We’ve all seen video-game sprite art before, but these five artists on Etsy.com depict their favorite 8-bit characters in different ways. One specializes in bead work, another prefers cross-stitch, a Nintendo lover brings his favorite games to life through paint, a Mega Man devotee gives plain pixels a little lift, and a Minecraft fan turns the 2D into the 3D.
GamesBeat spoke with the artists to learn more about how pixels on a screen can evolve into so much more — and what it takes to transform these digital images into two-sided crafts and fully embodied creations. The process is different for every style, but the motivation behind them is the same: to turn a love of video games into something tangible.
Bead Sprites: 8BitNerd’s shop
Tyler Wynne (“8BitNerd” on Etsy) re-creates the sprites from popular Nintendo series like The Legend of Zelda and Pokémon (the games he grew up on) as 2D bead work — a good choice for someone who, like Wynne, “can’t draw or paint to save my life.” He typically makes two a day.
“It started out for fun and just because I always wanted things in my room or kitchen that were related to video games,” he said.
To make the bead sprites, Wynne first figures out what character he wants to make and how many pegboards he needs. He also decides what music he wants to listen to while doing it, which helps him stay focused.
“I first do the outline of the piece; then I work my way through each color, one at a time,” he said. “I find it’s easier to stay on track that way. Once I have the piece all laid out on the board, I use two pieces of wax paper. I don’t use the ‘Perler’ [ironing] paper just because I don’t think the beads melt right when using it. I generally iron the first side of the sprite longer than the other. This is so the back will be nice and reinforced, so I don’t have to worry about the piece breaking in half. I do the front for about half the time, so I can keep the holes on the sprite visible. I think when you melt the holes of the beads completely closed, it loses the 8-bit effect.”
He adds, “When I take off the wax paper, I have to do it very carefully so I don’t pull any unmelted beads out of place and don’t leave any trace of the paper on the finished sprite. Also, when using the beads, the sprites tend to start to flex up when they are drying, so I always put something on top to keep it flat.”
According to Wynne, it doesn’t matter which character you choose. “A video game character from, say, Super Nintendo would be a little easier to do than one from PlayStation 3,” he said. “But every character can be done. Some may just take more time than others.”
That doesn’t mean disasters don’t happen. Lugia from Pokémon (pictured left) was a recent custom order that almost ended in pieces. “After about two hours of working on the thing, I accidentally hit the board when I was reaching for my monster, and the entire piece exploded!” said Wynne. “But Lugia was finally finished, and the customer loved it!
“I think the more passionate you are about the character you are doing, the better it comes out.”
Favorite games: Resident Evil 2, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Comix Zone, Team Fortress 2, and UFC Undisputed 3
Cross-stitch Sprites: Pandakabobs’ shop
Molly Prower (“pandakabobs” on Etsy) likes to “sew retro,” as the slogan of her shop reads. She combines video games, which she’s been playing her whole life, with a skill her grandmother taught her: cross-stitch.
“It’s great because it’s a pretty portable hobby, so I can take it anywhere,” she said. “I find it pretty meditative in its own way as well.”
Her shop features characters from Metroid, Super Mario Bros., and even Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, among others. Prower uses a needle and thread (“or floss — I don’t know what the technical term for that is”), a sewing circle, an Aida (a cloth woven to form a grid of holes), and a laptop to make the designs.
“The sprites are usually screenshots taken from different sources online” — like her favorite, spriters-resource.com — “pulled into Photoshop, and then just zoomed in on so I can see the individual pixels,” she said. “Then it’s just [about] picking colors out — I usually eyeball them since normal cross-stitch patterns come with a guide of which colors to use — and sewing. A lot of sewing. It’s very monotonous and time-consuming — a 16-by-24 pixel sprite can take anywhere from two to four hours to make — and takes a lot of patience. But it’s just like regular cross-stitching: counting how many squares to stitch and switching up colors. Anyone can do it, and there are a lot of tutorials online for people who would want to learn how.
“Once I have an Aida cloth pretty much filled with sprites, I paint the back of the stitched areas with glue. I’ve used a couple of different brands, but I always use some kind of heavy-duty waterproof glue. I let that dry and then very carefully cut each one out. If it’s just a patch, I’m done there. But if it’s another item like a pin or a keychain, there’s a bit more assembly involved. I usually sew felt backs on to those items so that they look a bit more finished. And then I take some painkillers for all the hand cramps and arthritis.”
But not every sprite looks good offscreen, says Prower, since she takes them out of the game and blows them up to two or three times their size. “Genesis games are like that,” she said. “I did a Tails that I really don’t like because it just looks blurry at the stitched size. Pokémon sprites can also look really funny when they’re enlarged. Some other sprites don’t look so swell when they’re taken out of their natural game setting, too — for example, Arthur from Ghosts ‘n Goblins. I want to sew that guy so bad, but every time I pull the sprite up and look at it alone, it just doesn’t look as interesting to me.”
What Prower fills her inventory with depends on how much “time it takes to make the sprites and what’s going to sell.” Bigger sprites take longer, so she mostly sticks to the classics and popular characters like Sonic and Mario instead of trying to predict what people want. But that doesn’t stop her from creating what she loves, too.
“I think I’m actually sewing my first game-related sprite for myself now: one of the bosses from the NES game The Guardian Legend,” she said. “That was — is — my favorite game on the NES. It needs to be rereleased, because my cartridge is broken, and it doesn’t play the background music on key. My next pieces are going to be from a DS game that I really enjoyed.”
Favorite games: The Guardian Legend, Final Fantasy VII, Dr. Mario, The World Ends With You, Rhythm Heaven, Puzzle Fighter, and Fallout 3
Sprite Paintings and Mosaics: SaturnValleyArt’s shop
Matt Cleary (“SaturnValleyArt” on Etsy) sells a little bit of everything in his shop, including sprites like Wynne’s and mosaics formed from jewelry beads. But he also takes 8-bit characters and paints them on wooden wall hangings and plaques — like the Lemmings piece pictured at the top of this article.
He’s a big Nintendo fan, and his work speaks for itself. “I’m very nostalgic,” said Cleary. “I think we all are. And Nintendo was huge when I was a kid. The Power Glove was the epitome of cool, although now we all realize it was an absolute piece of garbage. All of the characters I’ve chosen to make so far were from some of my favorite games — the ones I played the most. [Mario, Zelda, and Mega Man] are obviously classics among Nintendo gamers. I loved those games and others, and I love re-creating them.”
He didn’t always make these designs the same way. “I started with sanding down and painting wooden jewelry beads and then gluing them to a backdrop,” said Cleary. “Each bead represented one pixel in a Nintendo sprite, so it was a very time-consuming process. Now, I mostly just create a stencil on my computer and use it to paint the sprites layer by layer onto a wooden board, shelf, clock, etc.”
In the future, Cleary wants to make art based on Double Dragon, Paper Boy, Ice Hockey, and StarTropics, but he’s set his goals even higher. “Eventually, I’d like to build my own house to look exactly like the ones in Paperboy and have random strangers mowing my lawn and unicycling down my sidewalk.”
Favorite games: Super Mario Bros. 3, Tecmo Super Bowl, StarTropics, The Legend of Zelda, Earthbound, Maniac Mansion, Punch-Out!!, and Mario Kart
Read on for Mega Man and Minecraft. …
Sprite Papercrafts: TheToaster’s shop
Megan Hughes (“TheToaster” on Etsy) primarily sells Mega Man papercrafts: cutouts of the Blue Bomber himself, Jewel Man, Galaxy Man, Splash Woman (pictured right), and others. She learned how to create this type of art in her college life-drawing class, but her work gradually evolved into more figurative illustrations. Two years ago, they turned into sprites when her fiancé bought Mega Man for their Xbox.
“Working with sprites is great because they have very clear and straightforward designs,” said Hughes. “I can be creative with the paper and textures I use as well as their construction itself, but Mega Man will always be Mega Man, no matter how he is put together.”
Hughes says the cutouts in her shop now are good sellers, and she’s also working on Mario and The Legend of Zelda papercrafts per a friend’s request.
“My materials are pretty simple: paper, glue, X-Acto knife, and cutting mat,” she said. “I start by sketching out the character on a piece of graph paper, and from there, I decide how to separate the body into different layers. I try to give these flat characters a bit of dimension by putting different parts — like Mega Man’s head, for example — on a separate layer than the rest of the body. This can get quite complex for some of the bosses because there are so many parts to their design!”
Her interest in the artistic side of video games goes deeper than making papercrafts. “My fiancé is a computer programmer, and we have been talking about making our own game for quite a while now,” she said. “We both graduated from CalArts [California Institute of the Arts] as animation majors, and we’ve done a few animation tests that merged his character designs with my cutouts. This project has been shelved for a while now because we don’t really have the time and money to dedicate to it, but it’s always been something we’ve wanted to do.”
Favorite game: Cave Story
3D Sprite Creations: BraveDeity’s shop
Ashley Godbold (“BraveDeity” on Etsy) is all about Minecraft. Her “Minecraft menagerie and Perler Bead creations” are a result of a bout of insomnia she experienced in early summer.
“I started out by making a few 2D things for my husband: Gomez from Fez and an action pose of Mega Man X,” she said. “However, I found 2D to be kind of boring and not challenging. My first 3D creations were a Super Meat Boy and a Bandage Girl. When I snapped all the pieces together, it was like I had just made my own Legos, and I was instantly hooked on making 3D projects.”
Godbold starts by drawing the pattern on 5-mm graph paper. Since she doesn’t use any glue, visualizing how the pieces will fit together takes time, particularly with the more complex objects. “But that’s the part that I enjoy most — trying to figure out how to make a 2D image wrap around in 3D space and snap together perfectly,” she said.
“When working with Perler Beads, you lay the beads on a pegboard to keep them lined up. I use clear, plastic pegboards so I can lay them on top of the pattern. Since I use 5-mm graph paper, it is a perfect match in size, so it makes it pretty easy to lay the beads out and ‘mass-produce’ the projects. After I have placed all the beads in the correct pattern, I have to iron them so that they melt together into flat sheets.
The last part of the process — her favorite part, as mentioned above — is one she refers to as “Perler surgery.” “I feel like I’m performing surgery on my little figures,” she said. “Sometimes I make mistakes in the initial design and have to cut little pieces off with an X-Acto knife or add beads to places using a super tiny iron.”
Minecraft works well for the 3D figures, says Godbold, because of the “boxy design.” Her Minecraft light-up pumpkins are strong sellers, and she made a Creeper out of wooden blocks for her husband’s desk (pictured left). Other projects are a little tougher. “There is a limitation to the beads, especially since I refuse to use glue,” she said. “So not all of the games I like would translate well to bead work.” Right now, she’s creating the Ender Dragon from Minecraft (her “masterpiece,” she jokes), which will extend 5 feet with a 5-foot wingspan when finished.
“I’ve bought every black Perler Bead within a 10-mile radius of my house trying to finish this guy,” she says.
Godbold works almost exclusively with Perler Beads, but she’s also been importing Nabbi and Hama Beads to expand her pallet. “Hama makes these tiny beads that are really cute to work with, but they are only available to purchase overseas and can be expensive to ship,” she said.
It sounds like a lot of work, but Godbold wants to continue to refine her creations and techniques. “I’m thinking I may have to break down and start using glue so that I can make more curved figures,” she said. “I’m also considering maybe making larger scale projects so that I can still not use glue and achieve a rounded look. … Now that I’m actually sleeping, I don’t have as much time to work on new projects as I’d like.”
Favorite games: Minecraft, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2, The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap, Ghost Trick, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Portal 2, Deadly Premonition, and Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up or Slip Out