Essential Pixelart Techniques: Tips For Beginners

Pixel art is a form of digital art where images are edited and created on the pixel level. It refers to the technique of using software to manipulate individual pixels to create raster graphics and sprites, often with a limited color palette and resolution. The technique originated in the 80s with early graphics programs and classic video games that used low-resolution pixel graphics out of necessity.

Though pixel art was originally born out of technical limitations, it has evolved into an art form in its own right. The limited resolutions provide a unique canvas for artists to work within constraints and simplify ideas down to their essence. Common styles of pixel art include the nostalgic, retro graphics of old video games and computer systems as well as modern, minimalist pixel art. These days, pixel art is used for everything from mobile games and website design to posters and artwork.

The exact origins are debated, but pixel art is generally believed to have emerged in the late 70s and early 80s along with the rise of 8-bit computers and gaming systems. Early adopters manipulated graphics at the pixel level to create the best visuals possible with very limited resolutions like 320×200. Characters, environments and animations were carefully designed pixel-by-pixel and per-pixel coloring techniques like dithering were developed.[1]

Tools and Software

When starting out with pixel art, choosing the right software is essential. Some of the most popular and recommended programs for beginners include Adobe Photoshop, Aseprite, GraphicsGale, and Piskel (source). These allow for indexing colors, using layers, and creating animations.

Many artists recommend using a graphics tablet over a mouse when creating pixel art. Graphics tablets provide more fluid and natural movements for drawing. However, a mouse can still work well especially when starting out.

In terms of cost, there are quality free options like Piskel and GraphicsGale as well as paid programs like Aseprite and Photoshop. The free tools allow you to learn the basics without investing money upfront. However, paid programs offer more advanced features for animation, textures, and color palettes.

Color Palettes

Limiting your color palette is an essential technique in pixel art. Using a cohesive palette creates visual harmony and amplifies the overall mood and theme of your artwork. Most pixel artists recommend sticking to a maximum of 4-5 colors in your palette.

example of limited color palette used effectively in pixel art

Color palettes evoke certain emotions and styles. A moody night scene may use a dark blue and purple palette, while a cheerful sunny landscape could feature bright yellows and greens. Take time to experiment with different color combinations until you find a palette that fits your artistic vision.

You can find inspiration online from existing pixel art palettes, but it’s also rewarding to create your own custom palette using color theory principles. Limiting your options forces creativity and gives your artwork a unique signature style.

Drawing Pixel Shapes

One of the fundamental skills in pixel art is being able to draw simple shapes and forms. Here are some techniques and strategies for drawing lines, curves, geometric shapes, and organic shapes in pixel art:

Lines and Curves: To draw straight lines, it’s best to use the line or pencil tool and trace along the pixel grid. For curves, work at low resolutions like 16×16 to make smoother curves and diagonals. You can also use anti-aliasing to blend pixels and make softer curves. Be strategic with length and thickness of lines to convey shape and form.

Geometric Shapes: Perfect squares, circles, triangles etc. can look too artificial. Try offsetting or distorting them to look more organic. For example, resize circles into ovals or rotate squares to become diamonds. Use overlapping shapes and combine them in interesting ways.Turn Drawing Into Pixel Art

Organic Shapes: Look at real life references photos and break organic forms down into basic geometric shapes as a starting point. Focus on outlines and silhouettes first before adding details. Keep your shapes and contours smooth by varying pixel sizes and densities.Notes on Doing Pixel Art

Textures and Detail

One way to add texture and detail to pixel art without increasing resolution is through dithering. Dithering is the process of simulating shades and colors not available in your palette by scattering pixels of different colors next to each other. When viewed from a distance, the dots blend together into the desired shade (

Strategic use of highlights and shadows is another technique for adding texture. Placing shadows in the proper areas can make a surface look rough or bumpy. Adding highlights along edges can make an object appear shiny or wet. Pay attention to light sources and think about how light would interact with the textures you want to portray.

Conveying detail without increasing resolution comes down to careful pixel placement. Outline key shapes and details with contrasting colors to define their edges. Use single pixel dots to suggest small elements like rivets or stitches. And don’t be afraid to utilize negative space – sometimes what you don’t draw is just as important for creating the illusion of detail.

Animation Basics

Animation in pixel art requires applying the 12 principles of animation in a pixelated style. Some key principles include:

  • Squash and stretch – Exaggerating the squashing and stretching of shapes can add appeal.
  • Anticipation – Having a wind up before major actions prepares the viewer.
  • Staging – Presenting the most important action clearly.
  • Secondary action – Adding secondary motion that complements the main action.

Flipbooks are a great way to start animating pixels. They allow you to see the transitions frame-by-frame. When creating a flipbook:

  • Use thick paper and make sure each drawing lines up.
  • Animate the most important parts like eyes, mouth, and limbs.
  • Start with rough sketches, then refine.
  • Keep gestures simple at first.

When animating characters:

  • Pay attention to anatomical limitations to avoid unnatural bending.
  • Add transitional pixels near joints when limbs are moving.
  • Use head bobs and eye blinks to show life.
  • Make sure key emotions read clearly in the face.

Limiting Your Palette

Using a limited color palette is one of the hallmarks of pixel art and provides many benefits to aspiring artists. By restricting your available colors, you force yourself to get creative in how you utilize hue, saturation, and shading to render your image. A limited palette also creates cohesion and can lend a stylized, retro look popular in games and animation.

But choosing the right colors for your limited palette is key. You want a selection that provides enough contrast and variety to depict what you want, while remaining relatively harmonious. Some artists stick with just 2-4 colors, while others use a larger palette of 8-16 colors. Try sampling colors directly from retro game sprite art you admire.

Once you’ve selected an initial palette, get in the habit of palette switching – periodically changing some or all of your colors as your piece evolves. This allows you to maintain color harmony while preventing your artwork from getting stale.

For more examples of stunning pixel art using limited color palettes, check out this article: How to Create Stunning Pixel Art Using a Limited Color Palette

Lighting and Shading

Proper lighting and shading techniques are critical for adding depth and dimension to pixel art. There are a few key concepts to understand:

Simple lighting can greatly enhance the sense of form. Add shadows to one side of an object to make it feel 3D. The light source doesn’t have to be visible, but be consistent with where shadows fall. See Pixel Art Mastery – Advanced Textures and Shading for examples.

Pay attention to cast shadows versus ambient shading. Cast shadows are darker, sharper shadows created by a specific light source blocking light. Ambient shading is softer, creating the general shading across an object. Use both for realistic effects.

Highlights and color blending add further dimension. Add highlights along edges facing the light. Blend colors smoothly from light to dark to create gradients. See this example of highlights and smooth blending.

Best Practices

When creating pixel art, it’s important to follow some best practices to achieve pixel perfection. Here are some tips to help you avoid common beginner mistakes and know when it’s ok to break the “rules”.

Pixel Perfection Tips

Strive for clean, crisp pixels with clearly defined edges. Avoid “dirty” or blurry pixels by using the pencil and eraser tools properly. Zoom in close to place each pixel deliberately. Use anti-aliasing judiciously – it can help blend colors, but too much will make pixels bleed together.

Common Beginner Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t just shrink or blow up standard artwork and expect it to look good pixelated. The composition needs to be designed with “chunky” shapes in mind. Avoid using gradients, blends, or brushes meant for painting. Steer clear of colors that are too similar – high contrast makes details pop. Remember that less is more – empty negative space is your friend!

When to Break the “Rules”

Strict pixel perfection is not always required. Sometimes a few blurred pixels can create a soft, dreamy aesthetic. Let colors bleed if it adds to the mood. Break symmetry and straight lines for a hand-drawn feel. Add some random noise or cracks for interest. Just make sure it’s intentional and enhances the overall look!

Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources for learning and improving your pixel art skills:

Recommended Online Courses

Pixel Art Master Class by on Udemy is a great introductory course covering tools, color palettes, lighting, animation, and more.

The Beginners Guide to Pixel Art by Daniel Thiger on also provides a solid pixel art foundation across 7+ hours of tutorials.

Useful Books and eBooks

Pixel Logic: The Complete Guide to Pixel Art by Ivan Dixon is hailed as one of the most comprehensive pixel art books available.

For a free introductory ebook, Pixel Art for Beginners by Pedro Medeiros from Lospec is great.

Social Media & Blogs

Follow pixel artists like @PixelArtDiary on Twitter and @PixelDaily on Instagram for inspiration.

The blog sections on PixelJoint and Lospec also have a wealth of information.