BBSes and their role in developing communication.

This is a continuation from m my last post, which was about something different (a funny Swypo) and veered into this topic. So…

I suppose I’m being too literal about acronyms like ROTFL (Rolling On The Floor Laughing) and ROTFLMAO Rolling On The Floor Laughing My Ass Off), which I learned on BBSes that predated the web, although some had Usenet, IRC, Internet email addresses, and the like. This all dates myself, of course. Although I came online quite young due to nerdy older brothers who showed me how. I am glad parental censorship software didn’t exist back then, because BBSes were crucial in my development of social and communication skills in typing.

Without BBSes, I might never have learned the give and take of communication, the use of words to convey meaning from inside one person’s head and put it into another’s…

And all these little building blocks to communication that, when apart, don’t do much. But when put together in the proper order, and when those skills are used properly, and those skills stick around instead of needing to constantly be relearned only to be forgotten again… Then you have more or less consistent communication, even if the words still go away a lot.

I achieved this with typing. I never consistently achieved this with speech. I couldn’t tell you why, though. All I know is that as my typed communication was growing by leaps and bounds, my spoken communication was disappearing along with many motor and cognitive skills. I don’t know if there’s a correlation there our not. But it’s interesting to wonder about.

Or as Jim Sinclair put it:

I taught myself to read at three, and I had to learn it again at ten, and yet again at seventeen, and at twenty-one, and at twenty-six. The words that it took me twelve years to find have been lost again, and regained, and lost, and still have not come all the way back to where I can be reasonably confident they’ll be there when I need them. It wasn’t enough to figure out just once how to keep track of my eyes and ears and hands and feet all at the same time; I’ve lost track of them and had to find them over and over again.

But I have found them again. The terror is never complete, and I’m never completely lost in the fog, and I always know that even if it takes forever, I will find the connections and put them back together again. I know this because I’m always connected at the core and I never lose track of my own self. This is all I have that I can always count on, all I have that is truly my own. And this is what is denied when I’m told that I bring problems on myself because I’m not stable at the core.

[From Bridging The Gaps: Or Do You Know What I Don’t Know? by Jim Sinclair.]

If you’re already up to speed with the Year of the Block artpack then you can’t have failed to notice the image above. It was created by Pat Swanson, aka Cyonx, and is a textmode re-working of a digital piece by Marc Brunet.

Cyonx has a strong individual style, as his DeviantArt page can attest, and his unique works of art has earned the respect of other artists within the group. We thought that it might be interesting to sit down and talk to him about his process, and his perspective on the scene.

If you remember, would you mind telling me how you were first exposed to textmode art, and what initially appealed to you about the medium?

My family picked up our first home computer my sophomore year of high school I believe, 1993. I’d had exposure before that, but that was when I started spending more time on computers than doing anything else. A bunch of my friends were into BBSes (side note: a non-trivial portion of the 301 area code digital art scene went to my high school), so I started doing some research both through them and on my own. I still remember calling BBS phone numbers listed in the back of Computer Shopper magazine (Remember that gigantic monstrosity? Like a phone book full of computer parts!), trying to find active BBSes using windows terminal.

One day, at my friend’s urging, I installed telemate, and all of a sudden those BBSes I’d been calling had glorious full color artwork! I was immediately fascinated by ANSI art. First, it was indigenous to this new digital realm I was just getting in to. Second, you could see the artist signature right at the bottom. They had handles just like mine, it was made by people in a room at home just like me, on a computer just like mine and not some professional in an office building somewhere or something like that. I talked to the sysop of my favorite board at the time, a place called Wayreth Forest, about about how to create ANSI art, and thanks to him I had a copy of TheDraw installed pretty quick. He even asked me to draw him a logon ansi as my first work. Yep, still remember my first commission.

It was horrible. Really bad. It was so bad that the sysop asked me to redraw it. I did, and I think he accepted the second ANSI out of pity. I wish I still had it so I could show it off in all its unholy badness. Thing is, I had very little experience with even the basics of art. Proportion, perspective, etc. I was drawing ansi like a 5 year old draws with crayon. The difference is, with ANSI I had the ability to continuously edit out the worst mistakes (still my personal mantra, “edit the suck away”), and I could download these wonderful artpacks just FULL of people who instead of being light-years beyond me, like my favorite comic artists, were instead only 6 months or a year beyond me. I could see the steps to improve, and set reasonable goals, to reach those levels and beyond.

Can you tell me how you decided to use the handle ‘Cyonx’, and have you always used this name?

I started using the handle Cyonx when I “returned to the art scene”. Or, more, specifically, I didn’t even know at the time that the scene even still existed, but I just wanted to sign my ANSIs with a handle like the old days. I could have used my old handle, but I felt like this was a “new beginnings” of sorts after nearly 15 years absent, so I picked a new handle. I’d used the name “Cryonax” (if memory serves, an OLD AD&D name for the demigod of the plane of ice) before in various video games. I went with that, but decided to shorten it to Cyonx, which I though had a nice unique look to it. Then I had to figure out how the hell it was pronounced. I went with pronouncing it the same as “psionics”. After I found out that the scene still lived, I kept using it. I’ve gotten quite fond of it.

My former scene name “Skarecrow” is no secret, it’s just that unless you were in a group with me or have a very good memory for irc in 1994/95, you’ve almost certainly never heard of it. I was never in any of the “big” groups, and most people outside of the scene have never heard of even the biggest digital art groups anyway.

When you are choosing a subject are there any particular qualities that you look for, or inspire you?

Nowadays, I look for three things, interesting color, weird angles/perspective, and some feeling of emotion. I want to (try to) do ANSIs that are interesting from multiple dimensions. I’ve done plenty of face-on, near-symmetrical, static pictures of women staring at the viewer. I want to do something, anything different, for now anyway. If I can make a piece that can make somebody stop and give it a second or third look as they scroll through a pack (or devart, or whatever), then I’ve succeeded.

Would you mind sharing your general technique when composing and drawing a new piece of work?

First thing I do is decide on a subject, which can take forever. I get pickier and pickier over time (which doesn’t help me get any extra practice, let me tell you). More often than not, I’m reworking/interpreting/ripping (take your pick of the ‘correct’ term) something else. I work best with a visual reference of some variety, so I’ll have that visual reference open twice on one monitor, once at normal 1:1 size, once “zoomed” to be close to the same size as the pablodraw window, which I’ve got open on the other monitor.

If the color scheme is going to be significantly different than the standard ANSI 16 colors, I’ll usually spend some time here getting the colors “right” (not that I don’t sometimes tweak them later). I’ll do a test palette fading them in to each other to see how they mix. Once I get past that step, I’ll use the “zoom” window as a visual guide to start establishing a “skeleton” for the ansi, using a handful of solid colors, to get initial perspective and proportion right. Then I’ll build that skeleton out to have solid shapes with very minimal shading that represent about 80-90% of the finished piece’s block placement. Finally I’ll go back over it again shading in color gradients, light changes, tweak curves and lines, and so on. At that point, I start adding style and grit. I just mess with it until I like it. I don’t like too many clean solid areas in any piece. I find them boring. Just a personal choice, don’t have anything against anybody else doing it differently.

Well, to be honest, that process is the way I’d like to say I do it. Frankly, I’ll quite often find I take a ‘detour’ to fully shade a set of eyes, a face, etc while the rest of the “skeleton” is still being built. It helps break up the construction of the piece, and I just feel better about a subject when they can “look” back at me. I feel like I’m more invested in the piece if it’s already got some life (and hopefully emotion) early in the process.

Recently you’ve appeared to reject the standard 80 column-wide format, and instead adopted a wider canvas. Does this have a greater aesthetic appeal to you, and can you think why some artists reject this approach?

I don’t know about ‘reject’, but I’ve been wanting to try out 160 columns for a while. A couple other artists have been using it on and off for the past year or two, and I was curious what it was like. I’m still getting used to it. In practice, it give me 4 times the resolution (if you double the width, you double the length), which allows me to get so much more detail, and thus emotion into pieces. I won’t say that it’s my new “standard” or anything. I still feel like classic 80 columns is the default of course. Every time I sit down to start something new (I start new stuff and give up on it all the time, long before showing any work in progress is appropriate), I’ll start with 80 columns, but it usually isn’t long until I feel like “I could do much better with this in 160”. Of course with modern technology, there’s no reason to pick 160 columns other than it’s a clean multiple of the default 80. I know plenty of other artists pick 200, 250, 400, etc. maybe picking clean multiples of default is just minor OCD, who knows.

I will say that with the “widescreen” aspect ratios of 16x9 and 16x10 being standard in this era, wide ANSIs feel more natural in some ways than the historical default.

The standard ANSI/BIN palette adds a restriction on subject and form that many artists seem to persevere with, yet you seem quite happy to change the rules on color, do you see this as cheating?

I do actually! I struggled with this a lot at first. Even using icecolor (which expands the color combination choices from 16foreground/8background to 16fore/16back) on my Joker ANSI felt like cheating at first, but the extra options for expression using icecolor made me more receptive to using different colors altogether. I tweaked two colors slightly on the next ANSI I did (Rogue), although I reverted and then re-enabled those changes at least 2 or 3 times working on it. The final deciding factor was when I said to myself “look, I’m not making this for anybody but myself. No BBS is using this. Nobody commissioned this. I’m not submitting to competitions. I’m making this because I want to. I only need to limit myself as much as I feel like I want to. If other people like what I make, great. If not, well I like it and that’s enough.” My wife, who is a professional sculptor (obligatory plug for Little Fat Dragons, google it!) made a point of pushing me to be true to myself and draw how I want to draw. She’s actually my biggest fan. She and I share work-in-progress pics of our stuff with each other all the time. I’m really lucky, I know a number of guys whose wives/girlfriends don’t understand why they do ANSI.

Basically, when all is said and done, I do what I feel inspired to do. It’s still textmode. I also still limit myself to 16 or fewer colors. That’s just a personal limitation, modern technology says I can use as many as I want even in ANSI (24bit ANSI is totally a thing), but I feel like “16 or fewer” is still in the spirit of the medium. I don’t think any less (the opposite, actually) of any artist who sticks to 80columns and default 16 colors. Some of my favorite works created by other artists in the past few years were done with 6 (or less!) of the default ANSI colors.

Since the formation of Blocktronics there seems to be a huge jump in quality of work, this is perhaps best illustrated by your ’Draw this again’ project in 2013. Do you think there is a particular reason why there has been a broad improvement in ANSI art in recent times?

Couple reasons come to mind. First of all, almost everybody in the scene was a teenager. Most teenagers don’t have years of experience or professional training. I still don’t have either, just dogged persistence to keep editing something till it looks good. Seriously though, I know that several blocktronics members are professional or semi-professional artists outside of their ANSI hobby, and that kind of skill and experience carries over. I personally did a bit more real-world art since the mid-90s, and a lot of what I learned transferred over better than I thought it might once I picked up ANSI again.

Second, Pablodraw is a fantastic tool because we can see the “overall” zoomed out view (what we once called “VGA mode” so long ago) while we’re drawing. It also allows collaboration, the ability for several artists to work on the same piece at once. That’s an amazing learning tool, the ability to see how your favorite artists do what they do, how they build, how they shade, what their process looks like.

Finally, well, there’s no easy way to say this, most of the scene used to be dicks. We were. No sugarcoating. There was a tremendous sense of competition between groups, and often even within groups. Few people actively helped each other. Today though, it’s completely the opposite. It’s a giant love-in. We’re all so happy to see old friends rediscover the medium, and just as excited to see new artists pick up the brush (well, the arrow keys and mouse) for the first time. We want nothing more than to encourage that. Don’t discount that encouragement. Getting good honest constructive criticism and suggestions you can trust is invaluable.

At one point ANSI art consisted mainly of drawings taken from the pages of comic books, but there has been a larger movement towards more serious subjects, such as your Blastronics piece. Why do you think the comic book theme pervaded the medium for so long, and can you account for the recent change in themes?

Remember when I said we were all teenager? What visual medium interests teenagers? Comic books, video games, and movies. Comic books had (at the time) a color palette as restrictive as ANSI, so the two seemed like a natural fit. Also, some of the best early artists were doing comic books rips, so it become “monkey-see monkey-do.” When the guy whose art you worship is making pieces that are rips of Jim Lee and Todd MacFarlane, you’re naturally inclined to do so too. It became this big inertia thing. That’s what people expected to see, so that’s what they did.

Then we got older, and tastes varied, and we started pushing ourselves artistically. Like I alluded to earlier, I don’t know that I’ll ever make a significantly better set of giant fake spandexed boobs and pouty lips than I’ve already done, so why stay focused on that? It’s all “What else can I do?”

Are there any textmode artists that you admire, and would you mind telling me what appeals to you about them?

Too many to list. I’ll hit a few highlights.

In my youth, it was all about Somms and Lord Jazz. I had to track down everything they released, every pack they were in. My shading style started as a complete rip-off of Somms. I tried to add some of the “gritty noise” that Lord Jazz did, but his stuff was all style and mine was just noise. I think that ‘grit’ finds its way into my style now though, although maybe it’s still just noise to some people. There any number of other classic artists I loved the work of and highly appreciated, Stone the Crow, Prisoner #1, Terminator 2, Neurotic, Tempus Thales, etc, but Somms and Lord Jazz were THE two.

Today, I’d say almost every member of blocktronics is able to do something that I can’t do and look at with admiration. Ungennant and Reset Survivor have a way with motion that just so natural, and they’re both so good at drawing-from-imagination, which is still an embarassing work-in-progress for me. Ungennant (again) and Enzo have a way of getting emotion into pieces that I wish I could replicate. I feel what’s going in in their stuff. MattMatthew and Avenging Angel (and BYM, RIP) have a way with patterns and colors that my brain can’t even process. I would never even think to do what they do. Fever is just pure artistic style and talent. His stuff looks like he’s painting using a mouse (stylus?) instead of a brush. Knocturnal makes some of the most varied, striking, and lively fonts I’ve ever seen, and that’s what I’m worst at so I appreciate his stuff even more than normal.

Thanks for your time, Cyonx, is there any advice that you would like to share with any new artists willing to experiment with ANSI art?

Everybody’s stuff looked horrible at some point, and a quiet secret is that most artists still think even their newest stuff looks horrible. Everybody is their own worst critic. Don’t get caught up in worrying about what your stuff looks like. Worry about whether you’re having a good time, and take it from me ANSI is a great time. You get to play with a piece of digital history without any of the political scene baggage we had in the old days. Plus, there isn’t anything quite like it in art. It feels like bits and pieces of several other different mediums, but on the whole it is totally its own thing.

Download Pablodraw or try one of the online web-based art programs like Andyh’s or the one at sixteencolors. For that matter, visit,, or and look through some packs. They’re all online in easily browsable forms now. See what the artform is capable of, and what others have done with it. See what’s come before, study it, learn from it, but don’t feel beholden to it. Every year we see somebody do something new that we didn’t know the art form could do, maybe you’re the one to show us what it can do next.

Origin Stories

Berkeley Breathed just announced that he is going to restart his comic strip, Bloom County.  I remember from my youth that “comic strips” were found in “newspapers” that people used to pay children to throw in the direction of their home on a daily basis (as I used to be one of the people doing the throwing).  These contained news from yesterday, a non searchable version of Craigslist, and a page or so of things like what is above.

So, why would this event inspire me to write the story of how I chose my name?

Keep reading
The Oregon Trail Generation: Life Before and After Mainstream Tech - Social Media Week

We’re an enigma, those of us born at the tail end of the 70s and the start of the 80s. Some of the “generational” experts lazily glob us on to Generation X

I’m a smidgen too old for this–I was born in the first half of the 70s rather than the latter–but a lot of it rings true. 

In my case, online social spaces were something that became accessible to me during college. It was text-only, and none of it was archived anywhere–when things scrolled off, they were gone forever. This is a very good thing, as I said some profoundly asinine things on those BBSes that I would hate to have remembered forever by Google.

But you know what?  I learned how to correctly reciprocate conversation on BBSes. I learned that not only could I talk, there were people who were interested in what I had to say. I learned how to date, how to be social, and how to flirt. I learned that talking with people could be fun

Online social spaces made it possible for me to be a somewhat social person in ways that 18 years of relentless and overwhelming pressure IRL had never managed. I have always been and will always be a text-first person, because my auditory brain is all kinds of funky, and I was finally in a space that played to my strengths rather than hitting all of my weaknesses.

i really do enjoy the fact that the HBS games explore the shadowrun BBSes as places not only for Serious Decking but also Forum Drama Bullshit and One Poster With 10,000 Posts And Has Never Said Anything Helpful Ever and such and such

25 years ago this month…

  1. Never kissed a girl or boy, but has fully internalized the rules for several tabletop RPGs. 
  2. Knows an awful lot about the Bible and teaches Sunday School.
  3. Dials into three different BBSes every night to get in his Trade Wars turns.
  4. Bootlegs Bladerunner and Akira while cutting class. 
  5. Knows what a “furry” is despite not having an Internet.