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A highly-detailed illustration shows a pixelated version of a famous painting
H.R Giger’s “Li I,” as recreated in Kid Pix
Image: Amanda Carney

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Artists somehow keep making masterpieces with Kid Pix and MS Paint

Making the most of a limited palette

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Simplified art programs like Kid Pix and Microsoft Paint aren’t exactly known for their ease of use in the art community. There are no layers, the undo buttons only work a limited number of times, and blending brushes are sparse. With the help of social media and a well-timed port of Kid Pix, however, over 30 years after these programs were released, artists are now taking Kid Pix and MS Paint as a challenge: a test of endurance, creativity, and, in the case of Kid Pix, some very silly sound effects.

Since MS Paint was released for free alongside Windows in 1985, the program has received relatively little support, only getting a few aesthetic updates that have mostly lacked new features. That hasn’t stopped massive online communities from rallying around the program. The subreddit r/mspaint has over 220,000 members who post everything from quick sketches to re-creations of classic works, and #mspaint on Twitter is filled with masterpieces.

The road to repopularize Kid Pix, on the other hand, hasn’t been as straightforward. Since Kid Pix’s initial release as public domain software in 1989, newer iterations have become monetized, while older versions have become relatively incompatible with modern operating systems.

However, in 2021, Kid Pix was made just as accessible as it once was by Vikrum Nijjar, who ported the first Kid Pix to release a free web version. The port was originally a gift for Nijjar’s daughter, though it became much bigger than he expected after he posted the port on Twitter. Craig Hickman, the creator of the original Kid Pix program, even noticed the port (and let his grandson try it out).

“The summer of 2021 was pretty rough for everyone, so having a moment where people could fondly relive their nostalgia was a welcome respite,” Nijjar wrote via email. “There were so many tweets where people talked about how Kid Pix was what sparked their interest in design and computers, teachers saying they are using the app in their classrooms, people sending me links to their streams where they use the app.”

Unexpectedly, Nijjar’s port became a turning point in the modern history of Kid Pix, reintroducing the software to many artists who had once loved using the program in their schools’ computer labs.

“Having it online also helped me experiment with it a lot,” Twitter user Nomi, who uses the online port of Kid Pix and its wide array of stickers to create colorful portraits, wrote via a DM. “Thanks to [the port], my life feels a little bit more colorful now.”

Due to Nijjar’s port, Kid Pix has slowly regained its spot as a somewhat more entertaining sibling to MS Paint, with its kid-friendly interface and playful blending modes taking center stage.

“Honestly, it’s hard not to have fun when the program is constantly making silly noises in your ear,” artist Amanda Carney wrote via email. “Even a mistake makes me laugh whenever I have to hit the Undo button and get a cartoony ‘YIKES!’ Plus, the best part of Kid Pix is all the ways you can squish and melt your work when you’re done.”

Pixelized art shows a window with a boat on the ocean on the other side
A view of the ocean, created with MS Paint
Image: Isabel Buenaventura

In 2021, Carney took on the challenge of re-creating classics like Vincent van Gogh’s “Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette” in Kid Pix. And while re-creating these works, she was initially forced to deal with the wild uncertainty of the program’s wacky brushes, which would eventually become a driving factor in her creative process.

“I’ve been playing with it for years and I’m still unsure of the logic behind why a tool will change one color to another, or what random squiggle will happen if I push the mouse a certain way with another tool,” Carney wrote.

For many determined artists like Carney, creating photorealistic art in both Kid Pix and MS Paint while dealing with these limitations has become something of a crowning achievement.

Pat Hines, who creates art under the moniker CaptainRedblood, has created photorealistic paintings and entire illustrated books with MS Paint for nearly 20 years (so well that Microsoft flew him out to its campus in 2017). To Hines, MS Paint presents a challenge that forces him to think outside of the box.

“Paint doesn’t have layers, and you can only hit undo so many times, but that sort of forces you to get crafty,” Hines wrote via Reddit DM.

The combination of these programs’ low-resolution brushes and the difficulty of controlling a brush with a mouse also creates an instantly recognizable style for artists, with some relying on these limitations to provide an artistic advantage.

In a few cases, artists have used the art styles of these two programs as a gimmick. Twitter user @KPalbumcovers has spent the past few years re-creating album covers in Kid Pix with an impressive level of dedication to his work — since the account’s origin in 2020, he’s re-created hundreds of album covers with a hilarious yet charming style.

For artist Isabel Buenaventura, MS Paint’s limited brushes and inability to blend colors lend themselves to a colorful, impressionistic style, something that differs from the art style she uses in other mediums. To her, using MS Paint is somewhat of an act of defiance.

“Everything is possible with these types of softwares,” Buenaventura wrote via Twitter DM. “It’s not necessarily about using software or applications; it’s about believing in yourself and improving your skills.”

Whether artists use these programs to sharpen their skills or simply as a way to make art more entertaining, perhaps the best part of the resurgence of these programs is their ability to bring artists back to a simpler time — a time when sitting down in an elementary school computer lab was the best part of their day.

“It’s incredibly nostalgic for me every time I open MS Paint,” Buenaventura wrote. “It’s always wonderful to revisit some of those memories.”

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