It's past due but we finally had the chance to feature a pixel artist who has a big presence on the pixel art scene, not only through his art, but also through his social media activity. Thomas "Cyangmou" Fleichtmeir is a 29 y/o pixel artist from Austria and his art is a big influence in contemporary pixel art, especially on the indie game scene. He has also worked on some of the best looking pixel art titles of the recent years.
Gecimen: Hello Thomas, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your pixel art journey? What did you Study?
Cyangmou: I grew up in a remote mountain village in Tyrol in Western Austria. Tyrol is a tourism center, but has hardly any creative industry. While I always wanted to do something creative, or something history related, there weren’t many options for that in my place and I would have needed to go abroad which was not an option for me either.
The village Thomas grew up.
Additionally I am the last generation which grew up without internet, so planning for an online career neither was an option and how video games were made was a big mystery to everyone at that point. With that outset things looked unfavorable. After secondary school I went to graphic school for a bit, but canceled it and decided to settle on engineering instead. There was no strong direction yet.
G: How did you start pixel art? How did you start making it professionally?
C: In engineering school I learned about a lot of technology, basic coding and internet also grew to the point that it became a potential place to find work. But looking at games, I was more interested in the worlds, so I rather went with RPG Maker instead of real programming. With a friend I started working on the “far too big and too ambitious project for inexperienced people” project.
G: Many of us have been through that road, I guess.
C: After its inevitable failure, I just posted a couple of screenshots online, which landed me my first art job, still during engineers school – for a browser-based game and soon other offers would follow. As I finished school I had enough accumulated experience to start my own online graphics business.
G: So, can you summarize what titles you have worked until now?
C: Since then I have been involved into a couple of dozens of projects. Lots of small demos, publisher pitches, some animations, some printed products and also 16 released video games. The most noteworthy milestones in my videogames career so far are:
-Adventure Time: ETDBIDK (animator)
-Tower 57 (art & production)
-The Mummy Demastered (lead artist)
-Blasphemous (bg artist)
and Fantastic Fetus
The last years I have been working as art-director. Currently I am busy with Gestalt: Steam & Cinder. This one just got announced publicly and is keeping me very busy.
G: I'm really looking forward to Gestalt. So, Thomas, you are a very well known face in the pixel art community, aside from your awesome game art you‘re very active on pixel art sites and social media as well. You were a moderator at Pixelation for a time and then you became active on Twitter. Can you tell us a little bit more about your internet presence?
C: I see myself as someone who is highly interested in art, on a scientific level, on a social level and on a craftsmanship level as well and I also like to talk about it.
The Pixelation forums shaped my thinking as an artist and I adored the spirit of the community and was moderator there for years. Some people there were more interested in radicalizing the place and using it as a device for their political views. At a certain point, art wasn’t the most important bit anymore, which made me leave and on Twitter I can also share things similar to what I shared on Pixelation.
G: What Makes you active on the social media? Do you have any specific goals to be there?
C: I am not satisfied with the way pixel art is currently perceived. So I am working actively on changing the perception. I My big goal is to work towards the release of a book on pixel art in which I intend to present all my research in a refined and distilled way. But there is very little existing research to work from and a lot of deep investigation and figuring out left to do, it is a long and arduous process with too many dead ends. I think the completion of this task is important for the pixel art community as a whole.
G: True, especially academic research on pixel art is next to nothing.
C: But even the speeches I gave at events over the last years seemed to already have moved the perception a slight bit. I hope I can learn more, share more and achieve more and get this book ready for release.
G: Can't wait to read it when you do. You also like writing up & drawing tutorials that'll help newcomers to the art. Apparently, you believe more people pixelling better won't create competition in the market.
C: Compared to the overall art world there are very few professional pixel artists. Also there are tons of resources around for any skill to learn. There are whole libraries on books about how to draw things and even despite that wealth of knowledge not everyone can draw well.
G: Perhaps because not everyone develop talent for art?
C: Initially talent is an important ingredient, especially to get things rolling. But hard work and dedication to the craft are equally important in the long run to get to a professional level, which anyways only a few people who started the journey will achieve.
G: What do you think about the current professional level of pixel art and artists?
C: Since I have been working together with many artists throughout my career, I can ensure that creating high quality art is of course an important skill but it is equally important to have solid communication skills and to be able to hit deadlines. Just making great art is too little in a project-oriented environment like freelance work for the games industry, where things need to get completed reliably and on time.
Also all great artists differ in their unique skills and interests. In projects you learn that many people of many fields with individual skills are coming together, but true magic happens if everyone is in the right spot and is able within the project-structure to do the thing they are great at.
G: How do the companies perceive pixel art?
C: Considering that in the last 10 years we went from small indie projects made by a single-devs to projects which exceed the workload of some of the biggest pixel art games made in the past like Owlboy, Katana Zero, Duelyst and many others. The budgets for pixel art games have been increasing significantly in a short time and the amount of artists needed to get those big pixel art projects is right now bigger than just a couple of years ago.
G: Yet it seems to me that pixel art jobs are mostly temporary. Why do you think is the reason? Are people not taking pixel art as serious as other media? Or are studios that make pixel art games tend to be smaller?
C: Truth is most companies focusing on pixel art like Chucklefish Games, Yachtclub Games, Mojang, Nitrome, Wayforward Technologies, The Game Kitchen and many others have in-house fulltime pixel artists. Most indie companies, of course, are not established and financially stable enough to keep a full time artist. So small indie game companies, or companies doing their first game just cannot afford employees. But also most established companies still hire freelancers, because they don‘t need to move them and they can bring them in when projects are already planned out and going into full production mode.
G: Pixel art, as a preferred media in indie games, is getting more attention each passing day. And not only high quality stuff, but also the most naive styles, too. Why do you think pixel art is gaining popularity once again, while the technical restrictions are irrelevant now?
C: I believe that pixel art and games profit from each others' strengths. The earliest games were made with vector art, but raster graphics soon became more popular than vector graphics due to their detail and colored shapes and this also affected the course of hardware development.
G: What do you think caused this change?
C: I think why this happened is due to developing phenomenon which I am naming "perception is interpretation". People who interact with art which leaves room for interpretation will impose their own details and own characterization on it. With this a much stronger personal bond between viewer and artwork will be created, than by just looking at a very detailed depictions which dictates the details on the viewer.
With games people usually express themselves in the way they play and giving them also the possibility to more freely interpret the characters, may lead to a much richer story for some people. Books for example; usually don‘t have visuals, yet still we can observe that people saying things don‘t look or feel right whenever they get a movie-adaptation – I think in games and with realism similar things happen. Therefore I think there is and always will be an audience which enjoys to interpret and like simpler styles over photo realistic ones. And pixel art just happens to be very iconic and very visually distinctive.
G: I'm certainly part of that audience. Most of the titles you have worked on, make use of pixel art on the purer side of things. How do you feel about the recent mixed technique pixel art games such as Dead Cells or The Last Night?
C: First of all I think mixed techniques and experimentation are pretty cool and you never know where you will end up with if you are doing something new. They can look great if done right.
However I also believe that there are core values and core ideas in place whenever we decide to create art. We had a raging debate going on in pixel art communities of defining what is pixel art and what is not pixel art and usually it is referred to with techniques used. However I think it is impossible to define pixel art just via the techniques used and therefore I decided to go a step deeper and analyze the ideas and philosophy behind creating pixel art. Mixed technique games use pixel art as one of their elements, but ultimately they follow different ideas and want to achieve different goals.
G: Can you tell us more on your analysis?
C: I came up with a model of three main concepts which can define an artwork as pixel art, aside of course from using square picture elements on a grid: "intention", "perception is interpretation" and "resourcefulness".
Intention: There is a strong conscious decision behind placing every single pixel. The squares in pixel art need to be aligned in perfect harmony, where everyone of them has their distinct place, goal and meaning, because even a single pixel can completely change the overall interpretation of the image. There is no place for chaos or randomness in pixel art.
Perception is Interpretation: Effective simplification will strongly enhance the way how the art gets interpreted by the viewer. In low resolution raster-art artists have to break up visual information in tiny bits, which later on have to get re-interpreted by the viewer who will inevitable fill it with their own personal narration, reflection and details. This unique way of communication between artist and viewer creates a strong personal bond with the art. In pixel art this mind play between artist and viewer is at the core.
Resourcefulness: Pixel art tries to create the most out of little. The restrictions pixel artists choose for themselves are the most important decision in their artwork. They want to give meaning to the smallest particle of the picture. In great pixel art there is nothing too much and nothing too less, but everything was considered carefully. Pixel art is thrown between the minimalistic approach and figurative representation. One also could perceive it as the most minimalistic figurative approach.
G: What I make out from your words is that you perceive pixel art not only as just another technique or style to create visual arts, but rather a separate medium or art form with its own set of rules and practice. Still, many seasoned pixel artists use their knowledge and inspiration from classical art forms. But what I want to ask you is, what knowledge and inspiration, can practicing pixel art, give the artist about visual arts in general?
C: I would say that pixel art is both – a medium and a style. If we only use the techniques of classical art and translate them into pixel art it is merely a stylistic choice.
With deeper core ideas and a philosophy at hand we transcend the border of a style and end up using pixel as a medium. Then the question is not about just painting a specific technique with pixels, but have an equally deep struggle of importance about how to paint something with pixels. Once one reached the point of understanding that pixel art is not just made with pixels, but one can really control pixels in different ways, it’s not merely a single style anymore. And at that point, there are hundreds of different styles possible with pixels and it becomes a medium.
G: It also has its advantages, doesn't it?
C: Generally I would say there are two major art problems you can really practice best with pixel art.
Well thought out color choice and the effective simplification of designs.
G: Let's talk a bit about your pixelling style. I've been following your pixel art since you joined Pixel Joint back in 2011. You always made ambitious pieces but around 2014 you suddenly geared up in terms of creating your unique style you have today, and also produced & shared a lot more art. What happened at that point?
C: From 2010 to 2014 I have been training a lot. Since I didn’t have a formal art education I practiced a ton next to my work, but I was moving more towards classic illustration art goals, which usually draw a lot from realism. Sure, it’s absolutely a crucial skill to be able to paint realistically, but I just felt it was an end in itself and it also were techniques and an art goal not originally created for pixel art and therefore not all of them are exactly good for the medium.
So the stuff I did back then, while for sure painterly-technically impressive didn’t exactly go well together with the unique strengths pixel art has to offer. So, after those years -just driven by the desire to make beautiful art- I had the desire to make beautiful and effective art within the medium which also could get animated or fits a game. So I just did a ton of experiments and iteration and weighed the pros and cons of a lot of techniques. The style which came out of this is a direct expression and reflection of the thought process.
The reason why I shared a lot more Is just that I produced in general a lot more. Generally I haven’t uploaded most of the work I created, because game-art in itself is hard to present. You got the drawn objects but lack a bigger narration or idea and the amount of visual assets (crates, barrels, trees etc.) you are creating in packs of dozens for projects usually don’t have any message to them which means they can be nicely painted, but lack a deeper meaning.
G: You used to attract attention with your unusually large (or hi-res) pieces, backgrounds and other game art. Yet, as you gain experience, you also started to draw and share much smaller sprites, as well. Many pixel artists do the opposite; ie. start with lower resolution art and try larger pieces as they gain experience. What pushes you to explore low resolution art?
C: I think I am doing mostly the same as most other artists. I also started with small sprites. Very first I did a lot of sprite edits. And then as I started to work on commercial projects I created the average stuff, but from scratch. Of course you want to do different personal art than in your daily work, so the things I shared were also things I couldn’t do for the job, but still wanted to explore.
Then I again came back to smaller sprites, because I think that’s where the real magic is happening. For me the question of the magic of pixel art is outweighing the pure aesthetically driven side many illustrators would naturally follow. Creating something that is traditionally perceived as “good art” is a fundamentally different outset from making art which is suitable for a specific medium.
G: Well put.
C: There are parallels to this phenomenon in history and philosophy. For one, when cultures that have an established style of something, tend to reproduce their usual style, even if they get a new working material which completely changes the rule set.
The Battleaxe Culture of Southern Scandinavia (2800 – 2300 BC) for example temporarily lost their metal working skills and then crafted stone axes with a weird ridge. In fact it’s the same ridge, which would happen by casting bronze where both shapes of the form are connected. Why would you add that in stone?
Is it stupid? Is it tradition? Do we need it? Can we get rid of it? What happens if we get rid of it?
Maybe… Maybe not, who knows?
I want to know.
Then in early iron age you find a ton of iron swords which are exactly shaped like copper swords. They don’t exploit any of iron's superior material characteristics. Ayn Rand made a great quote on that “A copy of steel out of a copy of iron out of a copy of stone out of an original of wood” and Trent Reznor made the great song “Copy of a”.
I don’t think that the goal of applying watercolor, oil or illustration techniques blindly to pixel art is anything different than making a copy. I rather like to understand things and get to the bottom of them and use pixel art in that way.
G: While your commercial pieces cover a lot of distinct styles, your personal work usually seem to be inspired by baroque and steam punk styles. What inspires you to make a personal project? Do you draw inspiration from specific art forms?
C: Most commercial work is made with the goal in mind to sell to a broad audience, therefore the audience has to know what they will be buying and that’s also one of the main difficulties in creative work. The commercial work which sells the best has also always the taste of averageness to it, because it is made with the goal to appeal to the broadest possible group. What’s important to note here is that working in an industry which is funded by investors who want to make money is also automatically putting an imperative on the industrialized creators to create a product which sells. This means further playing towards the audience expectations and producing something which fits a predetermined setting, while still feeling fresh is a successful strategy.
But we need to be painfully aware that quality and popularity are two very different factors and something with a high level of various qualities is probably also harder to understand or to get into and therefore simply can’t be on the same level of popularity.
G: What about yourself? Aren't you bored of that averageness?
C: I am myself part of a predetermined audience group. Like everybody else I got in a couple of productions based on their themes and styles. The general struggle I face is, when I enjoy something enough I inevitably will think about it. If I think about it enough, I will stumble sooner or later over the references used in that thing and usually I can’t stop myself from looking at the references and realize in which points the productions differ. Now something funny happened, because what might be labeled “low fantasy” ends finally up in medieval & early modern history and “steam punk” ends up in the age of exploration and colonialism and also all of the stories of those works are mostly about the problems real humankind in Europe faced.
To boil it all down my personal art is very much inspired by Central European history. I am a very big history enthusiast, always have been and I highly doubt this will change. All works of fiction I liked have tons of references based in history. I am still on a journey of discovery (and probably always will be), but I also find daily new interesting anecdotes and reference-links. From the core of reality radiating outwards I find things which capture my interest. If I find something which is inspired in the right way, that it captures me, I will also have a good look at that. It can be a movie, an anime, a comic, this doesn’t matter, but what matters most for me is the idea-realm behind it and the way how it is designed.
G: What about other things, aside from history and visual arts that inspire you? Are you interested in philosophy, politics or literature? What sort of books do you read?
C: History, politics and philosophy can hardly be separated. All is part of the human experience and culture and a mirror. Contemporary developments also don’t exist in a vacuum.
I think this question Is best answered with "You are what you consume". And the last three books I read were; The Phantom Atlas by Edward Brooke-Hitching, The Antichrist by Friedrich Nietzsche and Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling. And currently I am in the process of reading Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
G: A few last questions to let us know you better. Do you have other hobbies? What do you do to relax? What sort of music do you listen to?
C: I am relaxing on long walks and also love to spend time with my partner. Contemplating about the world is always much more interesting together. Music styles I like range from Synthwave over Metal to Videogame Music and sometimes if the mood is right classical music. But it’s always more about the right single piece for an occasion. Top 3 albums I listen on a semi-regular basis recently are Hesitation Marks by Nine Inch Nails, Meliora by Ghost and The Void Soundtrack.
G: Thank you very much Thomas, this has been an inspiring interview for me and surely hope it will be the same for the readers.