Pixelart Basics: Essential Techniques For Beginners

Pixel art is a form of digital art where images are created and edited at the pixel level. Here is a basic definition of pixel art:

Pixel art is 2D art that is drawn and edited digitally by setting the color and light values of each individual pixel in an image. The resolution and color palette are often limited in pixel art to achieve a distinct retro or 8-bit visual style. (The Motion Monkey, https://www.themotionmonkey.co.uk/definitions/pixel-art/)

The history of pixel art dates back to the 1970s when personal computers first emerged with limited display capabilities. At first, pixel art was created out of necessity due to hardware restrictions:

Pixel art often remind people of the “good old days” of video gaming and the very beginnings of personal computing, back in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. When the early home computers and gaming consoles could only display very small, low resolution images with a handful of colors. (Balthasart, https://blog.balthasart.com/en/2022/09/09/what-is-pixel-art-and-its-history/)

Today, pixel art continues to be created intentionally for its retro style. Key tools and techniques include using specialized pixel art programs to draw, resize, and animate pixel images. Popular techniques involve careful placement of individual pixels to achieve shading, lighting, textures, and depth.

Choosing Your Canvas Size

When creating pixel art, choosing the right canvas size is an important first step. The canvas size determines the dimensions and resolution of your artwork in pixels. For beginners, there are some common canvas sizes to consider:

For basic pixel art sketches and designs, a small canvas like 64×64 or 128×128 pixels is a good starting point. This gives you a workable area without being too overwhelming when starting out (Source 1).

If creating pixel art for games, common sizes based on retro console resolutions include 256×224, 320×240, or 400×224 pixels. These dimensions match the pixel resolutions used by consoles like the SNES or Sega Genesis, making your art viable for retro-style games (Source 2).

Higher resolutions like 512×512 or 1024×1024 can work well if creating detailed pixel art. Large canvas sizes allow you to render intricate designs, though they require more time and skill to complete.

Consider the final use case for your pixel art when picking a canvas size. Smaller canvases are great for characters and avatars, while larger ones facilitate complex scenes and backgrounds. If ever in doubt, start with a smaller canvas and scale up as your abilities improve.

By understanding pixel dimensions and common canvas sizes, you can choose a size tailored to your skill level and project goals right from the start.

Pixel Art Color Palettes

One of the defining characteristics of pixel art is its limited color palette. Whereas traditional digital art may use millions of colors, pixel art restricts the palette to just a few carefully selected colors. This limitation is part of pixel art’s retro aesthetic and also helps simplify the drawing process.

Most pixel artists will start their artwork by choosing a color palette first. The palette acts as the set of “paint colors” that can be used to create the final piece. Some common palette sizes used in pixel art are 4, 12, 16, or 32 colors, though any number of colors can be used.

Choosing which colors go into the palette is an important design decision. Colors should be picked to create harmony and visual interest. A good palette will have a mix of light and dark values, some complementary colors, and a unique overall look.

It’s common to borrow color palettes from existing retro games and pixel art for inspiration. But many pixel artists will handpick custom palettes for each new piece to match their desired mood and style. There are also tools like Pinterest and Tumblr to find curated pixel art color palettes to experiment with.

By embracing color limitations, pixel artists transform the restricted palette into a strength of the medium. Careful color picking is essential for visually striking pixel art that makes the most of every individual color.

Drawing Pixel Shapes

Pixels are the basic building blocks of pixel art. To draw simple pixel art shapes, start with basic geometric shapes like circles, squares, triangles and rectangles.

To construct a square, fill in a block of pixels. For a circle, make a rounded shape by filling in pixels in a circular pattern. Triangles can be made by filling pixels in a triangular shape. Rectangles are made by filling in a longer horizontal or vertical block of pixels.

basic pixel art shapes - square, circle, triangle

When drawing curves and diagonal lines, be mindful of aliasing. This is when a sharp pixel edge becomes blurry and loses definition. To avoid aliasing, use fewer colors and avoid drawing diagonals at a 45 degree angle.

It can help to sketch your pixel art on graph paper first to plan out the simple shapes. Start simple when learning to draw pixel art shapes. With practice over time, you can take on more complex shapes and designs.

For more tips, see this tutorial from Adobe: https://www.adobe.com/creativecloud/design/discover/pixel-art.html

Shading and Lighting

Shading and lighting is an important technique in pixel art that can add a sense of form, volume, and realism to your artwork. Proper shading helps convey the direction and intensity of light sources falling on your subject. There are several common techniques for shading in pixel art:

Light Sources – Consider where the light is coming from in your scene. Often a single directional light source like sunlight or a lamp works best. Multiple lights can create overly complex shading. Define a clear primary light source for convincing shading.

Shading Techniques – Basic shading can be adding darker pixels on the shaded side and lighter colors on the lit side. More advanced methods include dithering, using patterned pixels to create gradients, and threshold shading with pure black and pure white pixels.

Highlights and Shadows – Add pure white pixels on the most intensely lit areas and dark black pixels in the darkest shadows. This creates contrast and enhances the lighting effect. Don’t overdo highlights and shadows.

Shading Shape – Consider the form of the object you’re shading. Curved surfaces should have smooth gradations while angled planes can have hard edges of shade. The shading should conform to the implied shape and volume.

To elevate your pixel art shading skills, experiment with different techniques and analyze how light interacts with forms. Reference real life photos for lighting ideas. With practice you can make your pixel art feel more three dimensional through expert shading.

For more tips, see this excellent pixel art shading tutorial: https://www.pinterest.com/FEARprototype/pixel-art-shading-tutorial/

Textures and Details

Adding textures and fine details is an important part of creating realistic and visually interesting pixel art. When adding texture, it’s best to simplify and abstract real-world textures into simple pixelated forms. As this pixel art tutorial explains, break down complex textures into basic shapes and details. Don’t try to recreate every minute detail. Simplify patterns and textures into repetitive pixel clusters.

When adding fine details, focus on areas that draw the viewer’s eye, like faces. Use subtle highlights, shadows and colors to add depth and realism. According to this texturing tutorial, details should enhance, not distract from, the overall composition. They recommend using details sparingly to maximize impact.

Dithering, using dots and patterns to simulate shading, is another useful texturing technique. By carefully placing light and dark pixels next to each other, you can create the illusion of smooth gradients and lighting effects. Experiment with different dithering patterns to create interesting textures. Always check that details enhance, not overwhelm, the overall pixel art piece.

Animation and Sprites

Animation is an exciting aspect of pixel art that brings your artwork to life. While creating smooth animations may seem daunting at first, it’s achievable through the use of sprite sheets and simple animation techniques.

A sprite sheet contains different frames of animation arranged in sequence on a single image. When displayed rapidly, it creates the illusion of movement. To create a sprite sheet:

  • Draw each frame of animation on individual layers
  • Export the layers into one sprite sheet image
  • Display the frames in quick succession, like a flip book

For example, a basic walking animation requires 8-12 frames showing the character’s legs in different positions. Arrange these images on a sprite sheet, then display them to depict a walking cycle.

Start with small loops like walk cycles before tackling more complex animations. Work your way up to multi-directional character movements, dynamic effects, and interactive game sprites.

When animating, follow these tips:

  • Keep animations short and seamless
  • Use enough frames to appear smooth
  • Create loops for repetitive actions like walking
  • Add transitional frames between key poses
  • Study real life movement for inspiration

With sprite sheets and practice, you can breathe life into your pixel art and tell visual stories through animation.

Perspective and Depth

Adding perspective and depth to pixel art can make a scene come alive. Some basic perspective techniques help convey the illusion of depth on a 2D canvas. Using principles like foreshortening objects in the foreground and reducing detail and size in the background are effective ways to show depth.

To depict basic perspective, make objects in the foreground larger and more detailed. As objects recede into the background, reduce their size and details. Also make background objects higher on the canvas to convey distance. Overlapping objects and using lighter colors in the distance enhance the perspective.

Separating the foreground and background into distinct layers adds depth. The foreground comprises the main action and focal points. The background provides context and supports the foreground. Objects should not span both layers.

Parallax scrolling is an advanced technique involving background layers moving slower than foreground layers. This adds to the illusion of depth as the layers move at different speeds when scrolling, with nearer layers moving fastest. The effect works well in side-scrolling games.[1]

Tools and Programs

When getting started with pixel art, using the right tools and software can make the process much easier. Many pixel artists recommend using drawing and animation programs that are specialized for pixel art.

Aseprite is considered one of the best software tools for pixel art, especially for game development. It provides features tailored for pixel art such as indexed color palettes, layers, and animation tools (Source). Other popular options include Pyxel Edit, GraphicsGale, and Pixel Studio.

For drawing pixel art, many artists use graphics tablets such as those made by Wacom. These tablets allow you to draw directly on a screen surface with a pressure-sensitive stylus. This gives you more precision and control compared to using a mouse.

Besides dedicated pixel art programs, general graphics software like Photoshop and GIMP can also be used. However, they may not have the same specialized tools. Free online pixel editors like Pixilart can also be great for beginners to start practicing.

When selecting pixel art tools, look for options that fit within your budget but also have the features you need for your art style and project. Try out different programs to see what workflow and interface you like best.

Improving Your Pixel Art Skills

Like any artistic skill, improving your pixel art requires consistent practice and learning. Here are some techniques to help you advance your abilities:

Practice exercises like pixel dailies can help train your eye for color, shape, and detail. Set aside time each day to create a small pixel art piece based on a prompt or reference image. Analyzing your pixel art alongside a reference image can help identify areas for improvement. Joining pixel art communities on sites like Reddit allows you to share your work and get constructive feedback.

Studying pixel art from professional games can reveal techniques for shading, textures, and animation. Deconstructing successful pixel art in a zoomed-in view lets you see how each pixel contributes to the overall effect. Try recreating small sections of professional pixel art studies to reverse engineer techniques.

Above all, be patient with yourself as you improve. Pixel art is a unique art form that takes time and dedication to master. But with persistent practice of fundamentals, reviewing feedback, and analyzing professional work, your skills will steadily improve.