Horsen Around: An Interview with Teletext Artist Horsenburger

Paleotronic had a chat with Steve Horsley, aka Horsenburger, about how and why he got into teletext art.

Paleotronic had a chat with prolific teletext artist Steve Horsley, aka Horsenburger, about how and why he got into teletext art.

Thanks for agreeing to answer our questions! When did you first encounter teletext? What system was it? What did you think of it, and what did you use it for?

The first time I used a teletext system to produce images was with the betting shop chain Ladbrokes in around 1995, their system was slightly more advanced that traditional teletext as it was just being broadcast to their chain of stores, and as they had limited pages they could display more data.  My job was to produce images relating to logos, deals and offers for various sporting events, but mainly it was making pictures of horses and footballs.

From there I went to work at Teletext, they had recently won the contract to take over from Oracle as the UK’s commercial teletext provider.  My best friend, known in UK gaming journalism as Mr Biffo was working there as the designer, he had recently co-created the cult gaming section called “Digitiser”, this had become a smash hit and was actually the most popular section on Teletext, so this was taking all his time it gave me a foot in the door to join to take over his graphic duty (which was lucky for me as the National Lottery had just been launched and Ladbrokes cut my job as they had lost a huge amount of income). 

I really enjoyed it to start with but eventually working at Teletext pretty much resulted in me swapping horses for palm trees, planes and boats for the holiday advertisers.  Within 4 years I had moved on to website design and IT development and Teletext became a thing of the past for me and eventually the service was closed down in the mid 2000s.

When did you decide you wanted to create art in the format? What inspired you? Had you already been creating character-set based art elsewhere, or was this your first foray into it? Were you already artistic or did teletext bring out creativity that you hadn’t experienced before?

Teletext art was never my chosen field, I loved drawing and painting, had a few commissions in the past for artwork and comic books, but even that slipped away as I had to get a proper job.  But I was really lucky to fall into it Teletext, I just wish I had appreciated it more at the time.

How I got back into Teletext was down to Digitiser again!  In 2016, the brilliant @illarterate and @that_other_Carl created an event to celebrate all things Teletext and Digitiser called “Digifest”, this brought together a whole group of ex-teletext and Ceefax employees as well as celebrity fans for a weekend of panels and shows, and if it had not been for this I’d probably not have ever got into it again.   But at the time of organising Dan and Carl didn’t know who I was until Mr Biffo asked if I wanted to join him on the artists panel with him, and as I was having a rough time at work I saw it as a great opportunity for a fun weekend, so I couldn’t say no.   

Then I started to panic as I realised I had not worked on a teletext image for almost twenty years, and I wasn’t even sure I was able to do it as it had been such a long time.  My other concern was I didn’t know if the software or any so for existed to even do teletext work again.  When I used to work for teletext the software was incredibly expensive and to use it at home you had to plug a “dongle” into the back of your PC which would act as a license, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay for that just do teletext again.

Luckily I found out from Mr Biffo that there was a perfect Teletext editor that had been written by an amazingly talented programmer named Simon Rawles, Simon had created this from the original specification after a conversation with @illarterate.  The software is called edit.TF and it is so close to what I remember, but it’s freely available and runs in a web browser.  The first time I opened up the blank page and started editing, it felt like I’d never been away, it’ll came back naturally to me.

What inspired me to try to develop teletext graphics to an art form was the fact I was now doing it for fun and it wasn’t a job anymore, no more horses and palm trees.  What has amazed me is the fan following of teletext in the UK and around the world, it’s so nostalgic for so many people and I think they love the colours, it makes people happy. 

So when I started up with creating Teletext art I decided to stick with that feeling of nostalgia and work on mainly pop culture images.  As soon as I started to get feedback I realized I loved doing this as much as people loved looking at it.  Over the last 18 months I’ve produced almost 1500 designs and I try to publish at least one new design every day on twitter (@Horsenburger)

Recently I have also been getting into the ANSI art scene, working with Blocktronics and Mistgris, which is something new for me. 

What sorts of things make the best subjects for teletext art?

Complicated scenes make the worst subjects for teletext art due to the system limitations, the canvas, pixelar shape and colours can even prove a struggle for faces unless the person is very recognizable.  Cartoon characters are very good unless they require much detail.  This is the reason I like producing pop culture icons is because they are so recognizable, and there’s the trick, if it looks like something the viewers’ imagination will normally fill in the blanks, this does half the work for me.   I often think what I’ve done isn’t very good when I’m doing it, I usually only like it when I go back to it the next day, it’s pretty weird.

What are the idiosyncrasies of the teletext format? How do you work around them?

The biggest issues with teletext is the fact it is just 3-bit, I think each page has to be under 1kb of data so the canvas sizes is only 78 by 75 pixels and it’s colour palette is limited to Blue, Cyan, Red, Yellow, Green, Magenta, White and Black.  You also just use the keyboard to edit, there isn’t any mouse use involved normally.  Other “features” of the system include every time you change colour, size, text or graphic, you have to put down a command block which uses a block of six pixels, these can’t contain pixels or text.  You can use coloured backgrounds, but I choose not to as I think with bold black border around each colour, helps the design look clearer.  So if you are going to have a go, my advice is keep it big and bold, try to think about it as more like sculpting pixels than drawing.

I think it is the limitation of the system which makes it so much fun for me, and I always love being challenged.

What software tools did you use for creating your first teletext screens? Has that software changed over time? What software do you use now?

Back in the day I’m sure the system we used to work on was called winsprite, and it worked on a windows 3.1 computer so was a long time ago, I now use edit.TF, that is my tool of choice, but there are at least two other free to use teletext editors out there available at the moment.  These are all produced by teletext fans, and they are so good.   The main reasons I use edit.TF is because it is the as close to the system I used to use when I was at teletext.  The other editors also feature the system that never managed to be ready before the plug was pulled, these allow you to use level 2.5 features, which include the ability to use eight of any colour you want. 

But I’m old fashioned, and I just want to stick with the limitations of level 1 teletext.

Do you plan on creating more teletext art in the future? What other artistic endeavours are you involved in? Where can people find out more about your art?

I intend to keep doing it until I run out of ideas, or people stop looking at them, over the past year I’ve produced teletext artwork for books, youtube channels and podcasts, I have had Teletext artwork displayed in galleries and shows around the UK, it’s been an amazing time.  The only thing that will slow me down at the moment is my current job which is taking 14 hours a day up a call centre.

I think there are still plans for another teletext block party this year and I will also be at the nova 18 demoparty in June, and in July I’ll be working on the kickstarter funded Digitiser TV show – retro gaming youtube special with Mr. Biffo and a host of YouTube celebrities and guests, it’s going to be a busy year.

If you want to find out more about me just look up Horsenburger online, you can find my YouTube channel where I have examples of designs being produced by myself, my Twitter feed has daily updates, I also have my website, a Red Bubble store, Fiverr page and a Patreon if you want to support me.

Thanks Steve!

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