PETSCII is a variation and extension on the ASCII set of characters that has its origins in the 1970s. Behind the acronym stands the rather grandiose title of "PET Standard of Information Interchange." PET, again, was one of Commodore's first computers, and stood for Personal Electronic Transactor.
|That's it. That's all you get. (Plus some colours, too)|
Different manufacturers favoured different ideas. The IBM set was quite commonly used in conjunction with ANSI colour and positioning codes for producing graphics in text terminals, bit similar to Teletext mode included on many TV sets. ANSI graphics was still quite popular in the 1990s with bulletin board systems, as there was no wide standard for transmitting pixel graphics over the slow telephone lines.
|Just a mock-up...|
|Don't look up the original. Please.|
Although these text modes are arguably superceded by bitmap graphics, there's still quite a lot of interest toward these constrained graphical forms. Just as there is ASCII art and ANSI art, there's PETSCII art. The limitations provide an interesting challenge for creating illustrations and art.
|Horace on a C64? Blasphemy! (A directly converted image)|
Some artists favour a more purist text-art look with clearly indicated black background, whereas some might try to create realistic images converted from photographs or drawings. There are contexts where colours are not possible or appropriate, and this poses another starting point for expression. Colour areas are another starting point, and characters would be used sparingly, such as the surprisingly versatile 45-angle tiles. Some tricks are needed to get around the background colour limitation.
|This picture uses almost exclusively square blocks, 45-angle triangles and lines.|
How to go about creating PETSCII art? Well, Using a real C64 or an emulator is one starting point. The BASIC editor forms a rudimentary graphic scratchpad: all the characters and colours can be accessed from the keyboard. The real computer has the handy graphics printed on the keys, whereas on an emulator you would have to know the keys by heart. BASIC code could also be used for producing random PETSCII art, not a bad premise at all. In fact, there is a book that discusses various generative code approaches through one PETSCII example.
However, without a freeze cartridge, storing your work can become difficult on a physical computer. (Some cartridges also offer screen editing features.) It's also easy to lose the screen data by messing with the wrong keys.
Truth be told, there's only that much that can be sensibly done without a proper editor, be it on a C64 or on some modern computer. Copy/Paste, undo, file operations make life a bit easier. All the examples on this page have been made with an editor that runs on modern platforms, such as PC, Mac and Linux. (Link below)
|A random mess|
There is a fascination to PETSCII that is similar to low-resolution pixel art, yet the limitations are in ways more severe. In a strange way, the character art is more easy and liberating than pixel illustration. The other side of constraints is always their enabling nature, and the rapidness of the way PETSCII can be explored for interesting effects is the reward of these limitations.
This somehow sums the value of old computers to me. Even though underpowered, there's always some features that surprise me with simple effectiveness, expression, personal style and flair.
Marq's PETSCII editor and a gallery of art (The editor, written in Processing, is available for PC, Mac and Linux.)