The use of Microsoft Paint and Paintbrush to create amateurish-looking, expressive, and fun art seems to be an emerging trend. Largely created by and for people who spend a lot of time online, “MS Paint artists” like Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half, Sam Brown of Exploding Dog, Mark Leidner, Tracy Brannstrom, and Tao Lin create simple geometric humans and creatures with lines for hands, often adding titles or speech bubbles to humorous effect. Its look is analogous to that of newspaper comic strips with intentionally simple visual styles. Minimalist means are used to directly and humorously express situations, thoughts, and emotions.
Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh’s popular blog, features drawings and comics created using Paintbrush and typifies the fun that can be had with the medium. Her humans have circles for heads and often have big gaping mouths indicating extreme joy, extreme anger, or extreme despair. Many of her blog entries illustrate her everyday experiences in an exaggerated, humorous fashion, such as a recent post charting her escalating lust for more and more of her 73-year-old grandma’s birthday cake. In typically clever fashion, the post is titled “The God of Cake.”
While the MS Paint aesthetic is limited visually, its potential for creating sarcastic, deeply hilarious art is vast. A good example of this is another post by Allie, one of my favorites, in which she describes and illustrates “7 Games You Can Play With a Brick,” including “Brick Tag” and “Duck, Duck, Brick.” Absurd situations become even more absurd and funny when they are illustrated in an absurdly simple way.
MS Paint also allows for art that is tonally ambiguous. The inherent “silliness” or “funniness” or “juvenile” quality of the MS Paint aesthetic naturally creates irony when paired with images or ideas that are more “serious.” For example, Tracy Brannstrom has presented both existential despair and sexual pleasure in interesting ways.
The MS Paint aesthetic has also been frequently used for satirical purposes. Mark Leidner has created comics that are reminiscent in approach to New Yorker comics, but with an interesting difference – not only the satirical situations/words but also the visuals mock proper, intelligent society. One of my favorites by Leidner is his blunt send-up of Creative Writing MFA programs.
The MS Paint aesthetic isn’t necessarily sarcastic or absurd, though. It’s also been used to create works that are cute and earnest. An example is the work of Sam Brown, whose popular site, Exploding Dog, features one-panel MS Paint aesthetic comics (produced in Photoshop) that often have earnest messages like “I want to ride bicycles with you.”
Tao Lin, the author, has also created artwork that is cute-looking, but while the tone is sometimes earnest, more often it is sarcastic and/or absurd. Tao worked extensively with MS Paint before modifying the aesthetic to create tangible artwork using construction paper cutouts (and he’s since “upgraded” to Photoshop for his drawings).
Tao has two notable art trademarks. One is the depiction of hamsters and other anthropomorphic nonhumans, depicted in a minimal fashion but with very expressive faces (tears are common) and in humorous and/or absurd situations. The second is the use of long, very precise and often very sarcastic titles. One of my favorites is “financially desperate tree doing a ‘quadruple kickflip’ off a cliff into a 5000+ gorge to retain its nike, fritos, and redbull sponsorships.” These titles add an element of verbose, deadpan wit to the simple visual aesthetic.
Tao’s work demonstrates that absurd, sarcastic, minimalist art whose primary aims seems to be humor and the illustration of emotions and random thoughts can also be very touching, endearing, and clever.
The MS Paint/minimalist art aesthetic and its transmission via the Internet – with its focus on fun, personality, sharing, and humor at the expense of being “serious” or “mature” – is a challenge to conventional wisdom regarding the aims and purposes of visual art.