Even if you're by no means a graphic artist, there is simple pleasure to be found playing with a pixel editor. What could be more satisfying than clicking your pointer to create large chunks of color, usually within a very limited grid of potential locations and an equally limited palette? It's the opposite of having too much choice, and even when you choose not to click save, your time is never wasted. Of course, at the other end of the talent scale, if you are capable of putting two decent pixels together, there's never been a better time to be into pixel art. The world of new retro gaming is hugely popular and features modern interpretations of old 8-bit hardware limitations within the confines of modern hardware. It's also surprisingly hard to create pixel art with a fully fledged editor like Gimp, because not only does it offer too much choice, pesky modern conveniences like anti-aliases, feathering, and dithering can often mess up your perfect creations.

For this reason, rx is an excellent choice of pixel editor. Its user-interface takes a lot of inspiration from the Vim text editor, which also means it's not obvious how to quit or do much of anything until you've read the help section. You need to learn just a few keyboard shortcuts, all of which are very similar to Vim's. There are visual (selection), insert (editing) and command (:) modes, and navigation is via H, J, K, and L. You can still use the mouse to select colors and to draw on the canvas, and a big feature in rx is animating your creations by pressing Return to create a new frame. Your animation will start to play, allowing you to draw updates in real time, much like animation in Deluxe Paint on the old Amiga. It's a great way to mess around, and if you're an artist, produce brilliant results while writing your game code in Vim!

Project Website

Rx's command mode lets you do many non-obvious things, like set a grid, manipulate pixels, and add to the palette.

Character art


As brilliant as rx is for editing pixels (see above), if you're looking for the definitive low-fi tool for creating images, you can't beat getting back to the native 1980s experience. On the various Commodore home computers of the early-mid 1980s, the VIC-20, Commodore 64, PET, and humble Plus/4, images weren't always made from pixels directly, but out of text characters. Back in the day, this was both a good way to save RAM and an easy way to create pictures without an image editor. Commodore even printed its esoteric character glyphs on the front of its keyboards, which meant any user at any skill level could get involved. And lots of people did, making the resulting PETSCII images, as they became known, synonymous with home-grown, typically BASIC-written games and demos.

Decades later, getting access to PETSCII characters to be able to create images on modern hardware was challenging. However, a brilliant application called Petmate has finally made it easy. When launched, its color palette and design is utterly reminiscent of the Commodore 64 after a reset, complete with its character set on the right and an empty Commodore screen on the left. You can start drawing by simply selecting a color, then a character, and then by clicking and drawing in the main view. Unlike drawing with a regular brush, these characters work best when they're well placed alongside other specific characters, and this is where PETSCII requires more skill than creating similar images with a normal pixel editor. However, it does mean you will be able to export your images to work on real hardware, and while the default character set is directly from Commodore's ROM, you're free to change it, as well as the palette, to create your own set of new limitations.

Project Website

Export your Commodore 64 character images as a PRG executable, or assembler code to run on the real hardware.

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