Pixelart Speed Painting: Techniques For Game Assets

Pixel art refers to digital artwork created using pixel-level graphics primarily for video games and digital art. It emerged in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise in popularity of 8-bit and 16-bit games consoles and computers. The low resolutions and limited color palettes of early gaming hardware necessitated a stylized, minimalist approach to create recognizable sprites, environments, and animations.

The constraints of pixel art fostered creativity as artists had to convey complex designs using very limited tools. Over time, pixel art developed its own aesthetic style distinct from other digital and traditional art forms. While initially born out of technical limitations, pixel art continues to be popular today as a choice of style for indie games aiming to evoke a retro aesthetic.

Pixel art is valued for its nostalgic pixelated look and remains widely used for game graphics, sprites, icons, and digital illustrations. Developing pixel art skills allows artists to create game assets, mobile/web designs, and animated GIFs while exploring a unique retro style.

Some key historical milestones in the development of pixel art include the release of Spacewar! in 1962 as one of the earliest digital video games, the emergence of arcade games like Pong and Pac-Man in the ’70s, and the development of popular home consoles like the NES, SNES, and Sega Genesis in the ’80s and ’90s which all utilized pixel art [1].

Benefits of Pixel Art

Pixel art has seen a major resurgence in recent years, especially in indie and retro-style video games. While some may see the simplified graphics as a limitation, pixel art actually provides many advantages for game developers on a budget. Some key benefits include:

Retro Aesthetic – The nostalgic pixelated look immediately transports players to the classic games of the 80s and 90s. This sparks feelings of nostalgia and appeals to gamers who grew up in that era.

Constraints Lead to Creativity – Working within the limited resolution forces developers to get creative with shapes, colors, shading, and motion to depict characters and scenes. These constraints push innovation.

Quick to Produce – With fewer colors and less complexity, assets can be created faster than detailed 2D or 3D art. This allows for quicker iteration and development.

Small File Sizes – The simplified graphics result in lightweight game files that don’t require as much storage space or processing power. This makes pixel art ideal for mobile, handheld, and indie games.

For these reasons and more, pixel art continues to be a popular choice for modern game developers. The retro stylepaired with creative expression allows small teams to produce beautiful games on a budget.

pixel art game character walking cycle animation

Tools and Software

There are many great software options for creating pixel art. Some of the most popular tools used by pixel artists include:

Aseprite – Aseprite is one of the most commonly used programs for pixel art creation. It offers features tailored specifically for sprite animation and pixel art, like layers, frames, onion skinning, pixel perfect drawing tools, and image modes like indexed color. Aseprite is popular for its usability and flexibility.

GraphicsGale – GraphicsGale is another software focused on pixel art and sprite animation. It has animation timeline features and supports palettes, layers, and onion skinning. GraphicsGale is known for its intuitive interface and tools that allow for both efficiency and precision when making pixel art.

Piskel – Piskel is a free online editor for making pixel art and animated sprites. As a web app, Piskel allows artists to easily create and share pixel art. Key features include layered animation, onion skinning, a palette system, and support for importing/exporting GIFs.

ProMotion – ProMotion focuses on pixel art animation creation. It provides an animation workspace and timeline along with tools for coloring, shading, layers, and framing animations. ProMotion simplifies the animation process for artists.

Pyxel Edit – Pyxel Edit has a tile-based workflow tailored for artists to quickly create tilesets and levels for 2D games. It supports features like palette management, layers, split screen previews, and export options.

Color Palettes

Color is essential for creating appealing pixel art. When selecting a color palette, it’s best to limit the number of colors to 4-32 to maintain a retro aesthetic (Lospec). Using too many colors will make the art look noisy and chaotic. Many pixel artists rely on reference color palettes rather than choosing colors arbitrarily.

Some of the most popular reference palettes include dawnbringer’s 32 color palette and ARNE 16 color palette. These palettes provide harmony between the colors and were designed specifically for game art and pixel art (Lospec). It’s best to avoid gradients and dithering in pixel art and use solid colors instead. This maintains the clean pixelated look.

Drawing Pixel Perfect Shapes

One of the most important techniques for creating clean pixel art is drawing pixel perfect shapes that align to the pixel grid. This involves using tools like the pencil with a single pixel brush and snapping your strokes to the grid.

As explained in this helpful pixel art tutorial for beginners, you want to make sure you are working on a pixel grid and have “snap to pixel” enabled in your software so that your strokes perfectly align with pixel edges and don’t end up anti-aliased (source: Pixel Art Tutorials). Using a single pixel brush is also key – this allows you to lay down single pixels at a time, essential for the clean pixel look.

By sticking to the grid and pixel lines, you can carefully build up simple and complex pixel perfect shapes from squares, circles, triangles to more organic curves. Maintaining this pixel perfection as you animate is also important for retaining a crisp look.


There are two main techniques for creating pixel art animations: frame-by-frame animation and tweening.

With frame-by-frame animation, each frame of the animation is drawn individually by hand. This allows for a high degree of control but can be very time consuming for longer animations. Some tips for effective frame-by-frame animation include:
– Keep animations short and simple
– Reuse frames when possible to save time
– Maintain consistency in the character’s proportions and shapes between frames

Tweening involves creating keyframes and letting the software automatically interpolate the frames in between. This speeds up the animation process greatly. However, the animator has less control and the results can look less natural. Tweening works best for simple, non-character animations. When tweening pixel art, it’s important to review each auto-generated frame and make corrections by hand as needed to maintain the pixeled look.

For characters in pixel art games, idle animations and walk cycles are commonly used. An idle animation shows the character subtly moving while standing still, bringing them to life. This often involves breathing animations, blinking, or other small motions. A walk cycle illustrates the character moving across the screen and will be looped continuously as the player moves them. The cycle should animate the up and down bobbing motion of walking. Keeping these animations short, smooth, and loopable creates the best results.

Light and Shading

Proper lighting and shading can add depth and realism to pixel art. There are several techniques that pixel artists use to simulate lighting effects.

Ambient occlusion is a technique where you add darker values in areas where less ambient light would reach, like corners and crevices. This creates a subtle shadow effect that makes the image feel more 3D and grounded. According to this pixel art tutorial, ambient occlusion is easy to add by darkening pixels in areas where two forms meet.

Dithering is using a pattern of light and dark pixels to create the illusion of shading or gradients. Skilled pixel artists can use dithering to simulate lighting effects. Popular dithering patterns include checkerboard and noise dithering. Dithering takes practice to use effectively, but it’s a powerful shading tool for pixel art.

Pixel artists also simulate light sources like lamps or the sun by making areas closer to the light brighter and adding shadows that get darker further from the light source. Highlights along edges facing the light and reflected light can enhance the lighting effect.

With practice and clever shading techniques, lighting in pixel art can be dramatic and eye-catching. Proper use of ambient occlusion, dithering, and simulated light sources brings pixel art to life.

Textures and Details

Adding textures and details to pixel art can help make it feel more realistic and visually interesting. Some techniques for adding texture include using patterns, noise, and artifacts.

Repetitive patterns like bricks, tiles, or scales can add visual texture to surfaces. Generate seamless patterns in your drawing program or source them from texture libraries. Apply them using clipping masks or layer modes like multiply. Adjust pattern scales and orientations for variety.

Procedural noise like Perlin noise can also generate texture. Add it as a layer set to overlay or soft light blending. Use adjustment layers like Levels or Curves to refine the noise pattern. Skew, stretch, or warp it for more organic results.

Artifacts like dust, scratches, flecks, etc. can suggest age and wear. Use custom brushes, selections and layer effects to add them judiciously. Don’t overdo it. A slight touch goes a long way for realism.

Balancing patterns, noise and artifacts creates believable and visually engaging pixel art textures. For more techniques, see this Reddit thread on best practices for pixel art textures: https://www.reddit.com/r/gamedev/comments/rnr2gh/best_practices_for_pixel_art_textures/

Best Practices

When creating pixel art assets for games, following best practices can help streamline the process and lead to higher quality results. Some key best practices include:

Planning out your assets before you start drawing can save time and frustration. Create a list of all the assets you’ll need, sketch some concepts, and gather references. Having a plan prevents you from realizing halfway through that you forgot an important sprite.1

Using references is essential for nailing proportions, shapes, textures, and other details. Study pixel art from games similar to yours, along with real-world references relevant to your sprites. Then you can borrow and remix elements into your own unique designs.2

Iterating and refining your pixel art through multiple drafts yields better results than trying to draw sprites perfectly on the first go. Treat your first draft as a rough sketch, then keep layering on improvements with each pass.

Test your assets integrated into your game frequently. Animation frames and combat moves that seem fine on their own can look odd implemented in-game. Playtesting allows you to catch any issues early.


In summary, pixel art can be a fun and rewarding way to create game assets and pixel perfect art. The limited resolution provides creative constraints that pixel artists have used to develop distinctive aesthetics. With the right tools and techniques, you can make crisp pixel art full of charm and personality.

Some final tips are to plan your palette carefully, use references, and animate iteratively. Limit your colors at first while learning. Draw actual shapes rather than dealing with individual pixels. Animate basic motions before details. Building up your pixel art skills takes patience and practice.

For more information, there are many online courses, videos, tutorials and books that go deeper into pixel art and game asset creation. Active pixel art communities can also provide feedback and inspiration. With dedication to your craft, you can level up as a pixel artist.

Pixel art allows you to bring imaginative worlds and characters to life. As you gain experience, your personal pixel art style will emerge. The feeling of satisfaction from completing a piece or seeing it animated in-game makes the effort worthwhile. Keep practicing, learning and creating.