Pixelart Light And Shadow Tutorial: Step-By-Step Guide For Beginners

Pixel art has been an integral part of video game graphics and visuals since the early days of gaming. Unlike vector or 3D graphics, pixel art uses raster graphics techniques to intentionally limit the color palette and resolution of digital artwork. This gives it a distinct retro style that is still popular in indie and retro-inspired games today.

Some of the earliest video games like Pong and Space Invaders used simple pixel art visuals out of necessity due to technical limitations. But over time, skilled pixel artists used limitations creatively to develop unique aesthetics. Classic games like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and many more helped popularize pixel art in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras.

In this comprehensive tutorial, we’ll cover all the essential skills you need to start creating your own pixel art with lighting and shadows. You’ll learn fundamental concepts like creating light sources, applying colors, shading techniques, controlling shadows, and more. By the end, you’ll have the knowledge to produce evocative pixel art scenes with dramatic lighting effects for your own projects.

Materials Needed

To create pixel art, you’ll need a few basic supplies and tools. The most essential is pixel art software. There are many options available, including free online editors, downloadable programs, and full-featured applications. Some popular choices include:

  • Piskel – A free web-based editor with basic tools.
  • Aseprite – A paid program built specifically for sprite animation and pixel art.
  • Photoshop – A versatile image editor with pixel art capabilities.
  • GraphicsGale – An affordable pixel art tool with onion skinning.

Another key supply is a drawing device. You can create pixel art using a mouse, but many artists prefer the control and precision of a graphics tablet. Wacom and Huion both make affordable starter tablets. Look for one with pressure sensitivity for shading.

When choosing tools, go for options with native pixel-level editing and snapping capabilities. Avoid programs like MS Paint that don’t allow single-pixel control. Investing in software built for pixel art will make the process much easier.

Basic Principles

When starting out with pixel art, there are some basic principles to understand that will help you create compelling artwork. Three key areas to focus on are color palettes, resolution and canvas size, and styles and techniques.

Choosing the right color palette is crucial for pixel art. With limited resolution, every color choice is impactful. Standard palettes use around 4-6 colors, often with a limited number of distinct hues. Some common palettes include pastels, muted tones, and retro brights. Experiment to find a palette that suits your desired style. Refer to resources like Lospec for inspiration.

Resolution in pixel art refers to the number of pixels that make up the image. Typical resolutions range from 64×64 pixels for icons and sprites, up to 128×128 or 256×256 pixels for more detailed game graphics and scenes. The canvas size depends on the final use. For example, 32×32 pixels works well for mobile app icons. Choose a resolution high enough to convey key details clearly.

There are many techniques and styles for creating pixel art. Dithering uses patterns to simulate shading with limited colors. Anti-aliasing smooths jagged edges. Pixel clustering exaggerates light and dark areas. Cross-hatching adds texture using angled lines. Isometric pixel art uses an axonometric projection. Develop your own style by studying pixel art you admire and experimenting with different techniques.

For more examples of basic principles in practice, refer to this article.

Lighting Basics

Lighting is a key component in pixel art that can dramatically affect the mood and look of a scene. There are a few basic principles to understand:

Types of Lighting

There are several main types of lighting in pixel art:

  • Directional lighting – Light coming from a specific direction, like sunlight.
  • Ambient lighting – Non-directional background lighting that lights the entire scene evenly.
  • Point lighting – Light radiating out from a single point, like a light bulb.


The direction light comes from impacts shadows and shading. Side lighting will cast shadows in a different place than top-down or bottom-up lighting. Experiment with light direction to achieve different effects.


Bright, intense lighting increases contrast between light and shadow. Softer, dim lighting reduces contrast. Adjusting the brightness and contrast of the light sources impacts the overall look dramatically.

Understanding these core concepts allows you to strategically place light sources and create convincing lighting for any pixel art scene. For more details see: Direct Lighting Tutorial.

Creating Light Sources

When creating different light sources in your pixel art, you can experiment with different shapes, sizes, and intensities. Here are some common light sources to try:


The flickering glow of candlelight can create a cozy or spooky mood. Candle flames are usually drawn as yellow, orange, or red tear-drop shapes. Add gradations of color from light to dark for a more realistic effect. Position the candle flames close to characters or objects to cast dramatic flickering shadows.


The sun is the most common light source for outdoor scenes. Sunlight is bright and casts clearly defined shadows. Draw the sun as a circle shape with rays radiating outwards. Use paler yellows and whites for maximum intensity. Position the sun up in the sky to show the angle of the light and shadows.


Handheld flashlights are useful for illuminating dark scenes. Draw the flashlight beam as a cone shape fading from bright white in the center to soft yellow/orange at the edges. Anything in the beam will be brightly lit. Adjust the width and range of the beam based on proximity.

Glowing Objects

Adding glowing objects like lamps, candles, or crystals creates fantasy mood lighting. Use vibrant colors like yellow, green, or blue. Draw the glow radiating outwards with a gradient fade. The glow can cast colored light on surrounding surfaces for an atmospheric effect.

Shading and Shadows

Shading and shadows are crucial for creating the illusion of form and depth in pixel art. The basics include understanding ambient shading, cast shadows, and controlling shape and direction.

Ambient shading refers to the general shading applied to an object to suggest its form. This is often done using a simple shading gradient, with the light source coming from above. Lighter colors are used on the top of an object, getting progressively darker towards the bottom. For a sphere, this would produce a smooth gradient from light to dark (https://www.pinterest.com/pin/474566879471569660/).

Cast shadows add realism by showing the effect of a light source blocking light and creating shadows. These shadows match the form and help place objects in an environment. Pay attention to the shape and direction of cast shadows to match your light source. Softer, blurred shadows work well for diffuse light sources like the sun, while sharper shadows match concentrated light (https://www.pinterest.com/pin/474288102343070892/).

When shading, start with ambient shading to suggest form, then add cast shadows originating from your light source. The shape, direction, and softness of shadows help reinforce the light and enhance your pixel art.

Advanced Lighting

The basic principles behind lighting and shading create the foundation for rendering good lighting. However, more advanced techniques take pixel art to the next level by introducing multiple light sources, light blooms, and rim lighting.

Combining multiple light sources creates more complex and realistic scenes. For example, having both a directional sunlight source coming from one side and a point light source like a torch on the other side can showcase the interaction between different lighting. The sunlight will cast shadows in one direction, while the torch illuminates objects from the opposite side.

Light blooms occur when a bright light source creates a radiating glow effect. This helps make intense light sources feel more vibrant. For example, having rays of light beam out from a glowing orb. When done right, light blooms add atmosphere and make the lighting feel magical. Refer to this YouTube video for examples.

Rim lighting refers to outlining the edge of an object with a bright highlight. This creates a striking contrast between the silhouette and background. Rim lights accentuate the shape and form of objects. For example, having a bright rim light on one side of a character makes them stand out more against the scene.

Special Effects

Lighting effects can be used to create eye-catching special effects in your pixel art. Here are some of the most popular special lighting effects you can add:

Animated Lighting

Animating your lighting is a great way to make your pixel art feel more dynamic. For example, you could have a candle flame flickering or a light bulb turning on. To animate lighting:

  • Create different lighting layers showing the light source in different states of animation.
  • Use short delays between each frame.
  • Keep the animation subtle so it’s not distracting.

Light Rays

Adding light rays shining from a light source is an easy way to make the light look more dramatic. Light rays work best when they’re subtle and layered on top of the base shading.

To create light rays:

  • Add thin lines or gradients radiating out from your light source.
  • Use partially transparent shades so they blend well.
  • Make the rays wider and brighter closest to the light source.

Glare/Glow Effects

You can also use effects like glare and glows to make light sources stand out. Use these sparingly as they can look unnatural if overdone.

  • Add a bright glare effect directly around a light source to imitate scattered light.
  • Use partially transparent, diffused glows around lights to soften the lighting.
  • Reserve glare and glow effects for your brightest light sources.

With the right balance of animated lighting, rays, glare, and glow effects, you can make your pixel art really pop off the screen.

Lighting Different Scenes

When lighting different scenes in pixel art, it’s important to consider the time of day and environment for realistic effects. Here are some tips:

Day vs Night Scenes

For daytime scenes, use a bright main light source to represent the sun. Add secondary light sources like rays shining through trees or windows. Use fewer and softer shadows during the day. For night scenes, start with a dark background and add limited light sources like the moon, stars, lamps, or candles. Use more dramatic shadows at night and pay attention to light falloff from the source.

Indoor Lighting

Indoors, light sources include lamps, candles, and sunlight coming through windows or doors. Consider the color temperature of different bulbs and how far light spreads from the source. Add gradient shadows that fade from dark to light. Reference photos of real indoor lighting for accuracy.

Natural Environments

Study the way light filters through trees and reflects off water in nature. Recreate the scatter and diffusion of sunlight. Use warmer light tones during sunrise/sunset and cooler tones midday. Add environmental effects like sunbeams, rain, or mist. Ensure lighting matches the weather and time of day.

For examples of lighting different pixel art scenes, see this video: Pixel Art Lighting and Atmospheric Effects.

Final Tips and Next Steps

To continue improving your skills with light and shadow in pixel art, it’s important to practice regularly and experiment with different techniques. Here are some final tips for progressing your skills:

Practice Exercises:

– Recreate scenes from reference photos, paying close attention to the light sources and shadows. This will help train your eye to observe lighting.

– Do lighting studies of simple shapes like spheres and cubes. This helps build an intuitive sense of how light wraps around forms.

– Try making timelapse animations to show the passage of light over time. This will reinforce dynamic lighting principles.


– Play around with different colors, gradients and dithering patterns for your lighting. See what creates the effect you want.

– Use different sized light sources and vary the falloff gradients. Note the impact on your shadows.

– Explore backlighting, rim lighting, bounce lighting and other techniques to add visual interest.

Additional Resources:

Check out this Medium article for more tips on basic shading techniques.

For deep dives into pixel art lighting, this YouTube tutorial is very comprehensive.

Joining pixel art communities and studying other artists’ work can provide lots of inspiration too. Keep practicing and have fun lighting up your pixel art!