Pixel Artist - a3um


I'm sure everyone has been expecting this interview to happen... He is Marat Khazarzhan, but we know him by the name a3um.


The guy who has been dominating PJ's top 10 awards and weekly challenges for well over a year. You wouldn't think we have to introduce him but there's quite a lot to tell about him. He's from Krasnoyarsk, Russian Federation, one of the biggest cities in Siberia. He's 27, graduated from Siberian State Aerospace University as an Information SecurityS pecialist. Worked as a J2ME programmer followed by Android for 3 years. He quit his last job recently and is now spending his time (and money) for in-depth learning of Android platform, while making a small project.

If you're wondering where his handle came from, as I did, it was just from the name of a shop called "Atrium". Well, that's totally credible as we had a mall in Istanbul by the same name.

But the interesting part comes next; when he was asked if he had any hobbies other than pixel art he replied: "My hobbies are programming, game design, music (I play guitar occasionally, and I have a drum kit at my place), anime and board games I like scootering, roller skating, unicycling and enjoy walking, jogging and making pull ups in the local park. I have a cat and it's a really weird, 'cause It doesn't "meow" at all. I used to like MMORPGs but I have no time for it now, so maybe when I'm old  "

Wow... That's quite a lot now... Let's dig that up a bit, shall we?

Geci - OK, First thing's first; Unicycling? WTF?

a3um - Just Google it Seriously, why not? It's fun to see the reaction of the people on the street. It's pretty challenging to learn, because everyone's first reaction is like: "WTF?! It impossible! I thought only circus performers could do that!". As far as I know, there are only three unicyclers here, including myself and my friend, so I feel myself unique, kind of. I also have kick scooter and roller skates. I wonder if I'll ever get myself a bicycle

Geci - You really are unique. With so many hobbies, I wonder how you find the time for pixel art! When & how did you begin pixelling? And how did you discover Pixeljoint.com?

a3um - I've been interested in game graphics design since my last couple of years at school I guess. At the time I tried make some simple games (I was attending programming courses) and graphics for them. When I tried Photoshop for the first time, I got really frustrated - I just couldn't get enough control over the image with just a mouse (haven't got a tablet at the time) and all those fancy tools and filters. Also I couldn't spent a lot of time to draw since I shared a PC with my brother. I became really interested in PA later when I started playing Ragnarok Online - the sprite artwork there is really amazing and I was impressed that you can make such a lovely gfx in 2D (I'm not really in 3D, you know). Then I discovered this whole PA thing and PJ (just by googling). I was shocked that you can draw what you want with just a mouse and MS Paint. When I was about to graduate from uni, I was told that a local company was looking for programmers to make games for mobile phones (J2ME). I thought - why not? - and got the job. As you might guess, PA skills are essential with such a tiny screen sizes. Honestly speaking, the level of graphics was weak compared to the great sprites and mockups in PJ's Hall of Fame. And I felt like I can do better so I registered at PJ and began pixelling.

Geci - Great. Do you do pixel professionally? Have you made any games or any other production using pixel art?

a3um - Yes, I do pixel professionally, yet no games, regrettably. I made some freelance illustrations for games, though. For the last two years I've been working as a 2D artist in the company where I started as a programmer. (Gecimen's note; he has made some awesome sprites for our game, as well).

Geci - Speaking of games, what's your favorite computer game/genre?

a3um -  I'm gonna be short here: The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind/RPG.

Geci - That's an answer I was expecting. Which program(s) do you use for pixel art? What's your technique while doing pixel art? How do you create your color palettes?

a3um - I use GraphicsGale - decent palette management, hotkeys, great for animation, and... it has color picker on the right mouse click! The only letdown is transparency. 

About my technique, although I usually start with a messy doodle, I prefer to define shapes with clusters first - the whole process is somewhat similar to sculpting. I have never made the clean lineart As for colors, I start with defining the light source and it's color, followed by the mid tones - this defines the mood. Then I choose the colors for shades. Since I have no academic background - only what I've read in various articles, guides and what I've seen in other works - most of my choices are based on intuition.

Geci - You're well known for your beautiful and original scenes and portraits. What's your motivation when creating them?

a3um - Not sure about the portraits, but really, I haven't got any particular source of motivation, I just like to draw things. Sometimes I start to doodle for another challenge and think like - "oh god, where does my muse go?" - and after some time, ideas start to pop out of my head. Sometimes I got inspired by music or emotions - most of them are dark as you might guess. But I'm not a gloomy person!

Geci - Really? How does a "normal" person come up with the piece "Meeting the Dawn"?

a3um - As all "normal" people, sometimes I feel sadness, frustration, disappointment and other negative emotions. Pixel art is a way to express and get rid of them - not hold them inside.

Geci - That's some great source of motivation though, to pour all your frustration into pixel art. How on earth do you do these large and detailed pieces without using a tablet, by the way?

a3um - I have a good mouse, big mouse mat and... color picker on the right mouse click Seriously, I just got used to it for the past 4 years.

Geci - I still don't get it... I know for a fact that you're also a very strong sprite animator. Why don't you add sprite animations to your PJ gallery?

a3um - Honestly, I don't feel myself comfortable with sprites and animations yet. More practice needed. And it's a pity I have no time when animation weeklies appear

Geci - Now let's analyze some of your pieces. Your latest top 10 blaster, "Basilisk Rider" is made of sharper clusters and is somewhat different in style when compared to your older pieces. What brought this change?

a3um - Change is a good thing. I'm still exploring different PA techniques and approaches to my pieces because I don't consider myself the type of a guy who just says "this is going to be my style!" and stops learning something new. I want to be as versatile as possible

I'm far from being an expert in that matter, but in my opinion, cluster technique makes great use of the pixel art basics: precise pixel placement and color usage. Even simply rendered images can be crisp and detailed because of nicely shaped forms and properly chosen colors. As you can see in this piece, I didn't bother myself  - in fact, I was too tired - to render the city on the background properly I just thought that defining rooftops with brighter trapezium shapes is enough to persuade the viewer's brain that there is a town behind. I believe you can easily create any texture you want with minimal color usage just by using proper shapes and that's what brought me to learn this technique.

Geci - You're very humble Apparent in this piece as well, you always use a few highly saturated colors next to a lot of desaturated ones. What is the logic behind this?

a3um - First of all, I prefer desaturated colors over saturated ones because they feel more real. In a way this is my problem  I usually start works in greyscale (excluding predefined palette challenges) I then add colors gradually. Since my eyes get used to greys pretty quickly, I often add less saturation than needed. In most cases, this results in boring and dull colors. Then I choose the parts of the piece which need some kind of an accent and force myself to make them as saturated as possible. Such approach helps me balance the palette's saturation because I can see the difference between "saturated" and "what-I-thought-was-saturated". For example, in this piece, I chose a basilisk's head to be an accent point and when I made the crest bright red I realized how dull other colors are. So, that's how I usually end up with a few saturated accents, while the rest of the piece remains desaturated. 

Geci - For me, one of the most effective and original characteristics of your pieces is combining distinct colors with minimal dithering. How did you discover this technique?

a3um - It comes naturally. When I started practicing sprites, I learned that dithering is something to be avoided. I've been studying lots of sprites by cure, llshadow, ahruon, Delicious, Indigo, cocefi, and other great spriters. And after that I realized the importance of clusters and their proper use.

Geci - "Stalker" is my favorite piece of yours. How did you come up with such a subject and composition? The atmosphere reminds me of an adventure game called Beneath a Steel Sky. Your color choice seems to create a very nostalgic atmosphere, whereas the piece is futuristic by design. Where did you get the inspiration for the visual design of the tunnel? After all, the piece is more than just about jealousy. How did the guy end up holding a plasma pistol?

a3um - By chance, honestly. The challenge was at a time when I was building and painting my Warhammer 40k Space Marine army. When I saw that green, my first thought was - guess what? it has to be Plasma Pistol! So, I came up with a futuristic setting around that plasma pistol. The characters are members of anti-government party. The guy and the girl are traitors - they are trying to escape through the tunnels with secret documents containing the names of spies working undercover in the government. The girl toyed with the main hero and convinced him to steal the documents so they could sell them along with the whereabouts of the rebel's base and live somewhere together. After he got them, she promised to meet him the next day. The main hero felt something strange in her attitude and decided to tail her...

The tunnel design is inspired be the works of H.R. Giger.

Geci - Luckily we can see your progress over years from your gallery. Do you ever look back on your older pieces? How has your approach to PA change over the years? How did you come to try larger/more complicated pieces?

a3um - Answering your first question - I do, but I can't look at them for too long 'cause I can see tons of flaws like banding, bad AA, messy parts and other newbie mistakes I don't think my approach has changed that much. Along with progress, I find new things to pay attention to. I try to avoid dithering; at least, I use it much less than I did in the past. Also, I pay more attention to the colors (especially saturation) and I don't restrict myself that much in color count. My first piece was quite big Actually, it's quite natural if you want to put more details into your piece. And since I developed patience over the years while working with pixels, I gradually started work with a larger canvas sizes. If you start big when you don't have patience, you'll end up with a half-assed piece like my piece, "The End?"

Geci - Hey I loved "The End?". Ok, so, are you inspired by any other pixel artists? If so, who are your favorite pixel artists?

a3um - Indeed. When it comes to character design, I really love big brother's works; I enjoy works of llshadow and his use of washed out tones; cure for his contrast and shapes; ahruon for his animations, details and colors; Fool's and Henk Neiborg's environments are just an eye candy and pure inspiration; I like scruffs, junkboy and vierbit mockups;  jalonso and zi's isometric scenes; and, of course, arachne's creepy stuff.

Geci - Great artists, indeed. Do you have any inspirations outside pixel art?

a3um - Lots of Magic: the Gathering illustrators. I used to play a lot and really enjoyed the artwork of John Avon, Rob Alexander, and Kev Walker. And, of course, Ivan Aivazovsky for his absolutely gorgeous sea scenes.

Geci - Do you use any art mediums other than pixel art yourself?

a3um - Just a little vector for my personal needs. I also enjoy model painting of my Warhammer 40k army

Geci - Ok, this will sound somewhat cliché, but it'll be insightful for the rest of us: what do you think your weakest side is when pixelling?

a3um - I guess it's basics like anatomy, perspective and composition. At least, I don't feel myself confident enough

Geci – I wouldn't say so, but we all have space to develop. Well, do you have any advice for new pixel artists? What type of pieces would you recommend them to start with?

a3um - Never go for large canvases! You can practice all the basics on a small canvas. Always use indexed palettes and a graphics tool with decent palette management - it will make your experiments with colors easy and painless. And for God's sake, please don't use MSPaint (at least on winXP)! It won't make you look cool, but masochistic.

Geci - I'll take that advice as well Let's get out of pixel art for the last question. I'm also a board game geek myself. What are your favorite board games? Mine is Puerto Rico...

a3um - I like Mansion of Madness, because one of my friends is an ace villain Also among my favorites: Arkham Horror with all the expansions, Galaxy Trucker, Agricola, Smallworld, and Battlestar Galactica. I used to play Magic: the Gathering a lot, but not anymore.

Geci - Thanks, a3um!

Posted by jalonso @ 11/1/2013 09:58  |    29


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rklesmit (Level 5 Captain) @ 1/21/2015 14:13

great article!

CraftyPixeI (Level 1 Intern) @ 5/27/2014 18:45

- Gratz! :), great pixel art. -

AirStyle (Level 6 SWAT) @ 4/13/2014 15:43

I'm so glad this interview came out. I've been inspired to keep pixelling of this. Also, I finally know how to pronounce his name! I thought it was like 1337 or something: "ayum".

Lyud (Level 2 Dealer) @ 2/15/2014 16:31


StarQueen (Level 1 Depressed) @ 11/15/2013 15:58

 ooh , i love this man.

ParkerBabyDiaperCompany (Level 2 King Checker) @ 11/7/2013 16:39

I have noticed his art; he has become one of my favorites on the site. Pleasure to read the interview.

Mhoffman (Level 1 Rookie) @ 11/5/2013 10:28

 a3um fantastic !

sjhwi1a (Level 4 Mercenary) @ 11/4/2013 13:32

Хорошее интервью. Всегда приятно почитать про соотечественника. Я получал такое же образование и тоже не работаю по специальности. Кстати, там опечатка ("Information SecurityS pecialist").

Mandrill (Level 9 T-rex) @ 11/4/2013 06:55

Such an outstanding pixel artist. Highly interesting stuff. :)

Gecimen (Level 11 Sphinx) @ 11/4/2013 02:20

Definitely. Blessing and curse of mankind.

a3um (Level 4 Shichikyu) @ 11/3/2013 17:00

 Sleep I guess:)

Emperor_Pixel (Level 2 Flatfoot) @ 11/3/2013 11:30

 Dude deserves it. Look at the clusters. LOOK AT THEM!

ellie-is (Level 8 Partner) @ 11/3/2013 05:17

 Mr. A3um is fantastic.

Pandora'sSecret (Level 4 Murderer) @ 11/3/2013 03:30

Really nice interview, got to know both the person as the artist.

torguen (Level 2 Flatfoot) @ 11/3/2013 02:32

 Siempre se aprende algo de estas entrevistas, gracias!.


You always learn something from these interviews, thanks!.

sulamith (Level 3 Enforcer) @ 11/3/2013 02:14

 Haha, I wasn't expecting to hear that. And what's the most time-consuming thing then? :)

a3um (Level 4 Shichikyu) @ 11/2/2013 16:31

 Thanks guys, and many thanks to Gecimen for this interview :)

@sulamith - I bought it on the internet. (we don't have any in local shops). As for the free time, it's not a problem if you happen to not have any relationships (the second most time consuming thing in the world) 

philippejugnet (Level 6 Hitman) @ 11/2/2013 15:25

 I LOVE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

sulamith (Level 3 Enforcer) @ 11/2/2013 15:18

Thanks for the interview! I enjoyed it much.

A3um, where did you get your unicycle? 

And where do you get free time for all those hobbies? )

EdJr (Level 9 Nidan) @ 11/2/2013 08:46

I'd love to see the "piece-sculpting" process in detail, but the WIPs themselves show such a simplicity that there's a lot to learn just from looking at them. Great interview!

Muxaun (Level 4 Deputy) @ 11/2/2013 02:49

I have been waiting for this interview. 

reis (Level 6 Serial Killer) @ 11/1/2013 20:00


Mr.Fahrenheit (Level 6 Serial Killer) @ 11/1/2013 18:12

 Yay A3um! 

skittle (Level 9 Nidan) @ 11/1/2013 18:02

 Really good interview for a really good artist.

surt (Level 11 Godfather) @ 11/1/2013 15:43


dumbo (Level 4 Mercenary) @ 11/1/2013 15:42

I love seeing these!

Hapiel (Level 11 Pixellite) @ 11/1/2013 14:52

Awesome :). Great job Gecimen and a well deserved feature a3um!

ZacRay (Level 1 Gangster) @ 11/1/2013 12:58

Another great interview with another great artist. This is an excellent Pixeljoint feature, hope no one is missing it!

Damian (Level 10 Operative) @ 11/1/2013 12:50

 I really enjoyed this read. Congrats A3um.

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