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How Paint Swatches Became Porn & Prose Pixel Art

UK artist Nick Smith plays on the format of paint color charts to create pixelated 8-bit images.

Kevin Holmes


Tipping the Velvet, 1,150 color chip collage. Image courtesy of the artist

At first glance, close-up in the gallery space, Nick Smith's images might appear confusing, a chromatic blur. Step back, catch it on the periphery, or peer at it through the prism of your phone's camera, however, and it'll make itself clear. UK artist Smith has created a series of pixelated portraits using graded color chips he makes himself, the kind you might find on paint color charts. Underneath, they have writing too, just like in the charts, but these aren't the names of the colors, they're words and text from Shakespeare and other works of classical and romantic literature.

They are part of Smith's upcoming exhibition, Paramour, at London's Lawrence Alkin gallery, which plays on the format of paint color charts. The images are dictated by the text that flows beneath them, the amount of words equals the amount of color chips Smith allows himself to use. "I’ll come up with a passage that’s, say, 500 words and that will dictate how many pixels I’ve got to play with to make my image." Smith explained to The Creators Project. "It’s an alchemy of text and maths, using a multiplication table I have to calculate how big or small I can make the image."

The text comes from Shakespeare's sonnets and novels like Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet, E.M. Berens' work on Greek and Roman myths and once-banned novels John Cleland's Fanny Hill and DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. The images are nudes of the female body Smith has photographed himself, parts of paintings by Botticelli and Rubens, and a 1623 etching of Shakespeare.

"It’s a process of trial and error getting it exactly correct," Smith says. "I make individual color chips and apply them onto paper in a collage and then you kind of get a eureka moment when it works. You’ve got an idea of the part of the body you want to use, but it’s very much down to getting the right crop and showing just enough [visual] information. These pixel images originally started with the idea of thinking, what's the minimum amount of information you need to supply for someone to understand what the image is?"


Magenta Shakespeare, 500 color chip collage. Image courtesy of the artist

Smith says he wants to reconnect classical and romantic literature with the pervasive images of the female form associated with desire and love that we see in the media and online today. It’s a celebration of women, not an objectification, he explains. It's also a deconstruction of these images.

"My work is a three-tier experience, you’ve got that first time you see an image and you don’t quite know what it is, you just see random colors," Smith notes, "then you’ll get it through the periphery or through your phone, and then you go up and discover it’s got this narrative that relates to the image. Also you get this voyeuristic view of the palette of colours that are used in an image, you actually get to see the components of the image, a bit like getting to look at the palette an artist has got when he creates a painting. It’s a yo-yo experience, you view it from a distance, you go in, you come back out. It’s not a piece of art you view from one position."


Afraid of a Lady, 551 color chip collage. Image courtesy of the artist


Capulet's Orchard, 1,150 color chip collage. Image courtesy of the artist


Chapter 10, Part 2, 608 color chip collage. Image courtesy of the artist


Sonnet 18, 126 color chip collage. Image courtesy of the artist
Sonnet 43, 126 color chip collage. Image courtesy of the artist


Sonnet 75, 126 color chip collage. Image courtesy of the artist
Three Graces, 779 color chip collage. Image courtesy of the artist
Three not so Graces, 779 color chip collage. Image courtesy of the artist



Venus, 551 color chip collage. Image courtesy of the artist
TO BE / NOT TO BE. Acrylic paint on stretched canvas. Image courtesy of the artist

Paramour by Nick Smith opens March 18, 2016 and runs through April 16, 2016, at Lawrence Alkin, 42 New Compton Street, London.

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