Back to the Eighties Pushing Pixels

Back to the Eighties Pushing Pixels

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.

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!


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.

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!

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
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!


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.


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.

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!


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.

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.

 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!


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.

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 8×8 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.

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. 8×8 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.

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.


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.

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.

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.


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!


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.


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!


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.

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.

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.

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.


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

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:
https://10-mark-taylor.pixels.com  

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
https://beechhousemedia.com

You can also follow me on Facebook at: https://facebook.com/beechhousemedia 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
https://pinterest.com/beechhousemedia