I probably need to be clear here, I don’t view everything 80s through a rose-tinted lens. The modern age has a couple of positives over the 80s, I was younger for a start. We did have bleak times, plenty of them, and to an extent, we’re seeing some of the same things happen again today that we witnessed happening back then.

In the 80s we had stock market crashes, the threat of extinction from a Cold War, general strikes and workers just like today, were mostly disgruntled with the rising cost of inflation. So I think there’s more than a direct comparison you can make with many of the events taking place today. The world might feel different than it did a couple of years ago for those who weren’t around in the eighties, but for those of us who were around, I think we’re once again in familiar territory. Maybe the 2020s is the 80s part two? Life was hard in the 80s but hey, at least we had great music.

History Repeating artwork by Mark Taylor
History Repeating by Mark Taylor - kids were oblivious to the political turmoil and stock market crashes of the 80s, but it could be bleak!

The decade wasn’t all about shell suits and pop music, technology was being rapidly miniaturised and we would witness a technological revolution just as important as the industrial revolution that took place between 1760 and 1840. The 1980s were pivotal in the evolution of technology as the decade would go on to shape the technology we have come to now rely on every day.

Dialling for dollars artwork by Mark Taylor
Dialling for Dollars by Mark Taylor - Innovation and turmoil, oh, and answering machines were a thing...

We have to understand the past to recreate it…

I’m all about preservation. My retro collecting habit is borne out of a personal need to preserve historic moments that were mostly never documented at the time. The only experience we really have of the decade today is the experience that was around at the time, and a lot of that experience is fading away year after year.

This need to preserve the 80’s and especially the technical revolution is partly what has driven me to focus more and more on my 80’s inspired works recently, although they have been a staple of my creative output since the late 1980s when I would create commissioned characters and supporting artwork often for fans of computer games.

My landscapes and abstracts continue but what many people probably never realise when they view the work that most people know me for, is that whilst I’ve managed to scrape a living creating abstracts and landscapes, my bread and butter has always been rooted in my work in pixel art, retro-inspired collections and commissions from a group of tech fans who have never lost their enthusiasm for the period since the golden age of the eighties and the decades either side.

Kinetic fields artwork, wind power, energy,
Kinetic Fields by Mark Taylor - my landscape and abstract works continue. We didn't have wind power in the 80s, at least not like this, but many of us had bicycles with lights powered by a dynamo!

My retro artworks all depict a period of time through the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, and this pictorial preservation and celebration of history and innovation is becoming more important too. The internet has grown exponentially and it has paradoxically become smaller at the same time. We would once browse the web and explore the new frontiers of the digital age, we could explore historic moments through the lens of all those people who had set up their first websites using sites like GeoCities and we were asking Jeeves for advice.

Today we visit virtual shop windows that have had their displays dressed specifically for each of us through the use of tracking cookies and everything else that didn’t exist even in the days of bulletin boards, ARPANET and a hundred free hours of AOL. Early search engines searched through content rather than adverts, and the results would often be returned in all of their neon glory.

Today, the first pages, let alone the first page of any search engine has become an advert. It’s next to impossible to find useful information because we are now only served what the tech giants think we want to see and we’re now at that place where they only think we want to see adverts.

Maybe this website is too old-school to be cool, I never ask anyone to sign up for anything, I self-fund the whole shebang, I don’t run adverts and I try to provide useful information which is rapidly eroding from our searches and to an extent our first thoughts, and when you do find anything that is, you know, actually relevant, it usually exists only on the outer reaches of internet servers and no one has any time to find it because we expect immediacy today. Hey, you know the cloud is just someone else’s computer right?

The subject matter during the three decades that much of my work represents is broad, I paint everything from skateboards (because they were cool yet dangerous) to the earliest electronic gadgets, and for anyone else who lived their formative years during this time or even younger fans of that time period in general, many of us remember exactly how we felt when we picked up say an electronic game for the very first time.

Hopefully my vintage-inspired art triggers a memory or two for many who view it, but that’s not necessarily the only point of it. I really wouldn’t want such an important period of our technological history to be lost because someone couldn’t be bothered to document it!

We Remember The Time When…

For those of us of a certain vintage, we remember the emotions we displayed and the feelings we had at the time and we even remember the distinct smell of ozone from new electronics, a smell I never come across today but one I wish I could find again and bottle.

80s entertainment, electronic gadgets of the 1980s, artwork,
Eighties Entertainment by Mark Taylor - every new device had a great smell of ozone. I think it was great, I remember it well, I think I liked it, maybe my memory is filling in the blanks?

We remember how the device felt, how heavy it was, and how it made us feel. It was magical because no one had ever seen anything quite like it before and there has never been a time since when the same feelings have ever been replicated with new technology in quite the same way. Today, we have come to expect innovation and I think we take it for granted a bit too much.

I even remember visiting a store with my parents and seeing a home computer for the first time as if it were only yesterday. The smell, the display, the excitement, the shelves and shelves of games, and the ring bound manuals that would teach you how to write simple code. Those memories were made at the same time I was in school so subconsciously even that triggers further memories of friendships and times when the responsibility monster wasn’t lurking around every corner.

The Rabbit Hole of Nostalgia…

The rabbit hole of nostalgia runs deep in many of us, but this wonderfully complex paradoxical experience doesn’t affect all of us, at least in the same way.

Nostalgia is a powerful form of reminiscence that often takes the form of a first-person memory reminding us of something, usually an event or experience when we were surrounded by friends or family or we experienced moments of personal happiness. These moments can become our anchors to happier times that can give us hope for the future.

Nostalgia wasn’t always seen so positively though. More than 300-years ago it was commonly seen as a disorder of the mind that had potentially damaging consequences. It was seen as a form of depression where the person experiencing it would be unable to live in the present. A Swiss medical student coined the term after observing the low morale and spirits of mercenaries fighting overseas. The word itself originates from Nostos, which is Greek for homecoming and algos, which translates to ache.

When we experience nostalgic recall, not everything we remember is a perfect replica of the time, the moment, the thing, or the event. Our minds do a very good job of adding mental edits that make the memory more appealing which is why sometimes we feel slightly disappointed when we find out that something from our childhood either hasn’t aged too well or isn’t quite how we remembered it. 

As time passed, the negative connotations of nostalgia were replaced as numerous studies eventually linked nostalgia with the human desire to reflect on happy memories of the past and some of these studies have found that nostalgia is more akin to a coping mechanism, often finding that  this mechanism works to counteract any feelings of depression. Rather than being a negative, today nostalgia is seen as a positive.

artwork preparation
Did you know when you order directly from me, each print is signed, has an holograph applied, and comes with a printable version of the file on a USB memory stick. Some of my editions also come complete with collectible art cards, certificates of authenticity, and all prints are expertly printed by Master Printers on archival quality materials.

Many modern studies describe nostalgia as something that helps us to reflect on better times rather than specific things, and many of these studies have identified nostalgia as being something that can help lift our moods and reduce stress and it is able to boost feelings of hope and optimism and provide us with memories that provide hope that better times can be repeated again.  I think that is exactly the reason why we are seeing such a surge in popularity around collecting retro right now.

Some of these studies suggest that it can even come to the fore as a defence mechanism but for many, nostalgia I think, is mostly a force that provides us with an emotional experience that can unify and unite. Certainly for me, collecting 80s memorabilia, culture and period specific technologies, is as much about the surrounding community of like-minded people who are collecting the 80s as well.

Being a collector of all things 80s has not only put me in touch with many people from all walks of life who are doing the same, it has taught me more than I ever learned in art school about how and why art produces such strong emotions in people. When we create artworks, whatever subject they depict, as an artist, the ultimate wish is to produce something that resonates with and connects the viewer to the work. It doesn’t have to be vintage or retro inspired, it just needs to subconsciously speak to the viewer.

The art needs to take them somewhere, remind them of something, it needs to trigger an emotion and hopefully provide the viewer with a connection either to the artwork or the subject the art depicts, art is from this perspective, exactly what we are now seeing amongst so many retro collectors, what they are collecting is often a connection to the past and better times.

So alongside the need for preservation, I always hope that someone can find some helpful nostalgic recall and be reminded of the past to provide at least a glimmer of hope for the future. Arguably, this should make the creation of art much simpler when recreating memory invoking images of past times, but in my experience I’ve found it anything but simple.

Whatever work you create has to hit the sweet spot of believability, just enough to trigger a memory so that the mind can then take over and apply its own set of filters. That’s when it becomes a little more challenging, if you add into the mix some of the most discerning and authenticity seeking collectors that I have ever come across, you will find that many of these collectors will have an insatiable appetite for authenticity, so recreating past times on canvas or screen isn’t quite as easy as you would think.

80s rock guitar artwork by Mark Taylor
Eighties Rock Guitar by Mark Taylor - This is the guitar I really wanted back in the 1980s!

Recreating Retro…

With the 1980s pixel art style becoming an increasingly-popular artistic trend, if not close to being seen in the mainstream as a movement, the use of modern technologies to recreate vintage graphics leaves those of us who lived through the 8-bit era a little empty. Sure, the work is often a nod to the formative years for those of us of a certain age, but for a real nostalgia hit I always find myself looking for something well, a little more authentic than most of the recreated memories I see hawked as being retro on marketplaces such as Amazon.

When I say that pixel art and retro more generally is becoming a trend, the reality is that in some circles pixel art and that vintage aesthetic have been an artistic staple for as long as I can remember, it’s certainly nothing new.

Pixel art is now becoming more popular in the media and certainly, the style is being increasingly used in graphic design partly because the world loves nostalgia and it’s a great way for a marketing team to build a connection, but looking back through the history of digital art over the past four decades, I would say that pixel art has been a legitimate artistic movement for a while, some of my own collectors have been with me since the 80s.

So why is it suddenly so popular,  I think mostly that it’s just that the press didn’t cover it quite like they do today, and some consumer products from the decade are beginning to turn up in auction houses and fetching eye-watering prices for stuff we often think we still have somewhere in the attic before realising we threw it away when we last had a clear out. 80s prices can be a media frenzy of shock and awe.

Many of us original pixel pushers have already made decades long careers out of creating this style of art and many of the processes I use today are no different to the processes I used back in the 1980s and 90s. Indeed, many of the commissions I get today are commissions to do the same things I was doing in the 80s and 90s. To some, that might sound as if my career has never moved on to doing something new, but that couldn’t be further from the reality, there is always something new to do and something new to learn about the three decades I cover.

Whether it’s the side art for a video game cabinet or pixelated assets used in a retro-inspired video game, or even recreating the ephemeral content that was packaged with 1980s products and games, I can’t really think of anything that I do today that is all that different to when I first started out, except I’m now doing more of it, with a far greater appreciation and understanding, especially now there are an increasing number of people looking to collect everything 80s and 90s.

Geometric emotion artwork, polygon art,
Geometric Emotion by Mark Taylor - an 80s colour pallet and he mainstream introduction of Polygons at the back end of the 80s and early 90s was the inspiration for this piece.

How do you begin creating pixel art and vintage inspired works in the modern age?

If you are serious about creating retro/vintage-inspired works, you really do have to convey a sense of believability for the work to resonate with the viewer. I’ve been painting 80s life and have been involved with 80s technology since the 80s and I have to say, creating vintage style art with any level of authenticity with modern tools can be challenging because the tools we have today are simply, too good. We didn’t have the distraction of 8K BS, we had fuzzy and noise and overheating power supplies.

The equipment used to create this type of art and graphic design in the 80s was minimalist compared to todays technology, and by minimalist, that’s a massive understatement I think. This creates a challenge for any artist who wants to create truly authentic looking work with modern technology, it’s not even on the same level. Nowhere even close.

So much of the pixel art that is created today looks brilliant, it’s clean and crisp, usually very colourful, and it mostly has a very distinct look and feel. But what it doesn’t have is any authenticity at all. This is fine for many casual fans of the 80’s genre, it nods back to a period in time, but if your collector base is built from vintage, rather than retro collectors, (there’s a difference we’ll touch on later), this modern approach and the look of modern day 8-bit graphics feels too much like an abstraction and it can fail to connect those harder-core vintage buyers who are looking for authenticity.

Just to clarify and recap very quickly from one of my earlier retro articles, and I will paraphrase here for brevity, retro is a modern interpretation or recreation of something of vintage, though the terms are often used interchangeably. Collectors of retro computer games for example are really collecting vintage games if they are the originals, they would be collecting retro games if they were made more recently to look or act like the originals. Generally, in the collector world, everything comes under a retro heading just to confuse and bemuse!

There’s one thing I have had to learn over the years and that is, to persuade buyers of retro and vintage inspired works to choose one work over another, is that you have to add that believable layer of authenticity to the work. What I’ve generally found is that buyers are usually buying it to add to a collection of similar works from the period they’re collecting, or they’re buying to provide a period specific aesthetic alongside a retro or vintage collection.

Something else I have learned is that dedicated vintage collectors are willing to pay more for authenticity which is pretty awesome as an artist, but that does bring a level of complexity that might make it more challenging for some artists to serve that particular market.

Vintage, as opposed to retro collectors are also a very vocal bunch when it comes to this ask for authenticity. Ideally they would be buying genuine work from the period in time but that’s not always possible. That might in some cases be down to the often over-inflated expense of buying almost anything vintage, or down to scarcity.

That’s not to say that most things from the 80s are in short supply these days, you can easily find almost any technology from the era, but finding mint condition examples is difficult and when you do find a good example, there are plenty of people willing to sell so long as you also pay what has become known as the retro tax.

The media hype around retro has made collecting anything vintage, trendy. What you will see as a collector today is that there will be many people scouring their garages and attics to dig out items from the 70s, 80s and 90s, and then they will promptly upload photos of those items to eBay and describe them as super-rare. Honestly, there is very little from any of those decades that is super-rare when it comes to technology.

high density artwork by Mark Taylor, floppy disc art
High Density by Mark Taylor - The floppy disc evolved and became less floppy by the end of the 80s. They were inexpensive but just how much plastic did they use to create them? The 80s was a very disposable era.

Those same people then apply what we hardened collectors call the retro tax, a premium that doesn’t always come out of demand and supply, but out of media reports telling everyone that everything is more valuable than it is. There is then the media hype when something seemingly once popular but is actually an especially rare example such as a prototype or something that is factory sealed in original condition sells for an eye-watering amount at auction. Made in the eighties isn’t a label that also says it’s automatically rare or valuable.

Case in point, I continue to use cathode ray tube TVs and monitors to create some of my retro and vintage work on and I still use them whenever I exhibit my retro/vintage works as part of my display. I can buy a good quality, working CRT TV for less than twenty bucks quite easily, Facebook Marketplace is full of them, but as soon as the seller calls it a retro CRT and maybe adds a line that suggests the TV is ideal for use with old computers, the price can jump ten-fold, and there will be some unwitting individuals who will buy into the hype.

If you are recreating vintage work for collectors who are collecting an aesthetic trend rather than anything more authentic, the modern-day abstraction/representation created with modern equipment is usually going to be fine. If you want your work to appeal to a much more niche collector base, and a collector base that will happily pay more for that added authenticity, you need to be firstly become much more creative in how you produce the work, and secondly, you often have to think beyond the use of modern-day equipment to achieve results that the more niche collectors will be happy to take over an original item.

I’ve had the same conversation with many artists over the years about collectors of period specific work. From experience, buyers of this work can usually be split into two very distinct camps. The first camp is made from collectors who, like I said earlier, are looking for the 8-bit retro aesthetic, it’s a trend, a nod to an age, it provides a flavour of the past, and the second camp is looking for an exact  and authentic look.

This is no different to collectors of other art genres, there will be people who will be happy to own a poster and others who only want the original work and a few who will be happy with a compromise in between or at least a really good fake, not that I endorse fakes, in my ephemera recreations I state on the images that it is a facsimile of the original or a recreation, but mostly what these collectors are looking for is an authentic recreation that provides the same kind of detail found in the original.

calculator 1980s art by Mark Taylor
Old School Math by Mark Taylor - you might not immediately notice the level of detail in these pieces, below is a close up of the LED matrix on the screen.

Calculator display artwork by Mark Taylor LED Display
All LED screens will have some level of visible matrix - it was very noticeable on 80s technology.

Electronic Game Art by Mark Taylor
This shows another method used in 80s LED screens, this is another artwork asset I created and it appears in a number of 80s works! Gaussian Blur is applied between layers using a luminosity brush and the LEDs are slightly offset from the lines as the artwork nearly always appears at an angle... this is what you would see on the original device. There is also a small level of motion blur applied here too.

The critical difference for collectors who are interested in the 1980s is that the 1980s, and even the 70s and 90s, were very disposable decades. Sure, you can buy almost any technology from the time, as I said, none of it is really super-rare and it might have been built at low cost at the time but it was usually built to last, hence I still use 40-year old computers today. The ephemera on the other hand, the boxes, the stuff that came packaged with the thing you are buying, most of that stuff was thrown away.

Another case in point here, if you take video games from the 80s as an example, most kids would take the game cartridges out the box and throw the box and the instructions away. That’s exactly why there is such a huge market for recreated boxes and packaging these days. Last week I found an original box for an early home computer without its contents on sale for £400 (UK), the computer that went inside was available for £80 (UK) unboxed, and I have little doubt that someone made the purchase of the box, now whether they will get the whole £480 back if they were to sell both together is another story, collectors of vintage technology tend to hold on to it rather than sell it.

A recreation of a Colecovision video game cartridge box will probably set you back thirty bucks or more in some cases and that’s without the game cartridge or any manual included, an original empty box for the console, and one that’s in nowhere near pristine condition can set you back at least a hundred bucks, if it’s pristine or a very good recreation then you can expect to double or even triple the value depending on your location.

As an American console, here in the UK the Colecovision console box could fetch considerably more in mint condition because the console wasn’t as popular over here, I did own one and regret selling it on every day. A recreated console box with polystyrene inserts can cost just as much as a console, often more, and these things sell.

This is the level of authenticity that the more niche collectors will be looking for. Most artists who recreate vintage packaging are now having to place customers on wait lists, I’m even having to do this at the moment for some items of my recreated ephemera, especially manuals where the wait list can be even longer if I need to track original reference copies down.

Why would I create retro-inspired works as an artist?

If you are looking at art as a means to provide you with a living wage, there is a living to be made from nostalgia. I know a number of artists who make a healthy living creating the aesthetic look and feel of the 80s using modern technologies, but if you are prepared to put the work in and, at this point I have to say you do really have to have a passion for the period, the real living to be made is in the more niche market of vintage collectors who are looking for that certain level of added authenticity and products that enhance the collectability of products they already own.

This is the retro world’s equivalent of the high-end fine art market, where a pristine and factory sealed example of a mass produced and hugely popular video game (Super Mario) can set you back upwards of a million bucks. Although, I’m not convinced that the market for that game wasn’t well and truly played a little here. We’re now in a time when video games can be graded and encapsulated in the same way we might grade rare coins.

I would also probably add that unless you have a real passion for the eighties, you might not ever find any real level of traction with the high-end 80s collectors unless what you are offering is above and beyond what’s already available. If you are simply looking to create art that sells in volume, the retro aesthetic might be as good as it gets, it’s still a tough and crowded market to enter but there are plenty of buyers. If you are looking to engage with more serious collectors, it becomes less about the money and more about the art and recreations that you create and your knowledge and passion of the period they are collecting.

It's also worth bearing in mind that creating 80s vintage works isn’t just about recreating images from video games or the technologies of the day. The eighties was responsible for the Memphis Design movement which continues to be used in many retro-inspired designs today, and I suspect in many cases, it is a style that is used without any depth of knowledge about the movement itself.

That’s not to cast any dispersion on the ability or skill of the artists creating it, it was a look that defined the 80s as much as anything else and there is nothing that screams 1980s louder than the patterns used in the MTV logos used throughout that period in time. But, it was a relatively short-lived style that is too often only remembered for its visuals rather than its origins.

Today, it’s a design style that is often used in the wrong way on the wrong products, but understanding how and when Memphis Design styles were used can make your retro-inspired works and recreations much more appealing to collectors of period works.

Memphis Design began with a gathering of architects and industrial designers in Milan, Italy, in 1981. They were dismayed at how creativity had stagnated and become corporate and uniform. They looked back to the works of Kadinsky, the abstract shapes and colours of cubism, De Stijl and Harlem renaissance art and the pop-art movement of the 1960s, and they then incorporated elements of popular low culture into a very distinct style which was of liberation and joy, yet today it is often associated with rebelliousness.

After the inception of the style there was  an exposition of these gaudy, outlandish works and in a parody of high class culture it caused massive disruption in the design community and even its haters found it difficult to avoid this new artistic trend of neon pallets and swirly patterns. It was intentionally created in bad taste to fit in with a decade that gave birth to glam metal and shoulder pads, and was in sharp contrast to the austerity of the Reagan administration in the USA.

The Memphis group closed its doors in 1987 after Black Monday but its colourful style persisted well into the 1990s where it gained even more traction after being integral to TV show sets such as Saved by the Bell.

As an artist, there’s a fine line in creating anything from the period with any authenticity and creating something that just looks either dated or too modern. This is why as an artist it is important to make sure that you do your homework and pay attention to the detail.

Research is a very useful skill to develop which will help enhance your historic knowledge of whatever period your work depicts. Having that knowledge will make your creative process much easier and your creative output will stand up better to what I like to term as, collector scrutiny. The details as I’ve mentioned already really do matter to high-end collectors, I can’t stress that enough.

Life in stereo artwork, Walkman art by Mark Taylor
Life in Stereo by Mark Taylor  - Those headphones were great... at the time. Today, not so much but they are still popular on eBay!

It's all in the detail…

When I look at old technology I distinctly remember its subtle nuances, but technology has changed exponentially and many of these nuances have been lost through iterative innovation over the years since. To a collector, it is those tiny details that can make a wealth of difference in triggering memories and evoking any kind of emotion for times past.

Pay attention to the detail as an artist and this can negate the negative comments on social platforms and it can be the difference between collectors selecting your vintage-inspired work over someone else’s. Whilst there is a lot of great work already out there, very little of it drills down into the level of period specific detail that high-end collectors want.

The Digital Dawn…

If I could offer one piece of advice to any artist looking to create retro-inspired works and vintage recreations beyond creating retro-themed designs that have more of an aesthetic rather than collectible function, that advice would be to get your head completely in an eighties (or any other period specific) space.

For retro works that depict the output from old technology, such as recreating those pixelated 8-bit images that have become so popular, it’s worth understanding how much different the technology in the 80s was compared to the technology we use today. Understanding the nuances of 8-bit graphics compared to something you could produce on a modern PC with Photoshop will help you to recreate some of that authenticity that is often missing and with a little period knowledge, it’s not especially any more difficult to create a more authentic piece of work.

I think to an extent, it’s also worth understanding how the industry operated too. Many of the graphical styles came about as a result of how the machines had been built. They were usually to retail at a low price point, and partly, due to the businesses practices of the day which focussed on pushing product out in the shortest possible time frame. This often had an impact on the quality of the visuals meaning that more often than not, you really don’t have to overthink some of this type of work. The detail is often more about what’s missing rather than what’s there.

Magazines of the period are interesting in that the screen shots they would print would usually be of moving images that couldn’t be paused. What the magazine photographer would need to do is to build a dark housing and use a traditional camera, capturing multiple shots to hopefully capture the shot they are looking for.

In some magazines, they would build contraptions where the camera could be operated with the foot as the photographer played through the game, so anything published was usually published not as clearly as you would expect from a magazine today, but with added noise, maybe a few light trails, and certainly never at the resolution we might expect to see in a magazine today.

Understanding Vintage Technology…

 My professional art story began in the early eighties not too long after I received a home computer from my parents as a Christmas gift. The year was 1980 and the home computer I was gifted one Christmas morning arrived under the tree as a kit that needed to be built. Once assembled, it connected to the TV and well, it didn’t do very much. If I had been thinking that it would compete with my Atari VCS and allow me to play video games and listen to the exciting beeps and well, beeps, I would be mistaken.

There was no sound, there was no colour, it displayed text, often not very well, it had way less oomph than the Atari console which by then was woefully underpowered itself, (it was purposely underpowered on its own release day) but the excitement came from being able to do something other than move abstract pixelated representations of stick figures around in a video game.

I was finally able to create these abstract representations, well, sort of. I was able to place characters on a screen and interact with them and as a naïve child, that seemed to me to be the future. By now we were still only a few steps beyond the original Pong video game that made history during the 70s, but it was the control given to the user that took it to a new level.

Exactly a year later I found an upgraded computer under the tree and this time it had been assembled in a factory, it didn’t flicker on and off each time a key was touched, and I say touched, this was touch well before we had touch screens.

The keyboard was a plastic membrane with printed keys for the keyboard, just like the last one but with a little more added oomph that had been missing a year earlier. It still had no sound and it still only had two colours, either black or white but it had a whole 1Kilobyte of memory. (Yes, 1024 of those kilobytes are needed for a megabyte, which is still not enough to store a music track). Thinking back, I can’t even contemplate how we even managed to fit so much in so little, an entire game could run in less than 1 kilobyte, 16 or 48 kilobytes if you were lucky, you had no choice other than to be efficient at coding and so often that efficiency wouldn’t leave any room for overly complex images to be displayed. There would be no work for digital artists in this arena for at least another couple of years but that didn’t stop us from pushing the pixels around.

Sinclair ZX81 Keyboard
Sinclair ZX81 Keyboard - Touch before touch and slightly ahead of the chicklet style keyboards often made from rubber or small plastic keys that hardly moved when pressed. Note the BASIC commands could be entered by pressing a single key rather than typing each command in manually. The endless loop of 20 GOTO 10...

Not wanting to raise too many expectations here but that added oomph still seemed to be less than the Atari VCS which had been released in around 1976. The earliest home computers by around 1980 technically had more power, but they didn’t have cartridge based software where the cartridges would often have additional components included that would provide added functionality and more power to the console.

So whilst the early microcomputers were technically more advanced they were also often less capable and more limiting, rarely displaying their output in colour and they frequently had no sound. But they did have a keyboard and a programmable language, and that was all that was needed back then.

It was these limitations that drove the initial creativity in the home computer industry and those very limitations taught me and many others some very early lessons in efficiency that would lead to forming the foundations that would later introduce me to a wide range of programming languages, BASIC, Forth, Fortran, PASCAL, and 6502 and 6508 Assembly. Bear in mind that early digital art wasn’t created in packages such as Photoshop, each pixel on screen was programmed in using whatever code the computer understood. At first this would be something like BASIC, later it would be assembly, today we just fire up Photoshop or we’ll turn to AI.

Getting to grips with any of these early and simple programming languages would be useful to understand the languages in use today. When coding in HTML or C or any other modern day programming language, having a grasp of those early languages has been massively useful as it is those old languages that underpin pretty much every modern programming language of today. If you are about to learn C or anything else, grab an emulator and learn BASIC or Assembly, the modern language will be way easier to get to grips with!

Maybe what’s more remarkable is just how much you could do with 1kilobyte of memory. Today, modern coders are nowhere near as efficient in their programming because they have the luxury of almost exponential power. If more RAM is needed then it’s a simple upgrade using relatively cheap components, back in the 80s, we would have no option other than to become really creative in how we got the machines to carry out instructions so that the need for additional and expensive RAM would be negated. Contentiously, I’m going to go there, modern programmers have it almost too good and that makes modern code generally pretty sloppy and inefficient.

Today, my process frequently involves setting limitations and working within them. Of course, it’s not always possible to do, we have higher resolutions, different display technologies and we don’t all have access to working vintage technology on which to create new vintage works, neither would that be entirely practical for most artists to do. But setting limitations around colour pallets, resolution, and even brush sizes will bring you closer to achieving a more authentic look.

By 1982, things had changed and technology was in comparison to at any time before, almost abundant in supply, massively more inexpensive than ever, and the missing oomph had by now been included. The game (literally) began to change in every conceivable way, especially when it came to pushing pixels around the screen. The beeps had matured to beeps that could vary in pitch and duration, and by the end of 1982, we had powerful on-board sound chips that would sound almost orchestral.

Today there is an entire demographic who buy chip tune music tracks, tunes created on an early computer, mostly the Commodore 64 with its phenomenal SID chip and the Commodore Amiga. The US really missed out on the Amiga through some bad business practices made by Commodore at the time, yet it is a machine still used by many DJs and digital artists even today, not least in part due to Andy Warhol’s mid-eighties works created on the Amiga 1000.

This leap in technology wasn’t the same story everywhere though. Small home microcomputers that were wallet, and relatively user friendly might have been popular here in the UK where almost every week a new model would come to market, but elsewhere and especially in the US, Atari still dominated alongside Apple.

Despite new home micro’s being introduced the same kind of buzz for microcomputers across the pond was somewhat different to the buzz for home micro’s here in the UK.

Coco color computer art print by Mark Taylor
Hot CoCo by Mark Taylor - broadly compatible with the UKs Dragon 32, which was built in Wales. The CoCo was pretty epic for its time and available from Tandy/Radio Shack - the artwork was inspired by the CoCo!

Apple and a few others such as Tandy’s Color Computer (CoCo) were steadily making inroads into the market. We did get the CoCo here in the UK alongside the Dragon 32, a Welsh computer broadly compatible with the CoCo, at least until Dragon was acquired by a Spanish company. Apple with the original Apple and later the Apple II were mainly focussed on the US markets.

 The Apple II was a powerhouse in comparison to most other machines, as was Commodore’s effort with the Commodore 64 a little while later, and even its predecessor, the VIC-20 and Commodore PET, but then the gloss fell away from a saturated US video game market and the industry seemed to flounder for a while between 1983 and 1984. Business computers didn’t have quite the same fate, but those marketed for the home became less popular for a while.

Video games suddenly lost their cool factor in the USA between 1983 and 1984, but we limped along quite well in the UK and Europe, in part because the market was awash with affordable home micro’s and there was a relatively strong academic program supporting the use of computers in schools here in the UK. We also had an abundance of budget video games available from the likes of Mastertronic, everything remained affordable.

When we talk about the great video game crash of 1983, the crash was mostly confined to North America, we certainly didn’t see it here in the UK or indeed in Europe more widely. It was an especially vibrant time for the industry outside of the USA and much of the retro-influence we see today isn’t always predicated on what would have been popular in the USA, but elsewhere in Europe. Many of today’s retro aesthetic works are very much of a European influence.

I’ll take a quick opportunity to digress here, just as a point of reference, the UK and Europe influenced much of what we see today in part due to video games such as Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider being developed originally here in the UK. Even Nintendo would use a British developer to produce historic classics such as Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64.

A UK video game company, Rare, was chosen by Nintendo to work on multiple titles and was based not too far away from where I live today but they would be known before this as Ultimate Play the Game. They were seen as a leader in developing titles for early British home micro’s that are more and more in demand these days in the USA where the vintage computer collector base is becoming massively focussed on British home microcomputers of late.

Digressing over and back to the 80s when Atari took most of the brunt for what is now known as the great video game crash. More specifically, the crash is often wrongly attributed to the poor job and oversupply Atari had done with the release of their ET game, a game that became almost folkloric in that twice the number of game cartridges were produced than the number of consoles owned. Added to that, Atari sent the overstock to a desert landfill, although the real story is a little more complicated than that.

Here's the thing. It wasn’t ET being labelled as the worst video game in history that paused the market in the US, neither was it Atari, it was a combination of oversupply from dozens of manufacturers joining the silicon gold rush alongside some ropey industry management practices and sketchy quality control within the sector as a whole and the emergence of many, many, new platforms, too many that would quickly become unsupported or would bankrupt the manufacturers when coupled with all of the other poor management decisions being made at the time.  

The ET game had been developed in five weeks so it was never going to be a triple A title, but hype and Steven Spielberg together sold silicon. As a game, it wasn’t completely terrible and it does retain some fans even today, but let’s be clear, Atari’s ET game was made into a scapegoat that just so happened to take the focus away from the real issues in the valley.

Today, the Atari ET game cartridge can be picked up for small pocket change, the box on the other hand, that’s a different story and again this has presented many modern-day artists with a revenue stream in recreating the ephemera and packaging and much of the retro work that is seen today is often based on the look of the graphics that were made famous by Atari’s late 70s and early 80s games consoles.

That said, there was no industry blueprint for anyone to follow in the 80s, least of all those at the front who were introducing new technologies to the world. It was an era of digital pioneers when no one really understood the market and the market was struggling to truly understand the technology. People were literally making things up as they went along.

Consoles would eventually revive the US industry with Nintendo’s introduction of the N.E.S (Nintendo Entertainment System). Every American friend I had at the time and have spoken to since seemed to own the N.E.S, to the extent that I did ponder for a while if it was part of some government program that gave them away.

But these consoles were not user programmable computers which had remained popular in the UK and Europe. We didn’t get sight of the N.E.S here in the UK until a while later which gave British and European brands such as the likes of Commodore, Sinclair, Acorn, Oric, and later, Amstrad, some room to breathe.

The US did get to see at least a couple of these brands but in the case of Sinclair, it would have been known in the States as Timex following a deal that had been done with the UK brand owned by Sir Clive Sinclair. This didn’t change the fact that home micro’s were nowhere near as prevalent in the States as they were in the UK and Europe during that time and as a result, pixel art in the States was a little more complex and somewhat less accessible and massively more unaffordable to create than it was in the UK and Europe where affordability played a major role in selling home computers and encouraging users to become creative.

3.5 inch floppy disc art print with calculator
Three Point Five by Mark Taylor - another work featuring the 80s calculator - the detail here includes detail on the page, my signature appears in the text on the page!

In the UK things were vastly different…

When I say that in the UK things were vastly different in the home computer industry, that doesn’t mean that things were necessarily always better. We struggled in the UK and Europe with oversupply, poor quality, and bad business practices within the industry just as much as anywhere else. Possibly more so as everyone was suddenly in the business of supplying software that was often rushed and publishers desperate for new IP would lap it up and pay for almost anything so long as you could keep supplying them with code.

In truth, they would take pretty much anything and place it on a store shelf safely in the knowledge that someone would buy it. I know because even I created a game for one of the Atari 8-bit micro’s that never really went anywhere commercially, hey, I was about 14 when I wrote it. It wasn’t a great game even for the time on reflection, it was rushed, it took me around a week in the evenings and it didn’t particularly sell very well even though publishers never shared sales numbers with the creators.

Yet the game I created, along with a rudimentary image editor, a basic inventory tool which had originally been created for my father’s business and another small game written entirely in BASIC had all ironically sold a little better than the game written in a much faster assembly language.

Some people were earning some significant sums of money from generating some pretty rubbish code, others were earning slightly less for better quality, but what I had produced at the time still gave me enough to pay for a car in cash when I was 18 years old. Financially the rest of the world was in turmoil but in the 8-bit world of microcomputers, I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. If anything from the 80s could magically happen again, I would have to say I would hope it would be the 8-bit gold rush because plenty of us were making bank for creating small 8-bit images and coding very simple games!

What seemed to happen in the UK and Europe was that a different direction had been taken than the one being taken everywhere else. Very few of the home micro’s were being marketed as games machines instead they would be targeted towards an education market, and much of that was simply down to the government recognising that computer science should become more established in early years schools. Yet those schools never taught people how to create digital art, that was just a side-benefit that happened out of necessity, games needed graphics, and programmers slowly learned that they weren’t artists.

There seemed to be a different view in the UK around how computers could be used for creativity. That’s not to say that the value of the computer was not recognised elsewhere, MIT for example gave birth to some of the most prolific coders of any generation before or since. US developers were prolific in their support for the early Apple, Atari and Commodore computers as well as the huge arcade industry born in the USA.

Inadvertently, the arcade industry helped to shape the creative industry by bringing art and technology even closer together. That multi-million dollar industry that would be fed on quarters spawned a whole generation of artists who would mostly remain anonymous for many years. In the background they would work on graphics for the arcade games in an ultra-competitive space, but they would also be instrumental in designing the arcade cabinets and side art, most of which would be silk screen printed.

Here in the UK, I was beginning to establish myself as a creator of digital images, but for the most part, artists were never really an absolute requirement in the home computer or video games industry. Coders tended to create their own art, usually badly, and it wouldn’t be until the 90s that digital artists would really begin to come to the fore and at least occasionally get some kind of mention in the credits.

My entry to the art world has been documented before so I won’t reexplore it fully here, but suffice to say that during the 80s I had begun the transition from creating art on traditional mediums to pushing pixels around on a screen, and with the innovation we started to see in printing technologies, having the ability to sell prints of that work meant that I was able to turn what was once a mere childhood hobby into a fully fledged business.  

Remember, this was the very early eighties and even way before Warhol had touched the Commodore Amiga home computer and recreated the Campbell’s Soup Can in a digital form. Yes, people did create digital art before Warhol, he was simply way better than anyone else at grabbing peoples attention.

We were the Original Pixel Artists…

It would be another three years beyond 1982 and another couple of microcomputers before I took on my first paid commission to produce digital art, a genre so new that we had really only just started to call it digital art in a mainstream sense, although earlier digital art goes back to the early 1960s and even a little before. Neither did we call it pixel art as it is sometimes referred to as today.

Looking back, even though the term digital art was being loosely used what we were doing with computers wasn’t really recognised as artistic, certainly not in any meaningful way or even close to being recognised in the same way that digital art is recognised today. Very few people understood what digital art was and others would dismiss it as non-art.

Only recently, and maybe even in the past five or six years has digital art become more ingrained and accepted as art in the mainstream and there are still those who continue to hold out that digital works cannot be art. This might surprise many people but despite digital art’s long history even before the birth of the 80s home computer market which would make it more accessible to artists, it’s often seen as something new that requires little to no skill to achieve, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Commercial digital art was by and large, even in the mid to late 80s still very much a traditional and mostly manual process of laying things out on paper. Image editors were still few and far between and professional publishing applications were rare and expensive, and they weren’t that great compared to todays applications, they would only really be used in the high end media industries and the press until we started to see releases such as Delux Paint on the Commodore Amiga.

Atari box art 1980s
Atari Box Art 1980s - Copyright Atari - These boxes are in demand today and recreations are available! Amazing artwork on every one!

Before the digital art application, if you needed an image to appear on screen, you mostly had to learn how to program it either through early programming languages such as BASIC or you would need to learn assembly language which was specific to each microprocessor. Few programmers would take their work to the next level and design their own image and sound editors but by the mid-80s, I had fallen in love with Delux Paint on the Commodore Amiga, a machine that was completely misunderstood outside of the UK and Europe, but one which now has thousands of users and fans around the world.

Mostly, pre-Commodore Amiga, we were dealing with 8x8 blocks of pixels and trying our very best to make that small area pop with colour, mostly the same colour, and we were also trying to be as photorealistic as possible which was impossible with the technology we had, but like I always say, eighties kids had the best imaginations.

Nothing we could do with the technology we had was even close to being photorealistic back then, all we had were pixelated structures with jagged edges, it was a look that defined the video games scene of the eighties and well into the nineties, but still a step beyond the earlier consoles such as the Intellivision and Atari Video Computer System, and with this new-found power, digital art was beginning to emerge in its pixelated glory.

Chunky pixels were the only option and would be until much later when we saw the introduction of 16-Bit computers and later PCs, but it was never the intent of any of the original pixel artists to be pixel artists, we were just creating pictures and artworks with a purpose, the purpose usually being to convey a message to the viewer or to provide a playfield or character whilst all of the time trying to make the images not look like they had been created on a computer.

There was a graphical leap forward in the 90s and this made things easier and graphically, closer to photorealism. For a while developers had been stitching together four unique sprites to create bigger animated characters and manufacturers had begun to turn to new technologies such as graphic cards for the PC and alternative graphic modes such as mode 7 on the Super Nintendo.

In most cases where cartridges would be used, additional chips would be included – pushing the price of the cartridges up in price, but by the end of the 90s consoles began to utilise CDs which saw the introduction of 3D environments, probably way too early for most developers who found it a real struggle with some of the hardware to produce anything convincing in 3D, but that’s what the paymasters in the industry thought the world wanted.

64-bit technologies would become the game changer that 3D needed but the underpinning CD technology was still considerably more expensive than the floppy disc or even the compact audio cassette that had been used for much of the 8-bit, 16-bit and in the early days of the 32-bit era.

In the 90s, 128-bit technologies were being explored by some manufacturers but this would put the technologies that took advantage of it out of reach for many and when higher bitrate technology was introduced in the popular hand held devices of the time, it would come at the cost of battery life making them less portable because you needed to remain tethered to a power supply.

Graphically at the time, 128-bit wasn’t always as good as the earlier and lower bitrates for graphics. Developers really struggled with the complexity of the systems and creating 128-bit graphics would need even higher end development systems putting them out of reach of most developers. As a graphic artist, I certainly couldn’t afford to make the move to 128-bit systems on my own, so larger teams would be parachuted into development houses and development costs became eye watering.  

By this time we were beginning to see advances in rudimentary graphic tablets that had been used before, although for 8-bit artists, the TV screen would become the tablet for a while as a light pen could be hooked up with the aid of an expansion card plugged into the computer in most cases. Graphically, I never gelled with the light pen, TVs were always upright meaning that they were just not conducive to creating art. So what we did see at the time was that most programmers and by now, a handful of dedicated digital artists who would continue to create art using either a joystick or later in the 80s, a mouse. Still on 8-bit, 16-bit or occasionally 32-bit systems.

The introduction of graphics cards pushed the boundaries of creating digital art, but the downside was that there were really no agreed standards. Game developers had a difficult time optimising their code to work with the literally dozens of differing technologies available, but we were by now beginning to see digital art that was far beyond the limits placed on earlier work by the technology.

Today, retro art is a movement but it’s not really vintage…

There’s some level of irony in that modern digital artists strive to recreate that 8-bit, retro, vintage, pixel style. In the eighties it was a style we couldn’t wait to move away from, yet today I see so many artists painstakingly setting up grids in Photoshop or Illustrator in an attempt to achieve the same kind of look that we once had no choice other than to use.

The challenge we have today is that the modern way of creating pixelated images in a retro/vintage style doesn’t quite achieve any level of authenticity when directly compared to vintage pixel art that runs natively on an original 8-bit or even 16-bit microcomputer. To start with, there was little use of dithers that would allow any kind of gradation of colour until a much later period in time.

In the eighties, any gradation between colours firstly had to be done with a very small colour pallet, usually either 8 or 16 colours and mostly if 16 colours were available it would really only ever be an 8 colour pallet with dimming turned on or off to give the same hue a brighter appearance.  Now that’s how you market the same thing twice.

ZX Spectrum Colour Pallet
ZX Spectrum Colour Pallet - that was all we had!

For those unfamiliar with dithering, in short, it means that an applied form of noise is introduced to the image to approximate a colour that is not available from a mixture of the colours that are available. By the time that the early home microcomputers of the 1980s came out, dithering was already being used, it was even used during World War II for bomb trajectories and navigation, and also in comic books and colour printing which overcame the limited pallets available on earlier printing presses.

Dithering really came into its own on the early home micro’s but to create  any form of dithering was often a manual process as opposed to using an algorithm to apply noise as we would do today.

Today, dithering is an essential tool in the creation of many digital works, it’s also used in many printer models to reduce the cost of printing. The inkjets spray microscopic dots on the paper or print surface and even monochrome printers use the technique to overcome the limitations of using only black ink. Dithering is also the reason why you can still make out the detail of a colour photograph when printing in monochrome.

Dithering is also massively useful on the web even though most of us will have vastly more bandwidth today than at any time in the past, the technique means that fewer pixels are needed to build up the image so there is a reduction in the bandwidth used which means that images can load much faster from a much smaller file size.

Even if you are taking advantage of modern tools, what makes a lot of modern pixel art look too modern to be totally convincing is in the simple things such as restricting the colour palette. On vintage 8-bit computers and even early consoles, pallets were limited as I intimated earlier, and it also depended on whether those pallets were being displayed in a PAL or NTSC format so whatever format was in your region would determine the output and the colour that you would see.

Monochrome Pallet ZX Spectrum
Monochrome Pallet ZX Spectrum - Also demonstrate how dithering would work.

Bright and dim colours on a machine such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Timex in the USA) and other micro’s with limited palettes would be achieved by altering the voltage input of the video display. On an NTSC video output you would also find that some machines would display black only as a dark grey. Another factor that would change how colours were output would be the actual display screen the image was being output on, and the method with which the display screen was connected.

Display Technologies would Change the Look of Digital Art…

Output display resolutions and technologies were vastly different too. There is simply no way that an original eight by eight pixel character would have any impact today on modern 4K or even 8K displays, each pixel would be far too tiny to see and it would look like a speck of dust on the display, it’s even problematic on a 1080p HD display or even the lower HD resolution of 720p.

Today, images have to be upscaled or stretched to fill a high resolution screen and mostly, they look pretty horrible unless the effect of a single pixel is recreated with multiple pixels and scaling up is quite challenging. Increasing the resolution would, and still does to an extent, produce pixelation that would make the image look terrible. Today, upscaling is possible and there are all sorts of algorithms and techniques that can reduce the pixelation, but in truth, it’s still there. You are seeing a reproduced copy of the original image even using hardware upscaler’s.

ZX Spectrum Colour Pallet Hex Codes
ZX Spectrum Colour Pallet Hex Codes

Mostly during the 1980s we would rely on graph paper and manually plot out the pixels that would appear in whatever resolution the output would be displayed, in the case of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the entire display was just 256 by 192 pixels and this was the sum total of screen real estate that you had to play your game, view your art, or type in a program listing.

Another issue with vintage computers was that there could be what was called colour clash. Mostly, you could only utilise a single colour in any character block so if the block of colour moved over another colour, the colour of the block would appear over the background colour. It was also known as attribute clash or more commonly today we would think of it as colour bleed. 8x8 pixel blocks could only ever appears as a single colour.

ZX Spectrum Dithering 8 bit pallet
ZX Spectrum Dithering 8 bit pallet - created manually often with code!

This did provide for a unique look and feel to anything appearing on screen and where modern takes on 8-bit pixel art are clean, often with each pixel defined with its own colour, vintage 8-bit microcomputers, even the best of them could never achieve that kind of sharp, clean, look.

The question for pixel artists today is whether they go for a completely authentic look by limiting the colour palette and include the effect of attribute clash, or whether they should create a clean, modern representation. The choice is really down to the audience, hardcore collectors are looking for that kind of raw detail, collectors of fan art or an aesthetic nod to vintage, probably not so much.

Other factors that would affect the look of your art…

The old displays that were historically used generated a technically compliant NTSC or PAL signal. Depending on your geographic region you would either see 480i or 576i resolutions but the images would only be sent to one field rather than alternate between two fields. This created a 240 or 288 line progressive signal, which in theory could be decoded on any receiver that could decode normal interlaced signals. If that sounds technical, I’m not sure any of us original pixel pushers understood it either back in the day.

We would see horrible horizontal lines on the display. Today these scan lines are seen as being a charming and nostalgia inducing necessity in the reproduction of authentic pixel art so it’s more likely today that you might utilise a transparent PNG image of horizontal lines to place in front of the image when you are creating vintage inspired artworks.

The scan lines were a result of the shadow mask and beam width of regular cathode ray tube televisions and monitors having been designed to display interlaced signals so the image would appear to have alternative light and dark lines.

RF Modulator art print
RF Modulator - Now We Can Play by Mark Taylor - We did  HD fuzzy. Originally created as a commission for a long-time collector, this RF modulator was the thing to have in the 80s.

Creating Authentic in the Modern Day…

When you need to create more authentic looking pixel images, you have a choice of either creating a modern representation using modern tools or you go completely down the vintage rabbit hole and begin to use ither original equipment or even emulation. No modern tools can even come close to matching the visual limitations of 80s and even 90s technology, it's simply too good, no matter how skilled you are. It’s not really about having a high level of competency with modern skills or tools, everything is already stacked against you when you are attempting to recreate any level of genuine authenticity.

Any technology today is designed to look clean, sharp, and be reproduced in a large format, often that means 4K and above and a modern display just cannot get even close to reproducing the phosphorous glow of an old CRT TV or monitor. At best, you can hope for a facsimile of authentic pixel art but it will never be quite the same. I actually feel a pang of sadness when I see vintage art displayed in art exhibitions on modern displays, it’s not anywhere close to original without all of the original limitations, not forgetting the phosphorous glow of a CRT or the scanlines.

To counter this with my own work, I tend to use a heap of layers, using gaussian blur tools over luminous brushes in between layers before applying a scan line filter I created which took me somewhere in the region of three months to produce. The filter template I created has a slight curvature in the lines and every time it is used, I alpha lock the layer and then apply a blend to provide the darker shadows towards the edge of the screen before once again applying a luminous brush stroke or three and using gaussian blur again to provide further reflection on any layers above and below the scanlines.

You’ll notice this if you look at any of my works that feature a screen, so long as you are looking close up.  I have licensed that template for commercial use by other artists in the past, alongside a CRT colour pallet that works in either Photoshop or Procreate, so again, there are so many potential entrance gates for artists to offer buyers in the retro scene. You can see the level of detail in the LED Matrix on the calculator above. CRTs have similar levels of detail!

When there is a need for me to tackle 8-bit art and even 16-bit art, there are some techniques that I always fall back to because I know they will help me to achieve a more authentic feel.

Modern displays also have a very different aspect ratio making it even more challenging to recreate authentic images that would have originally been presented in a 4:3 format. The technologies are vastly different which makes it a challenge to make a modern display look like it’s an old display and this is why scanline filters are often used to give images a vintage feel.

Transparent PNG images of scanlines can be created relatively easily if you have enough time and with tools such as Illustrator or even Photoshop, but these can still give an entirely flat effect to the underlying image. Many of the freely or even commercially available scanline filters never quite achieve a true representation of the original look of a CRT, simply because CRTs had that curvature and scanlines if they have no curvature applied will always look flat.

Confine Your Creativity…

I think to an extent, any artist who wants to tackle vintage-inspired work and who wants to maintain an authentic feel in the modern day with modern tools, will have it way harder than we dinosaurs had it back in the day. We didn’t know that the future would be 4K, hey, we were pretty amazed at what we already had. I also think that any artist wanting to produce this style of art needs to work within some very constrained limitations.

A lot of the work I currently create doesn’t need to have any specific effects applied to it because most of the time I’m reproducing memories of the eighties as opposed to a replica of pixel image that would have been presented on screen. Having said that, there are plenty of nods to old technology and in some of my works you will find individual assets within the artwork that have been created on vintage computers, and whenever I paint a screen, you will always see scanlines or the matrix used within an LED display. Most casual users never notice this detail but for me, it’s critical and for collectors who want authenticity, they expect nothing less.

For me and my work, scanlines are really as complicated as it gets for representational vintage inspired work, but if I am working on individual assets that absolutely need to look authentic, say for a retro-inspired video game that needs to retain an old look, my process can be very different depending on what the commissioner needs.

Surprisingly, the easiest commissions I tend to get these days are to develop images for homebrew indie games that continue to be released on 40-year old microcomputers such as the Commodore 64. They’re easy because I literally power up my Commodore 64 and create the images on that just as I would have done some 40-years ago either using a rudimentary image editor or I will program it in BASIC or Assembly language.

New Formats Disc camera artwork
New Formats by Mark Taylor - the specification for the disc camera was better on paper. They looked really cool, the photographs were very poor compared to earlier formats.

It becomes significantly more complicated when you have to recreate old looks on new technology, I can spend maybe as much as three or four times longer working in Photoshop than I spend on creating the assets on vintage tech and that’s even after I go through the process of bringing the final image over to new technologies for use as assets or within an artwork.

Whenever I am create authentic looking vintage-inspired that will be displayed and generated on modern equipment or on canvas,  I tend to apply some very strict limits to the colour pallet being used. I also reduce the resolution as far as I can to make sure that I can work with at least some of the limitations from the past. For me, that’s kind of important because it’s the limitation that drives my creativity, and for the most part I try to avoid using Photoshop or Illustrator and instead use some fairly basic tools and dedicated pixel editors for this kind of work, and where I can, I will use original technologies or even emulation.

One of the more complex effects I have to constantly reproduce is dithering. Sure, there are plenty of tools that can dither the image automatically or reduce the colour depth and so on, but if I have a commission that needs to be out of the door anytime soon and I need the believability of authentic vintage images, I switch off Photoshop and its multitude of distractions and fire up an old computer.

Bit Depth…

For all of the beauty that my 8K behemoth of a display foists upon my often weary eyes, I have to say that it doesn’t touch the beauty of a quality CRT TV or monitor. LCD is great for most people, I don’t even disagree that it is the right way to go, but LCDs on modern displays just aren’t great at either colour or speed.

I recently watched a football match (you call it soccer in the US, but this is real football my friends) and I could literally hear my screen screaming for help as the Wrexham FC players (the Wrexham FC owned by Ryan Reynolds of Hollywood fame) ran around the pitch in their battle to escape the National League.

LCD displays have three layers of coloured dots that make up a pixel. Electrical current is applied to each colour layer in order to generate the required intensity that produces the final colour. The problem is that this takes time, generally between 8 and 12 milliseconds of time which might not sound like a lot, but in a fast moving scene, it can be headache inducing and jarring.

The transition between off and on states mean that pixels that should have changed colour lag behind the signal resulting in motion blurring. To overcome this, manufacturers have reduced the number of levels each coloured pixel can render as a way to reduce the motion blur, but this reduces the number of colours the pixel can display.

You might also come across terms such as bit depth, this is something that quantifies how many unique colours are available in the images colour pallet but in 0s and 1s, which translates to either off or on. The depth doesn’t suggest that the image utilises all of the available colours, but it can specify the level of precision given to a colour. Generally, the higher the bit rate or depth (audio uses a similar principle of bits), the better the quality.

Today, you might expect to see a camera with a colour depth of 8-bits which equates to a total of 8x 0s and 1s, which translates to 256 intensity values for each primary colour. If you combine all three primary colours (red, green, blue as in RGB), this means that once combined, would provide  16,777,216 colours or what is known as True Colour, 24-bits per pixel since each pixel is composed of three 8-bit colour channels.

Adding transparency would take the bit depth to 32 and 48-bit colour depth would give you 281 trillion colours. That’s nothing like the old days of the early home micros, remember when I said earlier about a 16 colour pallet being made up of 8 colours either showing as bright or dim, that should put all of what I’ve written here today into some perspective. Modern technology is just too good to feel real if you are looking for an authentic vintage vibe and besides, the human eye can only discern around 10 million colours so for viewing purposes anything higher than this is overkill even for today’s technology. Where higher bit rates become invaluable is if you are doing any kind of post-processing of the images but mostly, modern technology has already gone beyond human limitations of sight.

Y2K Art Print computer millennium
Y2K by Mark Taylor - by the end of the 90s we had bugs, and panic had set in around Y2K - The Millennium Bug that wasn't.

Vintage Outputs…

When it comes to recreating graphics in the modern day, it has become a lot easier to create images with photorealism, but due to the excess of power available today, things have equally become much more difficult if the aim is to achieve believable 8-bit images.

There are differences in the way that modern technologies utilise their display output compared to vintage technologies which were often output from the computer to the cathode ray tube TV or monitor using a range of technologies such as RF (Radio Frequency) often using a modulator. Remember those little black and silver steel boxes with a cable that you plugged into the antennae socket on the TV, they would often have a slider to select between TV and Game. You can see my representation of an RF Modulator above!

Those really weren’t ideal, they gave us a fuzzy picture that would be prone to interference and the TV had to literally be tuned to the correct frequency. If the frequency was even a little off the picture would be distorted and you would see noise. Later, here in the UK, we began to use SCART connections but this was pretty much confined to Europe and the UK on our 50Mhz PAL displays, whilst in the USA the preference was to utilise RCA phono connections on their 60Mhz NTSC displays.

The regional difference between PAL at 50Hz and NTSC at 60Hz can be seen if you ever get to play a vintage video game. What you will find is that the game will run markedly faster on the NTSC version, the PAL version would run slower and sound was also generated more slowly creating a further distortion due to the output speed of the device. However, the opposite can also be true in that a game or program developed in a PAL region would run fine as it would have been optimised for that region. Hey, the world was smaller back in the 80s right?

Video games are one thing, but if you work in animation, this variation in speed can be a huge challenge, as can the differences in screen resolutions. NTSC and PAL are two types of colour encoding systems that affect the quality of content viewed on analogue televisions and monitors. PAL offered automated colour correction and NTSC was manual. There was also a third contender, SECAM, or, Sequential Couleur Avec Memoire or Sequential Color with Memory, although it was confined to Eastern Europe and France.

Again, these are differences that we don’t really have to think too much about today but all of them would display the same thing differently, imagine if we faced as many of the same constraints today. 

There are a couple of interesting observations around the connectivity of analogue systems and the quality of display from whichever connection was to be used. SCART was allegedly the more advanced option of many when it came out in 1977, it would later become a mandated standard for TVs from 1980 but only in France, other European countries then adopted the connection throughout the 80s and 90s.

SCART, in theory, would also allow other devices to be controlled through remote switching. Similar to HDMI CEC today, turn off your VCR and the TV would also turn off, but in practice, no one I ever knew at the time, or since, has ever utilised that functionality. I’ve yet to meet anyone who isn’t seriously into home theatre take full advantage of HDMI CEC today, I’m sure there will be fans of the format, but it’s not something everyone uses.

Personally, I couldn’t wait to move away from SCART and its propensity for bent pins and migrate to RCA and later, composite and S-Video which I always found to give much greater reliability and a way better picture. Thankfully, today we have multi-region capability in most technologies out of the box and when we don’t, there are plenty of quality suppliers of weird cables that can hook your 8-bit baby up to a modern display.

dot matrix printer
Will Work for Ink by Mark Taylor - notice the dot matrix paper and lines. A larger view is available on my store!

Retro and Vintage Printing…

Printing technology was different, even the ink was almost affordable but we didn’t have the complexity built into many of todays ink cartridges which alongside the costs associated with modern research and development for ink technologies, make them more expensive than the finest caviar in relation to weight, pricier than a gallon of 1985 vintage Krug Champagne and by weight and volume, modern printer ink is more expensive than gold.

Environmentally, ink cartridges that cannot be refilled and contain microchips to prevent refilling, make absolutely no ecological sense at all. Things are changing with the likes of Epson providing refillable tanks, but this isn’t anywhere close to a mainstream practice.

In reality, there’s not that much more you can do with printer ink to make it better than it is today, good quality inks used on a dye-sublimation printer can make prints last for generations, many are now waterproof and the vibrancy of ink has never been better, assuming you use good quality inks.

Printer manufacturers don’t make money on printers, in my experience, most of them don’t really care about offering customer service on printers beyond 6-months, as I found out when a 13-month old dye-sublimation printer I purchased for a significant sum went down in the middle of a print job. For years the printer manufacturers have been pushing the consumer towards ongoing spend and subscription models for ink replacement and sadly, we’re mostly buying into their model.

That’s partly the reason why so little of my work is printed in house, I can source printing more cheaply and not have the hassle or expense if I use specialist print centres who utilise printers that wouldn’t even fit through the door of my studio. They also work with high volumes so the overall costs are massively lower than anything I print in house.

That said, I still do have a need for printers but I run a mixed eco-system. A dye sublimation wide format printer and original cartridges for one off print jobs, an inexpensive inkjet with third party inks for general day to day stuff and proof prints.

Here’s the thing, I turn back to retro technologies for my every day printing needs. Mostly, I still use a dot matrix printer, albeit one that has been manufactured in the past two years and is still available and still manufactured, with ink replaced from a bottle for any day to day text. I really don’t need to spend the cost of a gold nugget on printing out an invoice. I also have a thermal printer for labels which is also handy for printing receipts which never really fade. So the 80s is well and truly ingrained into my process and my costs are lower as a result.

Printers were never as fancy back in the eighties, nowhere close. While I had been dabbling with ASCII characters and creating passable images for the time, the upgrade in graphics technology throughout the 80s made it easier to create an artistic abstraction on screen and then print that same abstraction out on a roll of silver thermal paper using a small thermal printer.

The world upgraded to dot matrix printers eventually but these didn’t offer any massive leaps in graphical output over and above the thermal printers that were much less expensive. I actually preferred the thermal print rolls to regular paper because of the metallic sheen, and because the images didn’t tend to fade when they were exposed to daylight. I still have some original printouts that have outlasted many inkjet prints I have created since.

With the dot matrix printers you could use larger sheets of paper but the paper was usually perforated and fed through the printer using a daisy wheel which meant that any paper had to be continuously fed and each piece had a series of holes on each side. This wasn’t exactly the quality you would be able to offer as a commercial grade print but it was fine for home and business use if you were only printing text.

Printers evolved quite quickly, but the underpinning dot matrix technology would still be the most common and most affordable for a while. The first consumer grade inkjet printer had been released back in 1976, although the principles of inkjets had been muttered about in the 1950s yet it wouldn’t be until 1988 when inkjet technology became more readily available as a consumer product. The HP ThinkJet released in 1984 was still far too expensive for most consumers and it still wasn’t quite good enough to offer commercial prints, even for the time.

I remained with thermal printers for a while before moving onto near letter quality dot matrix technologies and then I remained with those technologies until the late eighties before finally making the leap to inkjet technology in the early 90s.

Inkjet was by then, a leap forward but it was still limited, and most of my digital output from the Commodore Amiga and by the 90s, the early PC, would still need to be printed by a specialist printer with the lead time often measured in multiples of weeks even for a single print. There was no such thing as print on demand, it was more akin to take your file to a specialist and join a waiting list and it was incredibly expensive for small print runs. It made commercial prints of digital work prohibitive for most people. When I create work today on vinyl sheets it costs around a tenth of the price to outsource the work.  

By the time the early PCs hit the market I now had the ability to shape images on screen and print them out, and this was to be the game changer that meant I no longer had to be creative with only a box of pencils and a sketchbook. I was able to produce digital art professionally on canvas using a combination of the Commodore Amiga and an early PC. It was at this time that I would be able to take on commissions at a time when relatively few other people were offering digital art commercially. This was the closest we ever got to the gold rush during the days of creating 8-bit computer games, but the outgoing costs were now much higher.

The biggest issue with modern printers is that for retro aesthetics they can be great but for authenticity, you still have to look at older technologies, not least because of the expense. A modern printer cartridge contains less ink today than ever before. For example, the Epson T032 colour cartridge (released in 2002) is the same size as the Epson colour T089 (released in 2008). But the T032 contains 16ml of ink and the T089 contains just 3.5ml of ink.

Hewlett Packard (HP) cartridges have seen the same diminishing quantities over the years. A decade ago, the best-selling HP cartridge had 42ml of ink and sold for about £20 (UK). Today, the standard printer cartridges made by HP may contain as little as 5ml of ink but sell for about £13 (UK). There hasn’t been a massive leap in yield from ink cartridges either, we’re at this point now paying not for the ink but the plastic cartridge and a microchip that keeps us within a genuine eco-system.

I really don’t buy into the R&D spend any more because they’re just not innovating like they were in the 80s, all of my modern printers rapidly die soon after a new model gets released. My original dot matrix from 1988 was still going strong in 2019, my Sinclair Thermal from around 1982 still works, but I’m down to my last roll of thermal paper and it is becoming a challenge to find new old stock.

With my retro and vintage inspired work, I now insist on making sure whoever prints it can capture the detail I put into the artwork, and if needed, some work is recreated on aged paper which I keep supplies of, it’s useful for recreating some of the ephemera that was originally found in the 80s.

Some of the papers I currently have were genuinely created during the 80s, although it is becoming more of a challenge to purchase genuine aged paper today, some people do continue to carry stocks of it which has been properly stored. For more specialist work I often find myself in a conversation with a hand made paper supplier who does a really good job of recreating the look and feel. Again, it’s about authenticity, especially when recreating ephemera.   

If you are looking to produce more authentic work, there are plenty of sellers on platforms such as Etsy and even eBay who can supply home made aged paper stock, it’s never quite like the original paper but it’s also a lot less delicate and a lot less expensive. Expect to pay around three or four dollars per sheet and up for really good quality papers, genuine 80s papers can go for triple this and even more so it will also depend on the price point your audience will pay.

Handheld electronic game art print by Mark Taylor
Handheld electronic game art print by Mark Taylor - again the matrix is visible on the print.

Using Old Technology Today…

Like I mentioned earlier, old technology that works is not quite yet in short supply, with a few exceptions. The downside to using old tech to create authentic period digital art is that it does come with the potential that it will fail at any time and unless you are comfortable with a soldering iron and carry enough spares you might find that getting older tech repaired can be problematic, no one really understands this stuff quite like us older dinosaurs.

Most old technology isn’t overly expensive even now with a growing popularity in collecting it, but I suspect it won’t remain quite as affordable for much longer. Back in 2012 much of this stuff was being given away or worse, thrown away, but if you are looking for unboxed working technology, it is still within reach of most budgets if you are looking to create more authentic looking work.

What isn’t quite so affordable will be the rarer games consoles, or those systems that failed to gain any commercial traction. A few hundred pounds/dollars will provide you with a 40-year old working Commodore 64 and either a tape or floppy drive, but if you are after console such as a working Vectrex, you will be paying two or three times as much.

That said, there are alternatives to using older technologies that will still ensure you can provide that greater level of authenticity, and to an extent, negate at least some of the need for your workflow to rely on increasingly expensive modern technology, not completely maybe but certainly enough for you to be able to minimise your outlay. Every year we see new specifications emerging to run applications such as Photoshop and it’s just not practical or affordable for many working artists to keep on top of the tech.

That said, some of the alternatives are not what you might call inexpensive, but they will provide you with equipment that will get the job done and you will be able to get closer to authentic looking work than you can with a traditional computer with Photoshop or Illustrator installed.

Raspberry Pi
A Raspberry Pi - currently in short supply but I will paint these as retro devices one day!

FPGA Vs Emulation…

I collect vintage technology but there is always that risk that it will need some periodic TLC to continue working. It’s always a good idea to use new power supplies rather than the originals and it’s also a good idea to find someone who is able to recap old computers so that you don’t find yourself with leaking capacitors which can destroy the printed circuit boards rendering the equipment useless.

There is a compromise that comes in two forms, either emulation which can be done either on a Raspberry Pie or modern PC and to an extent, even a Mac. The good thing about emulation is that it doesn’t always need overly powerful equipment to work. Emulation is just that, it emulates a past system, and some emulators for some systems work better than others.

The second method is to utilise an FPGA based device such as the MiSTer FPGA which is based on the DE10 Nano development board, although you will need other components alongside the DE10 to get the most out of recreating vintage graphics.

FPGA or Field Programmable Gate Array, essentially creates a system on a chip. It’s not really emulation because you are loading an original core onto the programmable chip and at this point you will have access to an exact replica of the original hardware running at a hardware rather than emulated software level. It’s as close as you can get to running the original device but without the headaches and it comes with all the benefits of using brand new equipment every time you power it on.

Various cores are available for download, you can replicate an arcade video game machine and then switch to a Tandy TRS80 Colour Computer from the 1980s, or pretty much any other vintage computer or console and run the original software or the modern software created today for old systems. It’s a couple of levels above the Raspberry Pie in terms of the learning curve but many levels above a Raspberry Pie in terms of what you will get out of it.

The downside with either of these options at the moment is that the global chip shortage has impacted manufacturing of both the Raspberry Pie and MiSTer FPGA DE10 Nano boards and finding them for close to their regular retail value is next to impossible. If you plan to go down this route and don’t already have the equipment, you will be paying over the odds, possibly for a little while longer too.

Either of these options will allow you to run the older image editors such as Delux Paint for the Commodore Amiga, so you can create original graphics using the original software loaded from a ROM and have the benefit of being able to more easily transfer the created assets over to your PC. Using emulation or FPGA is hugely beneficial when it comes to file transfers back to a modern PC or Mac.

A note about ROMs, there is a legal grey area with the use of ROMs and unless the software is now available through open source channels you might need to own the original copy of the software to legally run it. Also bear in mind that in some cases owning the original files in order to use the image files with emulators might still be outside of the copyright laws applicable to the software and its use. If you can satisfy the legality of running ROMs, then the internet is a vast resource for tracking the ROM images down. 

In my humble opinion, the MiSTer is the way to go with vintage technology, but getting one is another ask entirely. If you do get one, you will never need to buy any other vintage technologies because it really does do it all and it does everything really well and you don’t need the space for a lot of vintage kit.

Recreated Vintage Technology…

There are a handful of vintage computers that have been specifically recreated for use in the modern day, namely the ZX Spectrum Next, but just like other FPGA devices, these things are extremely rare in the wild and the second Kickstarter campaign remains to be fulfilled due to the limited availability of the FPGA chips needed. It is a great machine though and it also goes beyond the capabilities of the original 8-Bit machine and there is no doubt that the second wave will be fulfilled because there are some great people behind it who can absolutely be trusted to deliver.

There is also another FPGA Sinclair Spectrum, the ZX Spectrum Next N-GO, which is a smaller version of the ZX Spectrum Next, but again this is FPGA and well, the chip shortage is making life difficult for those who want to buy one of these too.

1980s retro technology
Together in Electric Dreams by Mark Taylor - best decade ever!

If you are looking to replicate either the Commodore 64 or Commodore Amiga, which is essential if you are looking to run something like Delux Paint, then you can go with either the C64 (mini without a working keyboard, or Maxi – with a working keyboard) or the A500 Mini, both from a company called Retro Games, and all of their machines are available pretty much globally.

The compromise here is that whilst the machines look and act just like the originals, they are running software emulation to perform their magic. In the case of the A500 Mini which has a non working keyboard, (a USB one can be added), you can use WHD Load which means that once you have a WHD load ROM file, you can place it on a USB stick and you won’t have to swap the discs or load in multiple ROMs for the multiple discs that the original application used on the original hardware.

For most people, all of these devices will be mainly be being used to play retro games, but they are all more than capable of creating original code and graphics. I own the original Commodore machines but now use the recreated versions to create authentic Commodore based artwork, purely because I want to preserve my original 30 and 40-year old computers for as long as I can.

The Preservation of Retro is in Our Hands…

As I said earlier, hardly anything was documented back in the 70s, 80s, or 90s. The knowledge we have today comes mainly from those who were either involved with the industry or consumed from the industry and from the publications of the day that did manage to capture a lot of what was going on but by no means everything. Instead, we rely on a dwindling number of people to recall events from 40, 50, and even 60 years ago.

 Of course we have seen this throughout art history too, there is very little historic documentation in relation to the number of historically important artworks hanging in museums, where it’s often the case that any provenance or record of the time has to be painstakingly researched. Today we are more inclined to record important moments, historic events, things and places, we live in a slightly less disposable era and we’re less inclined to dispose of history.

There’s also another consideration in that video games, music, and other digital mediums are finally being seen in the mainstream as legitimate art forms and I think that’s the right way to view them. If we look at how traditional art is created, it is by hand, often from the imagination or interpretation of the author and that’s the same process that creates all of these more non-traditional art forms. 8-bit graphics are the technical equivalent of hieroglyphs, and maybe people might disagree that they are nowhere close to being as important, but this was how society communicated in the early days of using the technology we know today.

The technology we see today and the technology we go on to see in the future and its journey will become historically just as important as artwork in time, just as the beginnings of the industrial revolution have become. I do think that maybe some of the uptick in retro collecting might not only be stemming from the need to feed the current hunger for nostalgia, but for many of us who collect vintage technologies and the ephemera that goes with them, it is widely regarded that it is often more about the importance of preservation and being able to make sure that the technology story isn’t lost.

Are there really opportunities for artists to become part of the community?

For artists who have an interest in retro/vintage (I wish there was a term that could be used to describe them better), and for those who have an interest in producing period work, there is a growing market that consistently devours quality artwork and recreations that represent the time.

Artists do have opportunities in this area, it’s perfectly fine to create work that is a representation and there is a healthy market to feed and a decent living to be earned from providing an aesthetic reference to the time. If you are looking to engage in the higher value collector market, there are plenty of options here too but the difference is night and day in terms of what those collectors expect.

With that expectation comes a revenue stream that is significantly higher than the retro aesthetic market and the initial outlay to create the expected level of detail both in terms of finance and knowledge of the period is relative to that. In terms of finding those collectors, it can be a completely different social circle that you might need to engage with. You might want to test the waters by joining retro enthusiast communities and visiting some of the many retro events that now take place across the globe to see what the more serious collectors collect. Think high quality art prints, reproductions of ephemera alongside the originals.

I remember visiting some of these events five or six years ago and less than a hundred people and often way fewer would turn up. Today the events are usually packed to the rafters with tickets selling out weeks and sometimes months in advance.

For those interested in how the technology in the digital art space has changed in the past forty years, anything produced using the technology we have today is incomparable to what could be achieved in the past, yet many of the principles and techniques we use today were invented in the 1980s and even before.

Today we automate many of those techniques which arguably could be seen as a method of deskilling a workforce but if we are to preserve a practice just as we strive to do with other historic artistic practices, then it becomes critical that more artists take a look at the retro and vintage scene for digital art and embrace the old way of doing things. Not because we can, not because it’s not as easy, but because it is a craft and a history we are in danger of losing and that will make it challenging to evolve even further. More than that, hey, it can only make you a better artist right!

Betamax art print
The Underdog By Mark Taylor - Betamax was superior to VHS but the length of tape was shorter. By the end of the 80s, Blockbuster had become the church of many people.

Until Next Time!

Hopefully you will have found this one an interesting glimpse into the early days of microcomputers, the current retro collecting trend, and the real dawn of digital art becoming more accessible to more people. It’s hard to comprehend sometimes that digital art hasn’t been around even longer, though there were examples of digital art going way back well before the eighties, it was the 1980s that truly set it on a path to what we have today.

The eighties is a fascinating decade even beyond the technology it gave us. Steven Spielberg said when his Ready Player One film was released that the 80s was a stress free decade, I think if you sugar coat it, it very well might have been but there was a lot going on.   

The age of MTV, a time-travelling DeLorean, and synth, also oversaw Cold War escalation, the Iran-Contra affair, the crack epidemic, and the AIDS crisis. The decade’s televisual and computational innovations alongside cable television, VCRs and game consoles, it wasn’t entirely stress free and less so for those who were involved in the politics and the innovation, there were plenty more casualties for every good news story.

More than this, the 80s was a defining era for the art world more generally, there was a blur between art, advertising and entertainment and a question as to whether artists could simultaneously commodify themselves and critique consumer culture? We’ll be exploring more of the 80s as I create even more new vintage inspired works, and the hope is that my own works will provide a pictorial backdrop to what has to be the decade that really did have it all. Until next time, stay safe, stay well, and always be creative!

Mark x

About Mark…

I am an artist and blogger and live in Staffordshire, England. You can purchase my art through my Fine Art America store or my Pixels site here:  

Any art sold through Fine Art America and Pixels contributes towards to the ongoing costs of running and developing this website. You can also view my portfolio website at

You can also follow me on Facebook at: where you will also find regular free reference photos of interesting subjects and places I visit. You can also follow me on Twitter @beechhouseart and on Pinterest at


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