Adam Shub's handmade pixel paintings hark back to a simpler time

Philadelphia-based artist Adam Shub pays homage to the films and games of his youth in a series of meticulously planned pixel paintings. We caught up with him to hear how he paints them by hand.

When it comes to evoking nostalgia, few things send back people of a certain age more than the sight of pixellated game art. While not as smooth or sophisticated as today’s impressive graphics, pixel art has a charm of its own that captures the spirit of the 1980s and ’90s.

In his glorious handmade paintings, Adam Shub, aka Squarepainter, recalls his youth and the films and games that made it special. His artworks capture characters such as the Terminator, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (sing it!), and Mega Man, creating images from carefully organised paint grids.

The idea for painting pixels originally came to Adam during a foundation course assignment where he had to overlay a grid onto an image and paint the average of each colour in the square. “I’ve been an artist my whole life and dabbled in everything from illustration to street art growing up,” he says. “I went to SUNY New Paltz for Graphic Design as a viable career path into the arts but always wanted to create something more personal.”

Adam Shub's handmade pixel paintings hark back to a simpler time
Adam Shub's handmade pixel paintings hark back to a simpler time

Growing up in the 1980s at the height of Nintendo’s popularity, this assignment tapped into his interests as a gamer. “Gaming helped form my childhood identity,” he explains. I’m now 42 and still play everything from retro games to current-gen, so I’m absolutely a lifelong gamer. The pixelated graphics of the ’80s and ’90s are synonymous with our nostalgia of that era, and for me personally, it brings me back to that simpler time.”

Adam has been painting in this way ever since, and over the years, he’s refined his pixel painting technique. “I start with an idea I have from a game and mock it up in Photoshop to see the sizes of the character sprites and anything else I want to build the scene out with,” he reveals.

From there, it’s a matter of adjusting the subject to fit a specific size canvas. “I have a whole system using metric to fit the pixels perfectly,” he says. Then, I’ll adjust the colours and do some redrawing of the pixels. For the painting itself, I draw out a grid using a mechanical pencil and ruler and then start with black or the darkest dominant colour to draw out the outline.

“From there, it’s a case of building up layers of colour and working from dark to light shades. I try to straddle the line between painting perfect pixels and having that element of a human hand creating them.”

But even though it sounds like Adam has a finely honed technique, he still finds it challenging to keep his lines clean and ensure everything aligns properly with the grid. “If one pixel is off, it can throw off the whole design,” he says. “All artists have horror stories, and I’ve made some big mistakes when I’m really into a painting and then realise I have to redo an entire section. On the bright side, they’ve made me improve as an artist and develop new techniques!”

Adam Shub's handmade pixel paintings hark back to a simpler time
Adam Shub's handmade pixel paintings hark back to a simpler time

It’s not just computer games that get the pixel treatment. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Van Damme’s action films were just as big an inspiration to Adam as computer games, and they perfectly lent themselves to his grid painting technique.

“I also did a 36″x36″ painting from the game Contra that was essentially a giant movie poster design,” he adds. “I always strive to make my paintings as eye-catching as possible and strike that nostalgic chord in us.”

Of all his paintings, though, Adam’s favourite is a 2008 piece depicting characters from the Mega Man games. “They’re some of my favourites on the NES, and it was also the first time I attempted a large 48″x24″ painting when I started my art career,” he says. “It’s become one of my signature pieces, and I love showing it at any exhibitions or conventions I’m at. Besides that, some of my recent favourites are TechNoir ’84 and Way Of The Surging Fist.”

As of right now, Adam is working on a 36″x 24″ painting from the game Earthound to celebrate its 30th anniversary. “If I had to pick, it’s my all-time favorite game,” Adam concludes. I’m keeping it under wraps until it’s done, but I’ve posted some teaser pics on my social media.”

Adam Shub's handmade pixel paintings hark back to a simpler time