Pixelart For Beginners: Exploring Different Styles And Themes

Pixel art refers to digital art created through pixel-level manipulation, often emulating retro video games and computer graphics from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. While pixel art has origins going back decades, it has seen a major resurgence in recent years as both an artform and a creative hobby.

The earliest examples of pixel art can be traced back to the 70s and 80s with graphics created for games on consoles like the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System. These consoles had very limited graphics capabilities, requiring artists to carefully place individual pixels to depict characters and environments. As home computers became more powerful in the 80s and 90s, pixel art continued evolving with more colors and resolution while still embracing its retro roots.

Today, pixel art has expanded into a thriving artform with countless visual styles and genres. Key types of pixel art include the classic 8-bit and 16-bit retro video game sprites, fantasy landscapes, pixelated characters, geometric abstract art, and animated pixel art. With modern tools, artists have immense creative freedom in crafting pixel art while paying homage to its origins.

In this guide, we will explore the diverse world of pixel art, looking at different styles, techniques, tools, and more for beginners interested in getting started.

Retro and 8-bit

Early video games in the 1970s and 1980s had very limited graphics capabilities due to the available technology at the time. This led to a distinct pixelated and blocky aesthetic in games from this era. Designers worked within tight technical constraints, often using a limited color palette of 8-bit or 16-bit colors.

pixelated characters from classic 8-bit games like super mario bros and pac-man

For example, the original Super Mario Bros. game for the NES had a color palette of just 52 colors. The low-resolution and jagged graphics gave retro games like Super Mario Bros., Pac-Man, and Space Invaders their iconic 8-bit pixel art style.

Modern pixel artists will sometimes emulate this old-school 8-bit aesthetic in their artwork as an homage to the early days of video games. Limiting yourself to an 8-bit color palette and low resolution can make for a fun creative challenge.



Pixel art lends itself wonderfully to fantastical themes and motifs like dragons, wizards, medieval castles, and mystical creatures. The retro pixel aesthetic evokes a sense of nostalgia and imagination that fits the fantasy genre perfectly. Many classic fantasy video games like The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest utilized pixel art to bring their magical worlds to life.

When creating fantasy pixel art, some common themes and elements to explore include:

  • Dragons – With reptilian scales, fiery breath, and majestic wings, dragons translate well into pixel form through careful shading and color choices.
  • Wizards and Mages – Pointy hats, robes, staffs, and spellbooks are wizardly apparel that pixel artists can easily render.
  • Medieval and Gothic Scenes – Castles, knights, princesses, and undead creatures feel right at home in a gothic pixel landscape.
  • Mystical Creatures – Take inspiration from folklore and mythology, bringing to life pixellated unicorns, fairies, griffins, and more.

When crafting a fantasy pixel scene, focus on using color, shading, and imaginative details to bring the mystical elements to life. A moody night sky, crumbling castle, or magical portal can help establish an enchanting tone and give depth. Every pixel counts in building an immersive fantasy world.

For pixel art inspiration, sites like Pinterest have curated selections of user-generated fantasy pixel creations to admire and draw ideas from.


Sci-fi pixel art focuses on futuristic themes like spaceships, robots, and alien planets. This style utilizes a bright neon color palette to depict futuristic technology against starry space backdrops. According to https://www.pinterest.com/adrianvanbrown/sci-fi-pixel-art/, sci-fi pixel art often portrays “sleek spaceships, futuristic cityscapes, and robotic characters”. The limited resolution of pixel art lends itself well to reducing complex mechanical designs into simplified shapes and forms. This abstraction helps create a retro-futuristic aesthetic.

Popular subjects for sci-fi pixel art include spaceships, robots, futuristic vehicles, sci-fi landscapes, and alien characters. The style aims to capture a sense of adventure exploring new frontiers in space. There is often high contrast between metallic textures and background space. The low resolution forces artists to use color, shape, and creative effects to depict complexity like lens flare on spaceships. According to https://www.pinterest.com/daleran0086/sci-fi-pixel-art/, good sci-fi pixel art “takes a minimalist approach while still creating a bold, visually striking image”.


Nature themes are very popular in pixel art, as they allow artists to create beautiful organic scenes and landscapes. Trees, plants, animals, and natural elements like water or sky lend themselves well to stylized pixel art interpretations.[1] Some common nature subjects include:

  • Plants – Flowers, trees, bushes, etc can be depicted in a pixelized style.
  • Animals – Cute pixel versions of animals like deer, rabbits, birds.
  • Landscapes – Pixel art can capture the beauty of forests, mountains, sunsets.
  • Organic Shapes – Flowing water, clouds, leaves, blades of grass.

Nature pixel art often uses a more muted, earthy color palette compared to other themes. Greens, browns, blues, and neutrals are very common. Simple dithering creates the impression of natural textures like fur, bark, or feathers. Animated nature pixel art might include elements like a flickering campfire, flowing water, or swaying grass.[2]

Nature allows for both vibrant, upbeat scenes as well as more relaxing, Zen-like environments in pixel art form. It pairs well with other themes like fantasy or adventure characters trekking through the woods. Overall, nature is an inspiring subject that brings pixel art to life.

Character Art

One of the most popular themes in pixel art is creating custom character designs and avatars. This could be an avatar to represent yourself online, or a character for a video game or digital artwork. Some common examples of pixel art characters include superheroes, warriors, wizards, and everyday people.

Designing a character in pixel art starts with conceptualizing the overall look, clothing, and physical features you want the character to have. As you start creating the actual pixel art, you’ll want to focus on defining shapes and colors for key elements like the head, torso, arms, legs, and clothing items. Establishing the color palette early is important for consistency. According to one source, hair is also an important part of character design to make each one unique.

When designing characters, artists recommend starting with simple forms and slowly adding details. You can start with basic geometric shapes for the limbs and torso, refining them as you go. Limiting your color palette also helps maintain a consistent retro pixel look. Don’t be afraid to exaggerate proportions or features to give your character more personality. As you become more experienced, you can create animated pixel art characters with multiple poses and expressions.

Some tips for aspiring pixel artists according to another source are to study real anatomy, use references, and plan your characters on paper first before creating the digital pixel art. Mastering pixel art characters takes time and practice, but the rewards of creating your own unique retro avatar or sprite are immense.


Abstract pixel art focuses on shapes, patterns, symmetry, and minimalism to create surreal imagery. Geometric shapes like circles, triangles, and squares are commonly used as building blocks. The repetitive patterns and stark contrasts between the geometric shapes and negative space create hypnotizing designs.

Abstract pixel art can have a dreamlike quality, evoking emotions without clearly definable subject matter. By limiting the color palette and resolution, the abstraction emerges from the rough, pixelated textures. The simplicity of the medium contrasts with the complexity of the final artwork.

Some excellent examples of surreal, geometric abstract pixel art can be seen at this DIY project and this Pinterest pin.

Tools and Software

When it comes to creating pixel art, the right tools and software can make all the difference. There are a variety of programs and applications designed specifically for working with pixel art, each with their own unique features and capabilities.

Some of the most popular pixel art software options include Aseprite, GraphicsGale, PyxelEdit, Pixilart, Pro Motion NG, and Photoshop. Many of these provide specialized pixel art tools like indexed color palettes, pixel-perfect drawing modes, and animated GIF export.

Aseprite is one of the leading paid pixel art programs, offering extensive animation support, layers & frames management, and customizable brushes. GraphicsGale has powerful animation capabilities as well, along with onion skinning and image filters. PyxelEdit has a retro-inspired interface and features for tilesets and sprite sheets.

For free open source options, Pixilart has a simple online editor good for beginners, while Pro Motion NG is a more full-featured downloadable pixel art program. Photoshop is popular for its blending modes, brushes, and color tools, though not specifically pixel-focused.

Outside of desktop software, there are also browser-based pixel editors like PiskelApp and Pixelator that run right in the web. And for mobile, Pixel Studio for iOS has a touch-optimized interface and supports animations.

When selecting pixel art software, consider your animation needs, desired features, learning curve, and budget. But with so many capable options out there, you’re sure to find a pixel art program that fits your style and goals.


To animate pixel art, most artists use sprite sheets. A sprite sheet is a collection of frames or cells that are played in sequence to create the illusion of movement and animation. Each frame depicts a slight change from the previous one to show motion and action.

There are a few key principles for animating pixel art successfully:

  • Use a small number of frames, often just 2-4 per animation sequence. The lower the frame rate, the more choppy and retro the animation will look.
  • Exaggerate key poses and transitions between frames to clearly depict the motion.
  • Be consistent with proportions and shapes between frames to maintain a cohesive look.
  • Plan animation cycles so the first and last frames seamlessly loop.

Most pixel art for games relies on sprite sheets with short animation sequences that can be reused, like running, jumping, or attacking. Planning these reusable animations is important. The animations need to flow well visually and transition logically between cycles.[1]

There are a variety of programs used to create and edit pixel art animations, like Aseprite, GraphicsGale, and Piskel. These allow artists to efficiently edit individual frames and export sprite sheets.


In summary, pixel art encompasses a diverse range of styles and themes, from the retro and 8-bit looks of classic video games to fantasy, sci-fi, nature, characters, abstract art, and more. While simple in appearance, creating compelling pixel art requires thoughtfulness in color selection, shape, and composition. The limited resolution can make it a creative challenge to convey emotions and tell visual stories.

This guide has provided an introduction to the world of pixel art across some of its major genres. For those interested to learn more, many online tutorials, books, and communities exist to help new artists develop their skills. With the right tools and dedication to deliberate practice, it’s possible for anyone to start creating their own pixel artworks.

Some additional resources to further explore include:

With practice and persistence, it’s possible to develop mastery in pixel art to bring retro-style or entirely new creations to life. This guide hopefully provides a useful starting point for the journey.