Pixelart Highlights And Shadows Tips: Adding Depth To Your Art

Highlights and shadows are important elements in pixel art that add depth and dimension to a piece. The purpose of using highlights and shadows is to create the illusion of form, as if light is hitting the objects depicted. Highlights are the lightest values, often appearing white or close to white, that describe the most illuminated areas of an object. Shadows are the darkest values, often black or close to black, that describe the least illuminated areas.

When used effectively, highlights and shadows make pixel art appear more three-dimensional, realistic, and visually appealing. They draw the viewer’s eye to focal points and separate foreground from background. This guide will provide tips on how to use highlights and shadows to take your pixel art to the next level.

Light Source

Establishing a consistent light source is crucial for adding realistic depth and dimension to pixel art. As explained in the PixelArt subreddit, “Pixel art doesn’t need to be very consistent here, but the left side of the building has almost no shadow while the right side does.” Source

The direction and intensity of your light source will determine where highlights and shadows fall. For example, a light source coming from the top left will cast shadows on the bottom and right sides of objects. The stronger the light, the more intense the highlights and shadows will be. As a Minecraft pixel art tutorial suggests, “Try to image a directed light source. Pixel art basic colour shadow tutouial. To finish up colour the black outline keeping in mind the light source.” Source

Being consistent with your light direction is key. The highlights and shadows on each element in your scene should align with the same imagined light source.


Highlights are important for adding dimension and drawing the viewer’s eye in pixel art. They show where the light source is hitting the form directly, creating brighter areas.

Place highlights on protruding and raised areas facing the light source. The top and sides of rounded forms are good spots. Highlights help indicate the 3D shape and curve of objects. You can also add small highlights along edges to make them stand out.

pixel art sphere lit from the side with shadows and highlights

Brighten up the highlight areas substantially compared to the midtones. Pure white is often used. You can also experiment with very light tints of the base color. Don’t be afraid to crank up the contrast between highlights and surrounding values.

Apply highlights as small dots or larger gradients. Gradients allow a smooth transition from the brightest point down to the midtone. Experiment with hard edges or softer feathered edges on your highlights.

Use highlights judiciously. Don’t overdo it or highlights will look unnatural and distracting. Just enough to suggest form and draw the eye is best.


Shadows are essential for adding depth and dimension to pixel art. Properly placed shadows can make a flat 2D image seem 3D. When thinking about shadows, consider the light source and how objects would block light and create darkened areas.

Shadows are usually placed opposite of the light source. If the light is coming from the top left, shadows will fall towards the bottom right of objects. The closer to the light source, the less shadow there will be. Areas that are farthest from the light will have the darkest shadows.

The darkness of the shadow can be built up gradually using gradients. Transitions between light and shadow are usually softer for rounded objects and harder for objects with sharp edges. Pay attention to edges between shadow and light, making sure they aren’t too sharp.

For more realistic shading, build up multiple layers of gradients to create smooth transitions between light and dark (source). Flowing shadows enhance the feeling of 3D form.

Value Range

The value range in pixel art refers to the full range of brightness values used, from the highlights (lightest tones) to the shadows (darkest tones). Having a good value range with strong contrast between the lightest and darkest values helps add depth and dimensionality to pixel art.

Most pixel art works with a limited color palette, often 256 colors or less. But within that limited palette, it’s important to utilize the full value range. Black is 0 value and white is 255. Going from black to white through various shades of gray creates contrast. The greater the difference in values between the highlights and shadows, the stronger the contrast will be.

Strong value contrast helps certain elements pop from the background or stand out distinctly. It creates separation between objects that defines their form better. Utilizing a full range of values is a key technique for making pixel art appear more three-dimensional and layered.

Rather than just having bright colors against a plain white background for example, try introducing darker tones in the shadows. Go from white to light gray to mid grays and dark grays in the shaded areas. This better defines shapes and adds depth.

Similarly, don’t leave highlights as just plain white. Add subtle light grays to show gradations. The highlights and shadows will stand out more with a good value range (Digital Image Basics). Experiment until you find an optimal value contrast that brings out the right amount of depth and dimension in your art.

Hard vs Soft Edges

When adding highlights and shadows to your pixel art, you can use either hard or soft edges to achieve different artistic effects.

Hard edges occur when there is an abrupt transition between the light and shadow areas. This creates crisp, defined lines between light and dark. Hard edges tend to feel more graphic, stylized and geometric. They work well if you want a very clean, retro video game style.

Soft edges occur when the transition between light and shadow is more gradual. This creates a softer, more blended look. Soft edges can help add realism, depth and form to elements in your scene. They work well if you want a more natural, painterly style.

In general, highlights and shadows on mechanical objects, buildings and hard surfaces work best with hard edges. Living things like people, animals and plants often look better with soft edge highlights and shadows. But you can mix and match hard and soft edges in one piece for different effects.

When deciding between hard vs soft edges, consider the overall style you want for your artwork. Also think about the light source and how diffuse or directed the lighting is. Experiment to see which type of edges enhance your highlights and shadows most effectively.


When adding highlights and shadows, color choice plays an important role in creating visual depth and interest in pixel art. The colors used not only affect value contrast, but also direct the viewer’s eye. Warm colors like red, orange and yellow tend to come forward, while cool colors like blue, purple and green recede. Using warmer colors for highlights and cooler colors for shadows enhances the sense of depth.

You can also vary the saturation and intensity of colors. Highlights often use more saturated colors, while shadows have muted and grayed tones. Going from saturated highlights to subtle shadows adds variance and visual depth. Additionally, highlights provide an opportunity to introduce accent colors to make elements stand out. Just take care not to overdo it on brightness and saturation in highlights areas or they may visually overwhelm.

When choosing your palette for lighting effects, aim for a harmonious balance of warm and cool tones. You want clear shifts in value contrast between lights and darks, but also consider how color temperatures guide the viewer’s eye through the composition.

For an in-depth look at selecting colors for highlights and shadows in pixel art, check out this excellent tutorial.


When adding highlights and shadows to pixel art, it’s important not to overdo it. Going overboard with strong highlights and dark shadows can make the image appear unnatural and overprocessed. According to the Pixelblog article “Pixelblog – 6 – Light and Shadow”, balancing highlights and shadows creates “dynamic” lighting effects while remaining “natural.”

A balanced use of highlights and shadows should enhance the existing form and depth, not overwhelm it. Try to use soft gradients and subtlety, keeping the core light and dark values restrained. Let key highlights pop rather than making everything brightly lit. The goal is to suggest light and shadow for added dimension, not drown the image in lights and darks.

When in doubt, lean towards subtlety in balancing highlights and shadows. You can always enhance them later, but going overboard tends to look unnatural. With a delicate balance, you’ll lift your pixel art off the screen with nuanced and realistic lighting.

Lighting Angle

The angle at which light hits an object has a big impact on where highlights and shadows appear. Light that hits perpendicular to a surface will cast shadows directly underneath. As the light source moves and hits at an angle, shadows shift to the opposite side.

For example, with a ball lit from directly above, the shadow will be directly below it. If the light source moves around to the side, the shadow will move to the opposite side of the ball. This creates a more dynamic and natural lighting effect. Experiment with different angles to see the impact on your pixel art. Generally a 45 degree angle creates appealing highlights and shadows.

As noted in an article on How to Start Making Pixel Art, “the angle at which the light hits the object also matters, a perpendicular light is darker than a direct light.”1 When choosing a lighting angle, consider the mood and dimensionality you want to create.


To summarize, understanding how to use highlights and shadows effectively is crucial for creating depth and realism in pixel art. Proper use of lighting, shadows, edges and value range brings your art to life and makes it visually striking. Some final tips are to study real life references and photographs for highlight and shadow placement, practice different lighting angles and color variations, and don’t be afraid to experiment until you find an effective balance. With regular practice and persistence, you’ll develop an intuitive sense for pixel shading that makes your art stand out. Mastering highlights and shadows allows you to create engaging pixel art full of depth and dimension. Keep practicing the techniques covered here, and your artwork will continue to improve.