What is ANSI art and why was it popular in the 1990s?

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The Cave BBS/Nukemaster

During the era of the dial-up BBS, a special style of digital illustration emerged that used 256 characters of text and 16 colors to create a vivid variety of artwork. Here’s a look at why ANSI art came about and how it still serves as a hallmark of early online culture.

What is ANSI art?

In the days before the Internet in the home became widespread, a different electronic medium called a bulletin board system (BBS) provided the online gateway to chat with other computer owners, exchange files, and even play games.

To connect to a BBS during the golden age, you needed a personal computer, a dial-up modem, a phone line, and a text-based terminal emulation program. Terminal emulators (such as Procomm Plus on the IBM PC) could only display 16-color text and ASCII characters, not bitmap graphics. This limitation carried over from the days of teletypes, where special codes transmitted serially represented different letters on a page. As terminals became more sophisticated (including the use of video displays instead of paper), manufacturers added new ways to control text output, including placing the cursor anywhere on the screen or switching between text styles.

The Cave BBS ANSI Art by Nukemaster
An ANSI created for the author’s BBS in the early 1990s. The Cave BBS/Nukemaster

ANSI art is a special type of computer art that originated on the IBM PC in the 1980s and was used primarily as a way to provide colorful digital illustrations for text-based BBSes. The ANSI art palette consists of the 256 characters present in the IBM PC “extended ASCII” character set (also called code page 437). In particular, code page 437 allowed for a new dimension in text-based art due to its block characters (which could be used similarly to pixels), gradient blocks for shading effects, and special single-width lines and double width for drawing boxes and menus.

ANSI illustrations can use 16 foreground colors and 8 background colors as defined by ANSI.SYS in MS-DOS. ANSI art relies on special terminal control sequences called “escape codes” (a form of those terminal control codes we mentioned earlier), and that’s where the “ANSI” part really comes in.

IBM code page 437 characters
Characters from IBM code page 437.

ANSI stands for “American National Standards Institute,” which is an organization that maintains standards in the United States. ANSI art gets its name from its use of ANSI escape codes defined by the ANSI X3.64 standard adopted in 1979. These escape codes provide a text-based way of sending control codes to a text-based terminal to change colors, place the cursor anywhere on the screen, and more. That cursor control capability also allows ANSI artists to create sophisticated animated effects and animations, such as spinning cursors at BBS command prompts.

ANSI art was the latest in a long tradition of text-based character art practiced as ASCII art on bulletin boards and teletypes before the IBM PC, and even on typewriters for nearly 100 years before the PC era.

RELATED: What are teletypes and why were they used with computers?

Why did people use ANSI Art?

With no other graphical capabilities to fall back on, many PC-based BBSs used ANSI art for decoration and embellishment that added personality to their systems. And BBS callers sometimes traded or collected ANSI artwork (with the .ANS file extension) for fun.

Also, BBS door games (such as trade wars 2002 Y legend of the red dragonfor example) used ANSI art for the title screens and colorful illustrations that added atmosphere to the game experience.

TradeWars 2002 ANSI BBS Intro Screen
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To create ANSI art, people often used a special program called an ANSI editor. The first known specialized ANSI editor was ANSIdraw, released around 1985. The following year, Ian Davis released TheDraw, which became the most popular ANSI art editor for many years. Later, dedicated ANSI artists switched to more sophisticated programs such as ACiDDraw and PabloDraw, which are currently maintained today.

Once ANSI became a popular art form on BBSes, it wasn’t long before a dedicated ANSI art community emerged. Different groups like ACiD Productions (originally short for “ANSI Creators In Demand”) and iCE (“Insane Creator Enterprises”) collected the best art from a group of artists and regularly distributed it in “art packs” (compressed files filled with ANSI ) that were traded on BBS.

What happened to ANSI art?

In the mid-1990s, the rise of the graphical web made text-based communications from serial terminals seem obsolete. The graphical web could display bitmap images, different high-resolution fonts, and could be interacted with with a mouse in a modern graphical user interface (GUI). Rather, the terminal-like experience on a BBS was largely a holdover from the pre-GUI age.

A Legend of the Red Dragon title screen ANSI art for BBS
Seth A. Robinson

Once the Internet came along, the use of BBSes dropped dramatically in the mid-to-late 1990s, making ANSI art less necessary. Also, at that time, Windows was widely adopted in the PC world, and most fonts did not include the “extended ASCII” special characters of code page 437 that made ANSI artwork. So even if you called a BBS in a terminal emulator running on Windows, the fonts would generally not render ANSI art correctly. Also, proportional fonts (with variable spacing) made both ANSI and ASCII break the art, since they relied on fixed-width fonts to work properly.

Examples of ANSI art today

Still, while ANSI art died dramatically in the early 2000s (and some ANSI artists transitioned to bitmap art published as JPEGs), a revival in BBS nostalgia has brought art from the edge for the last 15 years. Today, some staunch ANSI artists still create ANSI art both for modern BBSes and for viewing on the web thanks to special websites.

In fact, if you want to see ANSI art today, you can see full files at 16color.rs and Artpacks.org. Both sites allow you to view ANSI art as graphic images in your browser without the need for any special software. If you want to see ASCII art, ASCIIart.edu has you covered. Have fun!

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