Hexels 1.2 review: free software for creating a unique style of artwork

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  • Price When Reviewed: Free . Pro version $19.99 (around £12)

  • Pros: Affordable; easy to use; simple; constant upgrades; fun; loved by concept artists.

  • Cons: Small bugs; no layer options

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Hexels is a simple app for Mac and Windows for creating pixel art out of hexagons – and is a great fun way to produce something very different.

One-of-a-kind art software Hexels first found its way onto my radar via some Hotline Miami fanart, it wasn't like any kind of pixel art i'd ever seen before, I wasn't sure if it even was pixel art … a strange kind of isometric-but-not-quite-isometric artwork that got me intrigued because I couldn't figure out how this artwork had actually been made.

And that is when Hexels firmly grabbed my attention: here is a design program whose art is instantly recognisable, and sets itself apart stylistically enough to make you want to find out more about the artwork, the artist, and the program that made it.

The premise of Hexels, according to its developer, was the question, "what if you could paint with hexagons?”. The result is a simplified application for both Mac and Windows with a list of features that at first glance appears to be more Photoshop 4.0 than Photoshop CC – you have a basic set of drawing and painting tools, plus ways to modify the types of shapes your artworks are built from – but it’s the focus of these tools that make Hexels so appealing.

To top everything off with a persuasive little cherry, version 1.2 came out yesterday with new features such as textures, image-to-hexels conversion, halftone mode (which looks fucking lush, if you’ll excuse my french) and more.

The two people responsible for this internet-gift are Ted Martens (arty stuff) and Ken Kopecky (programmy stuff). You can see them chucking themselves about on trampolines here.

Ted and Ken are two genuinely lovely blokes, with a very open ethos to constantly improving Hexels. Ken explains his approach to how artists can help the development of the application like this: “We love feedback because we have no idea what we're doing.  No one's ever made anything like Hexels before (as far as we know), so we're flying blind down this weird path, and feedback is one of the most important ways we can sort of see where we should go with it.”

Can you describe what you create in Hexels as pixel art? Kind of … but Hexels settles more into the voxel/texel family of game design, which is based on Ted’s background in game programming. Be assured, artwork is stupidly fun to make in Hexels, but pixel art veterans have nothing to fear: Hexels doesn't seek to remove the need for pixel artists altogether – instead you have a fun little program for conceiving and executing low-poly artwork in no time at all.

You can use Hexels to create short animations by modifying parameters over time.

“...Hexels definitely doesn't have all the features that (pixel-art illustrators) need for drawing stuff yet” says Ken, “but I see people who use it occasionally when they want their piece to have a slightly different look to it” and in regards to Hexel’s simplicity he adds “We get feedback all the time from famous illustrators. They mostly want layers.”

I can understand this request for layers, but in all honesty, I’d prefer Hexels to remain in a simplistic form. The appeal of Hexels for me is just that: a program that lets you play.

Ted describes the concept behind this as wanting to prevent the application becoming “bloated and intimidating … We want to keep Hexels as functional and accessible as possible.”

However, Ted also states that adding layers is not out of the question for a future update. “We just need to implement the feature in a way that won't make the interface cluttered,” he says.

That’s not to say you can't do some pretty amazing client work in Hexels, you can – though you’ll need the Pro version for high-res output.

High resolution export capabilities in Hexels 1.2 Pro

The only downside to Hexels for me is that it can be a little hiccuppy with pen-tablet integration. It has gotten better since the early versions, and I’m sure future updates will smooth this out.

The price of all this is a snip at £12, which for my former-starving-intern-self was unfathomably affordable – and when I was really scraping the bottom of the biscuit tin (Intern-life-yo) the free version was still loads of fun to mess about with.

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