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Inside the Pixelated World of Perler Bead Art

I started making beaded crafts as a hobby, but soon I was hooked on the retro aesthetic and the vibrant community that supports it.

by Kyle McCoy
May 23 2018, 12:00pm

Super Mario Bros - NES. Image: Kyle McCoy/Pixel Art Shop

Nostalgia, that sentimental longing to return to an idealized version of one's own past, will always have a broad appeal. I’m no exception, which is why when I first saw a simple portrait of Nintendo’s Mario made from multi-colored push pins, I was inspired to experiment with a similar medium—fuse beads.

Those colorful little pieces of plastic, which are made by companies like Perler, Hama, and Artkal, can be arranged into quirky designs on pegboards. The addictive activity combines the familiarity of a childhood craft with the retro-aesthetic of pixel art and has been the go-to medium for recreating original 8 and 16 bit video game sprites of yesteryear. At fan expos and conventions, you’ll see lots of Perler artists, plus there are vibrant communities online.

Ghostbusters Vs Stay-Puft. Image: Kyle McCoy/Pixel Art Shop

Like many crafters, I initially gave them a try because it seemed like an easy way to take a trip back in time and make some of my favorite retro-gaming scenes. The slow and meditative nature of the craft would become a nightly ritual as I meticulously placed thousands of beads—one at a time. What others might think of as tedious and boring, I found to be calming and rewarding. It's an extremely easy hobby for anyone to try out—it’s literally made for kids—but developing your own process can be surprisingly complex. Color choices, layout, and bead placement are all important factors in developing a style.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space Image: Image: Kyle McCoy/Pixel Art Shop

On top of that, you have to fuse the beads, normally with an iron. It is not the longest step but it leaves the longest impression. There's a variety of techniques to choose from including only melting the back of your beads to display the clean unironed side, using masking tape to secure larger pieces to prevent warping, and utilizing the negative space between the beads as a shading technique. And since Perler pieces aren't as fragile as a drawing or a painting, more display options are available. They can be turned into jewelry, keychains, magnets, coasters, and can be stacked, interlocked, or, if you're like me, often mounted to a canvas including multiple layers for for a three-dimensional depth effect.

Before long I moved away from video game sprites and began designing my own patterns, pixel by pixel, bringing them to life with Perler Beads and showcasing the variety of styles that are possible with this craft. I produced a series of portraits using elements of pointillism and optical color mixing to get the most photorealistic results possible. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I designed a style called Mini-Pix (my shorthand for minimalist pixel art) that reduces subjects down to their simplest form while keeping them instantly recognizable.

In between, classic comic covers, iconic movie scenes, cartoons, landscapes, memes, and fine art all got the pixel treatment on my work table. Since such works are easy to mimic, every original piece I released was also putting the pattern out there for other artists to learn from and create their own.

“Project Springfield.” Image: Kyle McCoy/Pixel Art Shop

When I completed my first major work—a 40 square foot recreation of Springfield from The Simpsons—I started to get a following. I decided that it was time to found a legitimate artistic business under a new name: Pixel Art Shop.

Perler Bead artwork was (and still is) a pretty niche market. People aren't expecting to see it in on display as a serious medium so it's always a welcome surprise to encounter, especially to those who remember engaging in the craft as children. When I started to be invited to galleries I was often told I was the first "Perler artist" to be featured in the venue.

At my first New York Comic Con, the attendees were often curious then overjoyed as they browsed my pieces. Some of them didn't realize the works were made with beads until they were able to get a closer look.

New York Comic Con 2015. Image: Kyle McCoy/Pixel Art Shop

They had questions about my design process, wanting to know how I iron and assemble large pieces, and asking how I turned a child's craft into a professional medium. The next step was obvious: Start a YouTube channel that would focus on tips, tricks, and techniques while giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of my shop. It was also a good excuse for me to ramble about all my favorite things in pop culture.

Three years later, the channel has surpassed a million views, my work has been featured in numerous publications, and I frequently design official projects for the Perler Bead company.

Carefully perfecting my pixelated patterns has also changed how I perceive the world around me. For instance, I’m fascinated by speculation that the universe is a hologram or simulation that can be deconstructed down to single pixels. Whether or not these theories are true, they appeal to me because that’s already how I look at the world. Gazing out my window, the outside view appears through the literal grid of the screen, so that all the shapes and colors are compartmentalized into a collection of tiny squares. This is a perspective I take with me when my attention returns to my work table.

Read More: There Is Growing Evidence that Our Universe Is a Giant Hologram

As I’m limited to have only so many possible bead arrangements in a given space, I must focus on how the human eye will interpret a certain composition of colored dots and find the best way to accurately portray my vision to the viewer. It’s incredibly satisfying for me to take our chaotic and cluttered world and simplify it down to clean and crisp lines in 58 vibrant colors.

Still, the greatest joy I have experienced on this journey is the overwhelming amount of encouragement and support from fellow artists and fans. Folks have been kind enough to send me messages thanking me for inspiring them and giving them the motivation to give the craft a try. Many send photos of pieces they’ve made based on my own which in turn inspires me back into what becomes a feedback loop of creativity.

One individual wrote saying that occupying himself with pixel art helped him through depression. Another told me how learning to recognize the bead hues from my patterns helped him with his color blindness. The value of such genuine and heartfelt praise is of a magnitude I never imagined possible those first few years when I was experimenting with a relaxing hobby intended for children.

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton. Image: Kyle McCoy/Pixel Art Shop

There is always so much more to any niche craft than meets the uninitiated eye. In an age where everyone has moments of yearning for the simpler mediums of the analog age, I suggest that Perler Beads are the ultimate way to fulfill your nostalgic needs and have something to show for it.

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