ASCII art is an artistic medium that relies primarily on computers for presentation and consists of pictures pieced together from the 95 printable (from a total of 128) characters defined by the ASCII Standard from 1967 and ASCII compliant character sets with proprietary extended characters (beyond the 128 characters of the 7-bit standard ASCII). The term is also loosely used to refer to text based art in general. ASCII art can be created with any text editor, and is often used with free-form languages. Most examples of ASCII art require a fixed-width font (non-proportional fonts, like on a traditional typewriter) such as Courier for presentation.
One of the main reasons ASCII art was born was because early printers often lacked graphics ability and thus characters were used in place of graphic marks. Also, to mark divisions between different print jobs from different users, bulk printers often used ASCII art to print large banners, making the division easier to spot so that the results could be more easily separated by a computer operator or clerk.
Creating pictures from letters and writing symbols dates back to Ancient Egypt. Other examples were found from the Ancient Romans where the Roman characters were used to form an image.
TTY stands for TeleTYpe/TeleTYpewriter and is also know as Teleprinter or Teletype. RTTY stands for Radioteletype. According to a chapter in the "RTTY Handbook", text images have been sent via teletypewriter as early as 1923. However, none of the "old" RTTY art was discovered yet. What is known, is the fact that text images appeared frequently on radio teletype in the 1960s and the 1970s.
The Atari 400/800 did not follow the ASCII standard and had its own character set called ATASCII. ATASCII art emerged with the growing popularity of BBS Systems that popped up everywhere after the Acoustic coupler emerged in computer stores that were compatible with the 8-bit home computers. ATASCII text animations are also referred to as "break animations" by the Atari sceners.
The Commodore 64, which was released in 1982 also did not follow the ASCII standard. The C-64 character set is called PETSCII, an extended form of ASCII-1963. Like with the Atari ATASCII art did on the C-64 develop a similar scene that used PETSCII for their text art creations.
ASCII art had been originally developed in the late 1960s, by computer-art pioneer Kenneth Knowlton, who was working for Bell Labs at the time.
The usage of ASCII art can be traced to the computer bulletin board systems of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The limitations of computers of that time period necessitated the use of text characters to represent images. Along with ASCII's use in communication, however, it also began to appear in the underground online art groups of the period. An ASCII comic is a form of webcomic which uses ASCII text to create images. In place of images in a regular comic, ASCII art is used, with the text or dialog usually placed underneath.
During the 1990s, the Internet grew at a rapid pace, and technology improved with it. Indeed, ASCII art appeared so unnecessary by 1998 that Microsoft declared the graphic style "dead" and encouraged users to create files in GIF or JPEG format instead. The supposed death of ASCII art may also be related to the increasing prevalence of variable-width fonts that make ASCII art nearly impossible. Despite this, ASCII art continued to survive through online MUDs (textual multiplayer roleplaying games), Internet Relay Chat, E-mail, message boards and other forms of online communication which commonly employ the needed fixed-width.
ASCII art is used wherever text can be more readily printed or transmitted than graphics, or in some cases, where the transmission of pictures is not possible. This includes typewriters, teletypes, non-graphic computer terminals, in early computer networking (e.g., BBSes), e-mail, and Usenet news messages. ASCII art is also used within the source code of computer programs for representation of company or product logos, and flow control or other diagrams. In some cases, the entire source code of a program is a piece of ASCII art - for instance, an entry to one of the earlier International Obfuscated C Code Contest is a program that adds numbers, but visually looks like a binary adder drawn in logic ports.
ASCII art is also very commonly used amongst software piracy groups to display group logos inside text (*.nfo) files containing the instructions for installing and cracking the software (though these commonly use PC text mode characters as well as just ASCII). An example of ASCII art predating the modern computer era can be found in the October 1948 edition of Popular Mechanics.
Taking the medium to extremes, there is a 2D platform multiplayer shooter game designed entirely in colour ASCII art, 0verkill. There is also a video driver for the popular video game Quake that displays the game in ASCII art and mplayer can play videos in ASCII art. ASCII art is used in the making of DOS-based ZZT games. Another example of ASCII art in games is "Original War", a little-known game for Windows, in which the cutscenes for the Russians are made up totally of ASCII art.
Recently ASCII art has been used to secretly represent data that would otherwise be considered copyrighted or be removed from websites for fear of litigation. Most of the ASCII art created for this purpose is crude in nature, such as the example on the right.
The simplest forms of ASCII art are combinations of two or three characters for expressing emotion in text. They are commonly referred to as 'emoticon', 'smilie', or 'smiley'.
There is another type of one-line ASCII art that does not require the mental rotation of pictures, which is widely known in Japan as kaomoji (literally "face characters".) Traditionally, they are referred to as "ASCII face ". Today, some call them "verticons".
More complex examples use several lines of text to draw large symbols or more complex figures.
Entire pictures can be drawn using ASCII art, as in this more intricate example, which depicts the historic Edwardian train station in Dunedin, New Zealand.
One use for ASCII art is to create unique typography, for example, texts.
The program FIGlet (and other programs that support its standard) allows for the design and use of ASCII fonts.
In the art scene one popular ASCII style that used the 7-bit standard ASCII character set was the so called "Oldskool" Style. It is also called "Amiga style", due to its origin and widespread use on the Commodore Amiga Computers. The style uses primarily the characters: _/\-+=.()<>:. The "oldskool" art looks more like the outlined drawings of shapes than real pictures. This is an example of "Amiga style" (also referred to as "old school" or "oldskool" style) scene ASCII art.
The Amiga ASCII Scene surfaced in 1992, 5 years after the introduction of the Commodore Amiga 500. The Commodore 64 PETSCII scene did not make the transition to the Commodore Amiga as the C64 demo and warez scenes did. Among the first Amiga ASCII art groups were ART, Upper Class, Unreal. This means that the text art scene on the Amiga was actually younger than the text art scene on the PC. The Amiga artists also did not call their ASCII art style "Oldskool". That term was introduced on the PC. When and by whom is unknown and lost in history.
This kind of ASCII art is hand made in a text editor. Popular editors used to make this kind of ASCII art include CygnusEditor aka CED (Amiga) and EditPlus2 (PC).
Oldskool font example from the PC, which was taken from the ASCII Editor FIGlet.
So called "block ASCII" or "high ASCII" uses the extended characters of the 8-bit code page 437, which is a proprietary standard that was introduced by IBM in 1979 (ANSI Standard x3.16) for the IBM PC and MS DOS operating system. "Block ASCIIs" were widely used on the PC during the 1990s until the Internet replaced BBSes as the main communication platform for computer enthusiasts around the world. "Block ASCIIs" were dominating the PC Text Art Scene..
The first art scene group that focused on the extended character set of the PC in their art work was the group called "Aces of ANSI Art" or "AAA". Members of Aces of ANSI Art disbanded and formed a group called ACiD, which stands for "ANSI Creators in Demand" in 1990. During the same year was the second major underground art scene group founded, ICE, which stands for "Insane Creators Enterprise".
"Hardcore" ASCII artists debate that Block ASCII art is not real ASCII art, but ANSI art, because it does not use the 128 characters of the original ASCII standard. Block ASCII artists on the other hand argue that ANSI art is using the ANSI color codes and escape sequences and artwork that is only using characters of the computers character set is to be called ASCII, regardless if the character set is proprietary or not.
Microsoft Windows does not support the ANSI Standard x3.16. You can look at "Block ASCIIs" with a text editor using the font "Terminal", but it will not look exactly as it was intended by the artist. You need a special ASCII/ANSI viewer such as ACiDView for Windows (see ASCII and ANSI art viewers) to view block ASCII and ANSI Files properly in Windows. An example that illustrates the difference in appearance is part of this article.
Another popular style of the PC underground art scene, which is using primarily the characters like "$#Xxo." was called "Newskool". This label is actually inaccurate because the style was not "new"; on the contrary it was very old but fell out of favor and was replaced by "Oldskool" and "Block" style ASCII art. Most sceners thought that this is a new style and dubbed it "Newskool" when it had its "come back" and became popular again at the end of the nineties.
"Newskool" continued to evolve and the use of extended proprietary characters was introduced. The classic 7-bit standard ASCII characters remain still predominant. The extended characters are primarily used for "fine tuning" and "tweaking" of the ASCII image. With the introduction and wide spread adaptation of Unicode the style developed further and new forms of text art evolved from that as well.
While some prefer to use a simple text editor to produce ASCII art, specialized programs have been developed that often simulate the features and tools in bitmap image editors. For Block ASCII art is as for ANSI art in almost any case a special text editor being used by the artist, because the used characters are not available on a standard keyboard.
The special text editors have sets of special characters assigned to existing keys on the keyboard. Popular MS DOS based editors, such as TheDraw and ACiDDraw had multiple sets of different special characters mapped to the F-Keys to make the use of those characters easier for the artist who can switch between individual sets of characters via basic keyboard short cuts. PabloDraw is one of the very few special ASCII/ANSI art editors that were developed for MS Windows XP.
Other programs allow one to automatically convert an image to text characters, which is a special case of vector quantization. A method is to sample the image down to grayscale with less than 8-bit precision, and then assign a character for each value.
An example of a converted image, created using Ascgen dotNet, is given below, next to the original.
With the advent of the web and HTML and CSS, many ASCII conversion programs will now quantize to a full RGB colorspace, enabling colorized ASCII images.
Using an image to text converter (ANSI or ASCII) is not Art. Using a converter is not a creative process that is referred to as art. Since the appearance of the first simple converter tools did individuals generate ANSIs and ASCIIs and claimed afterwards that they generated the result themselves "by Hand" via a text editor.
Images that were converted to text, where no touch up work was done after the conversion, can in almost every cases be identified as such, at least by an experienced text artist. The detection of converted, software generated text art becomes much harder, if some time was spent by the the fraudster to touch up as much as possible of details that are typical indications that it was auto-generated by software and not drawn by hand as claimed. The inconsistencies in the way "shading" was done in just one art piece ist often what is giving the fraudster away.
The use of image to text converters for the creation of text art is considered unethical by the majority of ASCII and ANSI artists.
Most ASCII art is created using a monospace font, where all characters are identical in width (Courier New is a popular font). However, most of the more commonly used fonts in word processors, web browsers and other programs are proportional fonts, such as Arial or Times New Roman, where different widths are used for different characters. ASCII art drawn for a fixed width font will usually appear distorted, or even unrecognizable when displayed in a proportional font.
Some ASCII artists have produced art for display in such fonts. These ASCIIs, rather than using a purely shade-based correspondence, use characters for slopes and borders and use block shading. These ASCIIs generally offer greater precision and attention to detail than fixed-width ASCIIs for a lower character count, although they are not as universally accessible since they are usually relatively font-specific.
The History of Animated ASCII Art started in 1970 from so-called VT100 animations produced on vt100 terminals. These animations were simply text with cursor movement instructions, deleting and erasing the characters necessary to appear animated. Usually, they represented a long hand-crafted process undertaken by a single person to tell a story.
There are now many tools and programs that can transform raster images into text symbols; some of these tools can operate on streaming video. For example, the music video for pop singer Beck Hansen's song "Black Tambourine" is made up entirely of ASCII characters that approximate the original footage.
There are a variety of other types of art using text symbols from character sets other than ASCII and/or some form of color coding. Despite not being pure ASCII, these are still often referred to as "ASCII art". The character set portion designed specifically for drawing are known as the line drawing characters or pseudo-graphics.
The IBM PC graphics hardware in text mode uses 16 bits per character. It supports a variety of configurations, but in its default mode under DOS they are used to give 256 glyphs from one of the IBM PC code pages (Code page 437 by default), 16 foreground colors, 8 background colors, and a flash option. Such art can be loaded into screen memory directly. ANSI.SYS, if loaded, also allows such art to be placed on screen by outputting escape sequences that indicate movements of the screen cursor and color/flash changes. If this method is used then the art becomes known as ANSI art. The IBM PC code pages also include characters intended for simple drawing which often made this art appear much cleaner than that made with more traditional character sets. Plain text files are also seen with these characters, though they have become far less common since Windows GUI text editors (using the Windows ANSI code page) have largely replaced DOS based ones. ... more.
A large character selection, the widespread use of Japanese on the internet, and the availability of standard fonts with predictable spacing make Shift JIS a common format for text based art on the internet.
Unicode would seem to offer the ultimate flexibility in producing text based art with its huge variety of characters. However, finding a suitable fixed-width font is likely to be difficult if a significant subset of Unicode is desired. (Modern UNIX-style operating systems do provide complete fixed-width Unicode fonts, e.g. for xterm.) Also, the common practice of rendering Unicode with a mixture of variable width fonts is likely to make predictable display hard if more than a tiny subset of Unicode is used, making a complicated picture.
In the 1970s and early 1980s it was popular to produce a kind of ASCII art that relied on overprinting — the overall darkness of a particular character space dependent on how many characters, as well as the choice of character, printed in a particular place. Thanks to the increased granularity of tone, photographs were often converted to this type of printout. Even manual typewriters or daisy wheel printers could be used. The technique has fallen from popularity since all cheap printers can easily print photographs, and a normal text file (or an e-mail message or Usenet posting) cannot represent overprinted text. However, something similar has emerged to replace it: shaded or colored ASCII art, using ANSI video terminal markup or color codes (such as those found in HTML, IRC, and many internet message boards) to add a bit more tone variation. In this way, it is possible to create ASCII art where the characters only differ in color.