Pixelart Shading Tips And Tricks: Step Up Your Game

Pixel art is a unique digital art form that creates imagery through intentionally limited color palettes and resolution. It places restrictions on an artist to convey complex ideas and emotion using the simplest means. Over the decades, pixel art has evolved from an artifact of early computer and game graphics to a respected, standalone art form with dedicated practitioners.

A key technique in pixel art is shading, or using changes in lightness and saturation to create the illusion of form. Shading mimics the effect of light falling across dimensional shapes to make flat pixels appear three-dimensional. Mastering various shading techniques allows artists to create realism and depth within the rigid confines of pixels.

In this guide, we will cover fundamental concepts for shading pixel art, including dithering, anti-aliasing, managing banding, and using light and shadow. We’ll also look at special considerations for shading characters and animations. With these tips and tricks, you’ll be able to add new dimensions to your pixel artwork.

Basic Shading Concepts

When shading pixel art, it’s important to establish a light source and think about how it will create highlights and shadows on your subject. The direction and intensity of the light source will dramatically affect the shading. Often a light source coming from the upper left or right works well for 2D pixel art.

After establishing your light source, add shadows on the opposite side of lights. Use darker shades of your base color to shade shadows. Highlights can be created with lighter shades, pure white, or by simply leaving pixels the base color. Strategic use of highlights and shadows creates the illusion of form.

Your color palette choices also impact shading. Restricted palettes challenge you to use limited colors creatively for highlights and shadows. With more colors, you can create smoother gradients. Evaluate your palette and use an appropriate shading approach.

For example, this article provides excellent tips on starting with basic colors and shapes when shading pixel art:

How to start making pixel art #4. Basic Shading


Dithering is a technique used in pixel art to add texture, shading, and a sense of granularity using patterns of dots. It involves deliberately applying noise and graininess to images to create the illusion of blended colors and smoother gradients with limited color palettes (Garmahis).

Dithering is useful when you need to shade or add texture but have a limited number of colors to work with. It is commonly used for shadows, gradients, and transitions between colors. Dithering can also be used to create patterns and textures for things like brick walls, tree bark, animal fur, etc.

Some common dithering patterns include checkerboard, dots, lines, circles, and noise/grain. Each pattern creates a slightly different aesthetic. Checkerboard dithering tends to look clean and orderly while dot dithering provides a smoother, blended look. Line dithering can be used to show directionality and movement (Garmahis).

The pros of dithering are that it expands your options for shading and texturing with limited colors. Dithering adds visual interest and granularity. The cons are that it can sometimes look noisy or cluttered if overused. It takes experimentation to find the right dithering pattern and balance for each piece.

example of dithering in pixel art


Anti-aliasing is a technique used in computer graphics to smooth jagged edges in digital images by blending colors together. With pixel art, anti-aliasing involves manipulating pixel opacity to create smoother transitions along curved lines and diagonals.

Anti-aliasing is useful when you want softer edges rather than hard jagged edges in your pixel art. This can help blend elements into the background more seamlessly. However, too much anti-aliasing can make the image appear blurry.

There are a few common anti-aliasing techniques in pixel art:

  • Grayscale anti-aliasing – Blending pixels with intermediate shades of gray to smooth transitions.
  • Alpha blending – Adjusting pixel transparency for smoother edges.
  • Super sampling – Increasing the resolution to smooth edges when scaling down.

The pros of anti-aliasing are smoother edges and transitions between colors. The cons are it can look blurry if overdone and some purists argue it goes against the hard edges of pixel art aesthetics.

Overall, anti-aliasing is a useful technique for certain styles and situations in pixel art, but should be applied judiciously and intentionally for best results.


Banding refers to the visible pixelation and stairstep-like edges that can occur in pixel art when colors transition sharply. It happens when neighboring pixels end at the same x or y coordinate, causing distinct lines or bands of color [1].

Banding can make your artwork look amateurish and low-quality. The key to avoiding banding is to use fewer distinct colors in gradients, make transitions more gradual, and avoid hard 45 degree angle lines. Instead, transition colors over at least 2-3 pixels. Also, utilize anti-aliasing judiciously in appropriate areas [2].

If banding already exists in your artwork, you can reduce it through dithering to break up color boundaries. Adding noise or textures can disguise banding as well. Adjusting colors and manually anti-aliasing problem areas are other solutions [3].

Light and Shadow

Effective use of highlights and shadows is crucial for creating depth and dimension in pixel art. As with any art form, considering your light source and being consistent is key. For pixel art specifically, strong contrasts between light and shadow areas can add dramatic effects and make elements seem more 3D.

When shading, imagine how a light source would hit your object and cast shadows. Add darker pixels on surfaces that are facing away from the light. Use lighter colors on highlighted surfaces facing towards the light. Reinforce shadows around edges and borders to emphasize form.

Don’t be afraid to use very dark shades right next to bright highlights. This high contrast creates impact. According to Slynyrd, “In pixel art, there’s often pure black right next to pure white,” which looks more natural than a softer gradiation (https://www.slynyrd.com/blog/2018/6/15/pixelblog-6-light-and-shadow).

Remember that the light source should be consistent across elements. If one object is lit from the top left, other nearby objects should follow suit. This cohesion will make your scene more believable.

Color Choices

When creating pixel art, you have two main options for your color palette – monochromatic or full palette. Monochromatic palettes use different shades and tints of a single hue, creating a cohesive and harmonic look. Full palettes allow you to use many colors, but can look disjointed if not carefully chosen.

Choosing your palette is an important first step. Consider the mood you want to convey. Earthy tones are great for natural scenes, while saturated primaries evoke energy. Complementary hues like orange and blue provide high contrast. Analogous colors like red, orange and yellow create harmony. You can find color inspiration from reference photos, movies, art, or physical objects.

When shading pixel art, adjusting the saturation is an effective technique. Reduce saturation in shadows to make them recede, and increase it in highlights to pull them forward. Highly saturated colors will catch the viewer’s eye and seem brighter. Desaturating backgrounds helps make foreground elements pop. So consider saturation carefully when selecting your palette.

Shading Characters

Shading pixel art characters requires careful attention to light, shadow, and emotion. Some key techniques for shading characters include:

  • Use lighter colors like white, yellow, or light grey for highlights on the face, hands, shoulders or other raised areas facing the light source. This helps add dimension.
  • Add darker colors like black, brown or dark grey for shadows in recessed areas like eye sockets, under the chin, inside folds of clothing, etc. This creates depth.
  • Pay attention to the light source direction and remember shadows fall opposite the light. If light comes from above left, shadows will fall below and to the right.
  • Consider creating a flipped version of the character with appropriate lighting, known as a normal map, to reference for shading [1].
  • Use shading to portray emotion – downward shadows over eyes convey sadness while upward highlights express joy.

Strategic shading brings pixel art characters to life. Mastering light and shadow creates the illusion of 3D form on a 2D image.


When creating pixel art animations, shading plays an important role in making the animation look smooth and visually appealing. Here are some tips for effective shading in pixel art animations:

Maintain consistent lighting across frames. Drastic lighting shifts from frame to frame can make the animation look erratic and jarring. Establish the key light source(s) early on and stick to that lighting setup.

Minimize shading changes between frames. Large shading differences can make objects look like they are flickering or pulsing oddly. aim for more subtle, gradual shading transitions.

Use dithering and anti-aliasing to help blend shading from frame to frame. This makes lighting and shadows transition more smoothly.

Focus shadows on areas where forms overlap or intersect. Consistent shadows in these zones create a sense of solidity and dimensionality as things move.

Use color vibrancy changes to complement shading instead of radically altering it. Boosting color saturation in shadowed areas can make them recede further back, for example.

Study real motion references to understand realistic shading behaviors. Things often darken slightly as they turn away from the light source, for instance.

Test animations at different speeds. Very fast animations may need less shading change than slower ones to look smooth.

Balance shading fidelity with simplicity. Overworking individual frames with complex shading can overwhelm the viewer.


In summary, pixel art shading involves techniques like dithering, anti-aliasing, using light and shadow, and thoughtful color choices. With practice, these techniques can help you elevate your pixel art to the next level. Shading adds depth and dimension to your pixel art, bringing your characters and scenes to life.

Shading pixel art takes patience and an eye for light and color. Start with simple shapes and practice the shading techniques covered here. Pay attention to real life shadows and lighting for inspiration. As you gain experience, you’ll develop your own shading style and get better at evoking a mood or capturing a likeness.

With the tips provided here, you now have several pixel art shading techniques to experiment with. Be creative, keep practicing, and don’t be afraid to try something new. Before you know it, your pixel artworks will have dramatically improved shading and pop right off the screen. Just remember – every master pixel artist started small. Stay determined and you’ll level up your shading skills in no time. Happy pixel art shading!