Pixelart Shading Techniques: Beginner’S Tips And Tricks

Pixel art shading refers to the techniques used to add light and shadows to create the illusion of form and depth when creating pixel art. Though pixel art originated from early computer and video games that were limited in resolution and color options, artists developed creative techniques for shading to bring their artwork to life.

Some of the earliest examples of shading in pixel art can be traced back to the 1980s when home computers like the Commodore 64 became popular. Graphic artists experimented with dithering, color blending, and simple shadows to breathe dimensionality into the limited pixel canvases (1). As computer graphics evolved through the decades, pixel artists invented new techniques to produce lighting effects that worked around limited resolutions while maximizing the visual impact.

This article provides an overview of fundamental and more advanced shading techniques used in pixel art today. It covers topics like basic shading of forms, shading different materials, managing light sources and shadows, and tips for shading characters, environments, and animations while working within restricted color palettes. The goal is to provide pixel artists with techniques and strategies for effective shading across different contexts.

Basic Shading Techniques

Some of the most common basic shading techniques in pixel art include dithering, color blending, and outlines.

Dithering involves using patterns of different colored pixels to create the illusion of shading and texture. This is useful for shading large areas smoothly (1). Common dithering patterns include checkerboard and noise.

Color blending involves smoothly shading areas by gradually transitioning between colors. You can create soft shading by blending from light to dark shades of a color. Don’t blend more than 3-4 colors in one area (1).

Outlines help define shapes and separate elements from the background. Dark outlines around objects make them appear in front of lighter backgrounds. Using outlines is key for readability.

Start with simple shading using dithering and outlines. As you advance, try blending colors for smoother gradients. Remember to keep the palette limited.

Advanced Shading Techniques

Once you have mastered the basics of shading in pixel art, there are more advanced techniques you can use to add depth, realism, and interest to your work. Three key advanced shading methods are ambient occlusion, diffuse lighting, and specular highlighting.

Ambient occlusion refers to the darkened areas where two surfaces meet and less ambient light reaches. This can be seen in corners, crevices, and areas where objects overlap. To show ambient occlusion, use darker shades in these areas. This creates a subtle shadow effect that adds realism (source).

Diffuse lighting is the even, scattered lighting created by a diffuse light source like the sun on a cloudy day. To depict diffuse lighting, apply smooth gradients from light to dark across surfaces turning away from the light. This gradient gives a rounded, 3D appearance (source).

Specular highlights are the bright spots where a shiny surface directly reflects a light source. Use very light colors or white for these small highlights to make materials appear glossy and wet. Place highlights logically based on light position (source).

Mastering these advanced shading techniques allows artists to portray convincing realism and depth within the pixel art medium.

Shading Different Materials

When shading different materials in pixel art, it’s important to convey their unique properties. Here are some tips for key materials:


Metals often have bright highlights and dark shadows. Use pure whites sparingly to show glinting edges catching the light. Fade to midtones and darker greys in the shadowed areas. Add gradients to show curved or irregular surfaces.


Wood has a more matte texture. Use light browns in the highlights that fade into mid-browns and darker browns for shadows. Add lines to show the wood grain and texture. Vary the strength of the grain based on the type of wood.


Water can be tricky in pixel art. Use light blues or greys with white highlights for the water surface. Add waves and ripples with softly shaded lines. Use a transparency gradient to show depth. For splashes, use white highlights around the edges.


Fire and smoke can add excitement. Use oranges and reds that fade darker for the flames. Add flowing, irregular patterns. For smoke, use greys that fade lighter in wispy, billowing shapes. Keep the movements subtle but noticeable.

Light Sources and Shadows

Light sources are a critical component of shading in pixel art. There are several types of light sources to consider:

Point Light Source

A point light source emits light in all directions from a single point. This type of light causes clearly defined shadows and highlights. Point lights are commonly used in pixel art to emulate light bulbs, candles, or other small light sources.

Area Light Source

An area light source emits light over a broad area, like sunlight or fluorescent ceiling lights. Area lights create softer shadows with blurrier edges compared to point lights. Area lighting is frequently used in pixel art backgrounds and outdoor scenes.

Ambient Light

Ambient light represents general, non-directional lighting in a scene. There is no specific light source – the illumination is evenly diffuse. Ambient light sets the overall brightness and can be combined with point/area light sources.

Cast Shadows

Cast shadows occur when an object blocks light and creates a shadow behind it. The shape and sharpness of cast shadows depend on the type of light source. Point lights make sharp, clearly defined shadows. Area lights make softer, blurred shadows. Skillful use of cast shadows enhances depth and realism in pixel art.

To portray convincing lighting and shadows in pixel art, it’s important to establish a consistent light source and understand how different types of lighting interact with objects to produce highlights and shadows. Strategic use of different light sources and cast shadows can add depth and interest to a pixel art scene.

Palette Limitations

examples of point light and area light shadows in pixel art

Pixel art characters work with bit dept and heavily rely on using just a handful of colors to their fullest extent. A limited color palette creates a unique and distinct art style while presenting fun challenges for shading. The artist needs to pick colors wisely to imply depth, light and form using very few colors. According to a Reddit discussion on game development many pixel artists find carefully selecting a color palette essential for giving pixel art games their signature look and helping them stand out.

When working with a limited palette, hue shifting becomes an important shading technique. By shifting a color slightly lighter or darker, artists can create the illusion of light and shadow. Dithering, using patterns of light and dark pixels, is another way to imply shading without additional colors. Strategic use of pure black and white can also enhance lighting effects. Overall, restricting the palette pushes pixel artists to get creative with the colors they have available.

Animation and Shading

When creating pixel art animations, consistent shading is crucial for a smooth and professional look. Since each frame is drawn individually, it can be easy for shading to jump around or flicker between frames if you’re not careful.

To maintain consistent shading in animation:

  • Plan lighting and shading interactions upfront before animating. Think about how light sources and shadows will move and change over the course of the animation.
  • Use shading layers or folders to keep shading consistent across frames. For example, have one layer or folder just for shadows that carries across all frames.
  • Stick to a limited palette and reuse colors consistently for the same shading areas.
  • When shading characters, break down into separate shading zones so you’re reusing the same shades rather than eyeballing it each frame.
  • Avoid drastic shading changes between frames. Subtle shifts in highlights and shadows are better than big jumps in shading style.

Well-planned lighting can also help bring pixel art animations to life. Effects like moving light sources, flashing lights, or bursts and glows can add excitement when timed with the animation action.

Just keep the principles of consistent shading in mind – animate lighting effects intentionally rather than randomly so shading remains cohesive across the animated piece.

Shading Characters

Shading characters in pixel art requires careful attention to detail. When it comes to skin, start with a base color and add shadows and highlights. According to this guide, the face is spherical so light will hit it directly. Add shades like under the chin, beneath hair strands and around the sides of the nose. Highlights go on raised areas like the forehead, nose and cheeks.

For clothing, consider the fabric and how it drapes on the body. Soft fabrics like cotton create soft folds that transition gradually from light to shadow. Stiff fabrics like leather create hard folds with sharp contrasts. Use darker shades in creases and under armpits, lighter shades on protruding areas. Refer to real life references.

When shading hair, clump strands together into larger forms rather than individual hairs. Vary shades to create depth and volume. Add highlights along the tops of clumps to show shine and reflections. Cast shadows onto the face and neck where hair hangs over it. Different hair colors will have different shading – go brighter for blonde, deeper for black.

Environments and Backgrounds

When creating environments and backgrounds in pixel art, the skies, landscapes, and buildings require careful shading and lighting to bring the scene to life. For skies, it’s important to use a gradient to go from light at the horizon to darker at the top. According to an article on Medium, “For the sky, we want it to fade from light blue at the bottom to darker blue at the top. We can use the Gradient tool for this” (Source). When shading landscapes, use darker colors for areas in shadow and add highlights to sunny spots. Buildings should have shading on any edges not facing the light source. The key is to be consistent with your light source to create a cohesive, realistic environment.


In summary, there are a variety of pixel art shading techniques to learn as a beginner. Mastering basic techniques like dithering, gradients, and line shading will provide a strong foundation. More advanced methods like overlay shading, rim lighting, and ambient occlusion can add more depth and realism. It’s also important to practice shading different materials like metal, wood, and fabric. Understanding light sources and shadows helps create a cohesive scene. While palette limitations can be challenging, creativity and problem-solving will improve your skills over time.

As with any art form, practice is key for improving your pixel art shading abilities. Be patient with yourself and don’t get discouraged. Refer back to tutorials and experiment on small projects to get comfortable with new techniques. Consider joining pixel art communities to get feedback and see examples from other artists. With regular practice, you’ll gain confidence in shading your pixel art.

For those looking to dive deeper, there are many online tutorials and resources available. YouTube channels, art books, and forums can provide additional guidance on advanced shading methods. While it takes dedication, pixel art shading is a rewarding and relaxing hobby. With the fundamental techniques learned here, you’re on your way to creating beautiful, shaded pixel art.