Quiara: When did you first discover pixel art?
aamatniekss: I discovered pixel art as a child, although I didn't really think of it as pixel art then. Back when I was 6 or 7 I got my first game console, which was a Sega Genesis, and a lot of my time was spent on that one. This was in 2001 or 2002, because in Latvia, we kind of got everything a few years later.
Q: I can relate! Growing up without a lot of money me and my brother were usually several years behind everyone else with game consoles.
A: Yep, my family was actually not doing too bad financially, but it's just that many things like game consoles didn't have actual official releases from what I know. So all we got was bootleg clones imported from… Russia I think. Instead of a NES we had a Dendy [a Russian “Famiclone” popular in some of the ex-Soviet states in the late ‘90s]. I still remember as a kid, we got Dendy and Sega about at the same time. Dendy cartridges were yellow, while Sega cartridges were black, so as kids we would compare who got the better console, by telling if we got yellow or black cartridges.
Q: Did any of those Genesis titles stand out, art-wise?
A: Thinking back, Golden Axe 3 was probably my favourite game on Genesis. I still replay it from time to time, although much less now. I used to be really into the whole knight thing and medieval fantasy, and I still am. I’m sure a lot of it comes exactly from there. Other than Golden Axe, I used to also play a lot of Streets of Rage and Sonic, and quite enjoy how they look visually, too. But nowadays whenever I think back to those games, I think the game which left the biggest impression graphically was Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. It doesn't look that good now on modern screens, but I remember thinking back then that it looked very realistic, and I enjoyed it a lot in that way.
Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker for Genesis/Mega Drive (1990).
Q: Haha, I can see why Moonwalker would be mind-blowing in the realism department relative to Sonic or even one of those games with digitized graphics like Mortal Kombat.
So moving on - were you an artistic kid? Did you draw a lot?
A: I was a fairly artistic kid, yeah. I drew a lot and was generally fairly creative. I don’t think I was particularly good at it though, but I liked doing it. I could never have imagined I’d actually do art as a job in the future, though.
Q: So what did you think you were going to do when you grew up, then?
A: I've had some trouble with that all my life honestly. I never knew what I wanted to do, all throughout school and all the way ‘til university. While in high school I decided to go to university to study computer science and programming, which was really only because I needed to do something. But I wouldn't say I actually enjoyed it… which is why I also left university a year in.
Q: So is this why you took up pixel art? Or was that a hobby that started before then?
A: During my studies, I’m not sure why exactly, but I started messing with game development a bit, and downloaded Game Maker. (Which I had already done for a week or two back when I was about 12 or so.) I started making some small games, and eventually while studying realized that I would not want to work a “normal job.” So I looked up gamedev and making and selling games, to see if it would be possible to do that for a living. I had some money saved, so I left university and pursued the whole gamedev thing.
If my first game didn’t bring in enough money for me to continue, I’m honestly not sure what I would have done. Probably some “normal” job in a supermarket for a while, until I figured out what I wanted. Luckily, it kinda worked out: I had money for about a year, and in that year I actually managed to make a game and release it.
Q: The first game being There Was a Caveman (2015)?
A: Yep, that was my first commercial game. That’s kinda how my journey started with pixel art too. It just felt like a natural choice, based on how I liked those old retro games. And it seemed fairly “simple” then, as I’m sure it does for most people who just start out.
Q: I feel the same way - I didn't love that era of graphics when I was starting out, but really lush PA styles (and obviously anything 3D) were out of my reach.
A: Yeah, I think I always had a soft spot for that kind of stuff though. I really enjoy 'older' looking games. Even when it comes to 3D graphics, I much prefer low-poly and low-resolution stuff to more modern art styles.
Q: Interesting! I don't know if I can agree with that - I think a lot of "retro" 2D games have aged really well, while a lot of "retro" 3D games look (and play) like crap.
A: Yeah, I can agree to that. I guess what type of 3D I mean is not exactly like PlayStation 1 3D, but PlayStation 2 3D, when it first started to look actually good. I just prefer how clear and uncluttered it looked then, compared to the massive amount of detail everywhere now.
screenshot from There Was a Caveman, 2015
screenshot from Moustache Mountain, 2016
Q: I can get behind that. So, speaking of improved graphics. You made There Was a Caveman in late 2015, and then, not even a full year later, you put out Moustache Mountain, which is a massive improvement over its predecessor in terms of pixel art. What happened?
A: Funny you mention that, because I can say exactly why I improved so quickly there. I frequently think back to the exact moment when I improved drastically just from one piece of feedback I got on the Pixelation forums, while I was still developing There Was a Caveman. I was keeping a devlog and asking for tips and such, and Decroded (hi man!), this really awesome pixel artist, gave me this really cool edit of a screenshot, to help me improve how the game looks.
There Was a Caveman, left by aamatniekss, right an edit by Decroded
I was completely blown away by how much better his edit looked than what I could put out. It was at that point I realized that I needed to put way more time into my pixel art, instead of just quickly whipping something up. Instead of making a tileset in one hour, I spent 5 hours, to make it look as cool as Decroded’s edit was! It was only then that I realized that you actually need some patience for pixel art. I think that's a tendency for many beginner artists, to not take enough time with their art, same as I did in the beginning.
Now, I couldn't really spend a lot of time redoing all the art I had already made for There Was a Caveman, so I released it mostly as-is. But on my next game, Moustache Mountain, I spent a lot more time on the art, and the results ended up way better.
Q: Wow! Yeah, I can see how that was a wake-up call. And it's really obvious you took the advice to heart - Moustache Mountain is very hi-res, and compared to There Was A Caveman's muddy color palettes it's a lot brighter looking.
A: Thanks! Yeah, it really was a turning point for me, haha! I can’t recall any moment after that where I made such a drastic improvement. After that it was mostly just pure practice.
Dragon’s Keep (2019), watch the WIP gif too!
Q: Something interesting, in my opinion, is that from the very start you’ve been making functional pixel art meant to be used in video games, but I think on PixelJoint, you're probably best known for massive, painterly pieces like Knight of the Blossoms and Dragon's Keep. Has working on games influenced how you approach making those massive PA pieces? For instance, I was watching your progress video for Blood Moon and was struck by how you started out doing a mockup with a tiled floor... and then there's this visible pause in the video where you can practically hear you go "nah, this looks better without the tiles," and hide that layer, and the piece looks so much better for it!
A: Making games has influenced me to try to make backgrounds more readable and things like that. For this particular piece, it was originally meant to be a mockup, but sometime into the art, I couldn't make it work, and simply abandoned the mockup idea, and made it into a simple landscape, haha. I guess that's what sometimes happens when you choose something too challenging for yourself. I remember struggling a lot to make the background colours work well, and I couldn't figure out how to make the foreground stand out enough. I guess there’s something to learn from that: when something just doesn't work, maybe sometimes it's better to leave it aside, haha.
Q: The other thing I love about that video is that we can see the patented Amatnieks cloud-making technique, which is so fun and so intuitive and yet I never once thought of it before I started really looking into your stuff!
A: Haha, it's a very quick way how to go about it! I’m a firm believer in “work smarter not harder.” I try to think of all kinds of ways to minimize the time I have to spend on my pieces, even though it kind of negates what I said earlier about needing to have more patience. While that’s true, it’s also true that efficiency is very important, and if it's possible to cut corners somewhere, why not do it?
Q: Did you figure those techniques out on your own? You post a lot of tutorials on your Patreon page, and I’m struck by how you obviously have a really good handle on how to do stuff that after a decade of doing pixel art I struggle to explain.
A: Yeah, it's just how I've learned to do it. To be honest, I have a hard time of explaining things like that, too. I’m sure a lot of other people have similar techniques or even the same ones, as I find they really do come pretty naturally usually: most of these techniques just come intuitively and I can't put it in words. There are just certain ways each of us thinks and that probably dictates how each of us go about making our art.
I just try to save time where I think it's not so important, and where I think people might not notice it. And that probably just turns into those little techniques. For instance, to save time, I only use one pixel of anti-aliasing instead of anti-aliasing things how it’s meant to be done. I find for most people it does the job anyway, and it takes a lot less time on my part, which just ends up looking like specific style probably.
Q: So, moving on. You've done a bunch of solo projects, but how did you get involved with Tiny Thor?
A: Well, Steffen(DerNachBar) from Asylum Square contacted me as they were looking for some new artists to work on the game, and I was free at that time. The game looked really good with art made by the great Henk Nieborg, so I figured it'd be really cool to try to see if I could make it work, and it felt like I would probably enjoy working on the game!
I had to do a small test task, making a mockup to see if I could match up well enough with the existing art. And it seemed to go over well enough, because the guys liked it enough to take me on! Although we’ve kind of reworked some things, but that's mostly because the game's resolution has increased almost to double the size for gameplay reasons, so a lot of the older pixel art didn't work anymore.
Q: One thing that stands out to me about your Tiny Thor stuff relative to your solo projects, from There Was a Caveman to the present, is that the perspective is different! The floor is visible, instead of everything being visible from head-on.
A: Yes! That seems to be Henk’s signature style, and it’s prominent in Tiny Thor too. It's a bit of a challenge to work on, because you can actually see the top of the floor, the bottom of the ceiling and the sides of the walls, so it's a bit strange in that way, but I think it certainly makes for more interesting tilesets.
Q: I figured it was a gameplay thing, because the player character's weapon bounces off walls.
A: I’m not sure if that was the original reasoning behind doing it that way, but it might be! You'd have to ask the guys that, haha!
Q: Who are the guys, by the way? I remember you mentioning when you posted those Tiny Thor assets that Henk was responsible for the character graphics; who does what?
A: Well, Henk is currently not working on the game anymore, as he had to quit to pursue work on his own game, Battle Axe, though a lot of the game art and designs are still Henk’s, including some environments, characters, and enemies. I mostly work on the environment art. Currently, on character stuff and animations we have is Andrew Bado, or DarkfalzX as he's known on Pixeljoint. He's doing a kickass job at it too. Steffen, is the art director for Tiny Thor; he’s the one that manages us all, so everything fits together.
Q: Was it a jolt going from one-man projects to working with a big team, especially with some big names in the field?
A: It hasn't been a problem, really. The guys are all a joy to work with. Everyone communicates well, and it's great, really. Also, Tiny Thor isn’t my first freelance project. I have worked on multiple other projects beforehand, so in that sense I had some experience already, too… although none of those were projects where I’ve been so involved, or working with such a large team.
Q: Is there anything you've done on those earlier freelance projects that you're really proud of?
A: I’ve mostly done smaller things for most of the other projects. Some backgrounds here and there, some characters, some icons, etc. If I had to pick one thing it'd probably be the game Coromon. I did quite a few battle backgrounds for it and I’m still pretty fond of how they look. A few of my favourites are posted on my PixelJoint gallery, too: they’re a much different style than I usually do, but it's fun. Although, I’m not sure how many of the backgrounds will end up being in the final game, as it’s still in development and I worked on it a few years ago.
Q: Wowow! These look gorgeous - and in a very different way from Tiny Thor, or your personal work – which is distinct from your work on a game like Island, too. Do you feel like you have a style that you deliberately tweak from project to project?
A: Thanks! Usually it only happens when the game has a particular style it's going for, so I kind of have to also try to fit into that. Sometimes though when I’m given more freedom, or the game art does not have any distinct set style yet, I usually do what my style is at that point. I find over time my art changes a little in all kinds of small ways, based on my current skill, mood etc. But that's how it probably is with most artists, too.
I think it's very important for an artist to be able to fit into all kinds of art styles and be versatile, if you want to do freelance work, and work on all kinds of projects. During my first years, I tried all kinds of styles: outlines, no outlines, AA, no AA, messy, clean, etc. So maybe it's a little easier to fit into various styles. But it's still quite challenging to switch it like that, as we all have our own little quirks in the art that we make.
Cemetery of the Forgotten, inspired by Dark Souls
Q: So now that you're a successful freelancer, do you think you'll ever go back to solo projects? I've always dug that set of mockups you've posted on PJ for a sort of gloomy, Ghosts'n'Goblins/Dark Souls looking game - any chance of that becoming a real game?
A: Yep! After finishing up on Tiny Thor, my current plan is to stop freelancing for a while and work a little more on my own personal projects, maybe picking up a smaller commission here and there. Or if something super awesome comes along, I might do that. But at this point, I want to focus a bit more on my own personal things after Tiny Thor… including maybe making a game based on these dark fantasy mockups I've been doing. I feel like at this point I have a lot more skill both in gamedev and in pixel art and I could create something cool. So maybe it's finally worth it to put more effort into it.
Q: (cough cough)
A: Haha, unfortunately I don't see that one becoming a thing… But! I can't say it's not possible.
Q: Are there any lessons you've taken to heart from your earlier solo work?
A: The biggest thing, which I've kinda known ever since I released my first game, is to not spend too much time and effort on first projects. I find it’s much safer and easier, to not go all out at first and try to create your own version of Stardew Valley - not that that doesn't work sometimes - and instead focus on a lot of smaller projects, simply for learning’s sake. I think there's a very high chance that first projects will take way longer than you think, and they will probably end up a lot worse than you imagined them. So it's better to just get them out of the way, without that much of a worry, and then later with more experience and more skill work on that dream project that you've always wanted to make.
Maybe, just maybe I think I’m finally ready to tackle my own?!
Q: You have a dream project in mind?
A: Um… I’m not actually sure, haha. I have too many ideas. :D We'll see with time, I guess. I do have something in mind, but you know how it is, in your head it feels like it might be a good idea, but when you start prototyping it, it ends up… not that. So I can't say for sure.
From an aamatniekss asset pack
Q: Is it in line with the kind of stuff you've been posting in your spare time? That sort of high-fantasy, quasi-medieval, richly detailed kind of work?
A: Yes, you could say that! But as I said, it's only a dream for now. I’m not entirely sure if I want to dedicate that huge amount of time on a single project yet, but time will tell.
Q: Well, I’m excited to see it, whenever it becomes a thing! Enough about you though. Are there any artists, pixel or otherwise, who you really admire, or seek to emulate in your work?
A: I can't really say if there’s anyone who’s influenced me a lot, outside of that particular occasion with Decroded I mentioned. But I enjoy a lot of pixel artists’ work. Some of my favourite pixel artists are Cyangmou, Fool, Deceiver, Andylittle and Snake. I’m sure in my own works in some ways have influences from all of them. As for artists outside of pixel art, I find it changes a lot, based on who I’ve discovered recently. Currently I enjoy the works of Ya Lun quite a lot!
Q: Do you have any hobbies outside of pixel art?
A: I'd say my biggest hobby is probably fishing. And it's been the most consistent thing I do since like the age of 12 or so. Which is also a little funny, because I don't really enjoy eating fish, so I release most of what I catch. I also do quite a lot of gaming. And at this point I'd say that's about it.
I tried a lot more things in my teenage years, like BMX, parkour, street workout and other things like that. But now I’ve found my niche for the most part, and I enjoy the things I do. In the future I want to try to get into woodworking though, but it has its challenges for me currently, namely that I don't have a good place to do it yet. But hopefully, I can figure something out. :)
Q: Knowing you did parkour when you were younger puts Moustache Mountain in a whole new light!
A: Haha, I guess it does make some sense, when you think about it!
Q: So since it's the end of the year, let me ask: do you have any pixel art resolutions for 2021?
A: Hmm, I actually haven't thought about it at all. But I don't think I've ever had any New Year’s resolutions, so I’m consistent there, too, haha. I definitely want to improve my anatomy and animation skills, I feel like I’m lacking the most there, so if anything that might have to be my first New Year’s resolution!
Q: Man, at the rate you've been going, if you put the same amount of effort into anatomy as you have with improving everything else about your art over the years, you'll be UNSTOPPABLE by 2022.
A: Haha, here's hoping. I can only wish, but I find it a lot harder than other things, hopefully with some practice it becomes easier!
Great interview! Congrats to Aamatniekss and Quiara!