How to Make Pixel Art
Dado Almeida, concept artist for games and animation, teaches how to make pixel art! This step-by-step tutorial goes over pixel linework and coloring techniques
INTRODUCTION TO PIXEL ART
Computer graphics and digital art as we know them today, have an origin: pixel art.
Therefore, creating art with these limitations in mind is the core of pixel art as an art form.
In this article, I’ll highlight some characteristics, basic techniques and guidelines so you can start making your own pixel art drawings.
The technical side of this art form is important, especially if you want to make an homage to a video game.
It’s beneficial to respect the fundamentals and the techniques of old-school digital artists – but it’s not obligatory to work like them.
LEARNING BY DOING
For this article, we’ll work on an approachable challenge.
That’s it! This is an easy pixel art project.
Start with a small (resolution) file size so the pixel unit is visible. There’s no point in making pixel art where the pixels aren’t evident.
SETTING UP YOUR CANVAS
For this article, I’ll be using Clip Studio Paint.
While there are great dedicated tools for making pixel art, you can use any drawing program to follow along.
- Create a 64×64 pixel document (1)
- Configure it with the following so you can see a grid with every single pixel. You can turn the grid on/off anytime using the Shift+G shortcut. (3)
CREATING THE PIXEL ART TOOLS
Time to introduce a basic concept.
Pixel art does not work well with automatic anti-aliasing.
As you can see in the example, the anti-aliased edge (7) has an automatic gradient of pixels to give the shape a smoother contour.
A rule of thumb when using any software to create pixel art is to disable the anti-aliasing setting in brushes, tools and transformations.
In Clip Studio Paint you have to turn off anti-aliasing in the following:
- brushes (8);
- tools like Selection, Fill, Text, eg. (9);
- and during any transformation using Edit > Transform (10);
I suggest you follow this tutorial using this brush only.
Later in the game, you can duplicate any of your ‘common’ brushes and use them for pixel art (as long you reduce brush size to lower values and disable anti-aliasing).
DRAWING THE LINEART
In this case I changed the Center X and Center Y values to 32, which is half of my total canvas size (64 pixels).
Now, select your Dot Pen again and start drawing.
Since this brush can’t be resized, it’s a good idea to zoom in on the canvas you’re drawing (15) and use the duplicate view as a reference (14).
There’s no need to use a blue color. I just prefer it because it helps my brain understand that I’m creating a rough for my final drawing.
Before adding the final lines, let me show you a simple technique for drawing lines and curves in pixel art.
You can fix those ‘doubles’ (it’s a term) by removing any adjacent pixels on the curve. In the example (19), I removed all pixels marked in red.
I suggest you to return to your sketch and look out for those ‘doubles’ to clean your linework.
TIP: if you need to erase a pixel, you can simply switch to the transparent color (I have my shortcut set to X);
In the example below you can see the difference between the initial sketch (20) and the cleaned-up version (21).
Ready for another technique?
Seeing the example below (22), you can notice the distribution and spacing of pixels do not follow a logical progression. (eg.: 3, 2, 1, 4…)
While on this improved version (23), you can see a better progression of pixels to create the curve. (eg.: 1, 2, 2, 3…)
With that knowledge, I suggest you try the following exercise before continuing with your drawing:
This will give you a solid gasp on contouring shapes in pixel art.
Take some time to compare with the original version (24) and notice where I applied the techniques.
The number of colors used on a sprite (term used to describe an object in game development) depends on how much you want to stay close to a specific limitation of an old technology.
The color and tone choices on this palette could be better, but they provides a good starting point.
In the examples below you have the PC-98 computer color palette (27) and a personal one I built in the past (28);
Later you can start building your own palette, but always remember to keep it tight and simple.
I start by filling my lines with some base colors (flatting).
At this stage, remember to configure your Auto Select and Fill tools for the pixel art workflow, disabling Area Scaling and Anti-aliasing (30).
I can potentially use any color available as long the values read correctly.
Again, I don’t need to – but I’d like to exercise these limitations imposed by the NES color palette.
For the highlights on the skin and glasses (33), I don’t need to introduce any new colors because, while checking the grayscale values (34),
I noticed the color of the T-shirt could be used for that.
Using the NES palette only, I could not find colors that I could use to create this gradient transition.
In the example I added two new colours (37), so I can add more details to the shading.
I can’t stress this enough, but it’s really important that you make these decisions while looking the artwork through the real, not zoomed-in, canvas size (35).
On the blue jacket, I decided to use the dithering technique to create the sensation of a gradient without adding colors (40).
By breaking up the solid transitions on a checkerboard pattern I can make the illusion of an in-between color (39).
As you can see, the effect creates a textural effect that can be a problematic if used on skin or smooth surfaces.
I found it appropriate to use in the jacket (made of cloth), because I can benefit from the rough texture.
After some tweaking, I managed to paint the portrait fully.
ps.: I also had pixels and colors enough to fix those weird-looking cartoony eyes. X-D
Last, but not least…
When saving and exporting pixel art, use the GIF or PNG format.
Avoid using the JPEG format, especially with any level of compression.
This will destroy all the love and care you used to create your pixel art.
An 80% compressed version (42) will make any pixel artist bleed. So please, don’t do that. 🙂
On Twitter, you’ll have a sharper, almost perfect image if the exported file is 506 pixels wide in PNG format.
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and also hope you had fun creating your first pixel art drawing.
Below you can find my minuscule, yet incredible, piece of art. 🙂
If you create yours, please let me know.
This tutorial was on how to make pixel art in CSP, but you can use a simple, single dot brush in Photoshop, Procreate, Ibis Paint, or any other app to try and follow this tutorial as well.
Interested in character art & design or what it takes to become a character designer?
Check out the link below!