The Beginner’S Guide To Pixelart: Getting Started With Basic Techniques

Pixel art is a form of digital art where images are created and edited at the pixel level. It emerged in the 1980s with the rise of 8-bit and 16-bit computers and video game consoles, which had limited resolution and color palettes. Early pixel art was used to create sprites for 2D video games due to these technical restraints.

Since then, pixel art has evolved beyond its functional origins. It is now an art style appreciated for its retro, lo-fi aesthetic. Pixel artists build up an image pixel-by-pixel. This requires precision, planning, and attention to detail. Limitations in resolution and color can encourage creativity within the artform.

Today, pixel art is created using various digital graphics programs and tools. Artists use these to manage pixels and place them precisely. Some common programs used are Aseprite, Pro Motion, Pyxel Edit and GraphicsGale. The most popular are Photoshop and GIMP since they are more accessible. However, any graphics program that allows zooming in to the pixel level can work.

Pixel art remains widely used for indie/retro video games. It also has applications in mobile game design, web design, animation, and more. The style has grown from its digital roots into other media like mosaic art, bead art, embroidery, and Lego.

Overall, the pixel art style offers a unique creative challenge. Limitations in scale and color force innovation. At the same time, it allows artists to focus on fundamentals like shape, composition and color theory. Mastery requires patience and dedication to the pixel-by-pixel process. The result is a distinctive visual style still going strong today. For a brief history see The History Of Pixel Art.

Tools and Programs

When getting started with pixel art, having the right tools and software is essential. Here are some of the most popular and recommended programs and tools for beginner pixel artists:

Aseprite – Aseprite is one of the most widely-used pixel art programs. It offers powerful animation tools, onion skinning, layers, and more. Aseprite is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux. (

GraphicsGale – GraphicsGale is another popular pixel art software, known for its animation capabilities. The free version provides all the essential tools needed. GraphicsGale is Windows-only software. (

Pixel Studio – Pixel Studio is a free web-based pixel art editor that works right in your browser. It has a simple interface but contains all the tools you need to get started. (

Pro Motion NG – Pro Motion NG is designed specifically for pixel art animation. Onion skinning and other animation tools make it easy to create smooth animations. It’s available for Windows and macOS. (

Pyxel Edit – Pyxel Edit boasts easy to use pixel art tools for beginners, with support for layers, tiles, and animations. It’s cross-platform compatible with Windows, macOS, and Linux. (

Basic Pixel Art Techniques

There are a few essential techniques to learn when starting out with pixel art. Mastering these basic methods will give you the foundation to create great pixel art.

Single Pixels – The most basic building block of pixel art is a single pixel. Placing individual pixels precisely allows you to define shapes and lines in your art. Getting used to working at the pixel level takes practice but is an indispensable skill.

Outlines – Creating distinct outlines around elements helps separate them visually from the background. Outlines also help define the basic shapes in your scene. Focus on accuracy when making outlines since they form the skeleton of your artwork.

Dithering – This technique uses patterns of light and dark pixels to create gradients and textures. Dithering adds detail and realism since you are limited to a small color palette. Simple dithering patterns like checkerboards work well for beginners.

Color Palettes – Choosing a limited color palette is an essential part of pixel art. Palettes with around 16 colors work well for beginners. Stick to your chosen hues throughout the piece for visual coherence. Select colors carefully to convey the desired mood and style.

Drawing Shapes and Lines

Drawing basic shapes like circles, squares and lines is the foundation of pixel art. Mastering simple shapes allows you to then build up more complex forms.

Circles can be challenging to draw in pixel art since pixels are square. To create a circle, start with a small square shape and then remove pixels from the corners. Keep removing one pixel at a time, working your way in towards the center. The closer the remaining pixels are to a circle shape, the better the final result will be.

Squares are the easiest shapes to draw since pixels are already square. Simply fill in pixels to make the desired size square. For straight lines, use the pixel grid to your advantage and draw lines at 45 degree or 90 degree angles. Curved lines require rounding a straight line by selectively removing pixels.

When removing pixels to create shapes, be thoughtful about which ones to remove. Try to maintain the overall form rather than creating random jagged edges. With practice, you’ll start to develop an intuitive sense for constructing smooth shapes from square pixels.

For advice on drawing shapes, check out this Pixel Art for Beginners course.

Color Theory

Color is a vital aspect of pixel art. Understanding how colors work together through color theory principles can help create more vibrant, appealing pixel art.

Some key color theory concepts to know include:

  • Color wheels – Understanding primary, secondary, and tertiary colors and how they interact.
  • Color harmonies – Using complementary, analogous, or triadic colors that go well together.
  • Color palettes – Carefully selecting a small set of colors to use throughout a piece.
  • Value – Using lighter and darker shades to show light and shadow.

When starting a new pixel art piece, begin by choosing a limited color palette. Many artists start with around 4-6 colors. Too many colors can look cluttered in the small pixel canvas. Focus on colors that create enough contrast from each other and complement the mood you want to convey.

Shading is important for adding dimension in pixel art. Rather than blending colors, use your palette colors in different values from light to dark to show shifts in lighting. Highlights and shadows can be dramatic in pixel art when using strong value contrast.

Understanding these color theory concepts allows pixel artists to make informed choices about their palettes and shading methods. Proper use of color is key for creating appealing, vibrant pixel art that draws the viewer’s eye. For more on color theory, check out this article from Munsell.

Character Design

Character design is an important part of creating compelling pixel art. When designing characters, focus on basic shapes, strong silhouettes, and expressive features like eyes, mouths, and poses. Use templates and references to establish proportions and poses before adding details.

Some principles for effective character design in pixel art include:

  • Simplify forms – reduce characters to basic geometric shapes
  • Start with a strong silhouette – ensure characters are recognizable from their outline alone
  • Focus on primary features like eyes, mouth, nose, and hair to convey personality
  • Use expressive poses to convey attitude and emotion
  • Limit your color palette for visual cohesion
  • Make sure important details are large and prominent since space is limited
  • Aim for readable, iconic designs considering the resolution limitations

Well-designed characters with personality make pixel art more engaging. Plan your characters around the story and setting. Use templates just for proportion guidelines, but make sure your final designs are original.


Animation is an exciting aspect of pixel art that brings your artwork to life. By sequencing a series of images and adjusting the timing, you can create the illusion of motion and tell dynamic visual stories.

Frame Rate

The frame rate determines how many images are displayed per second in the animation sequence. Common frame rates are 10, 12, 15, 24, or 30 frames per second. Lower frame rates create a choppy animation, while higher frame rates result in smooth, fluid motion. For beginner pixel artists, 10-15 frames per second is a good place to start.


When animating, it’s important to have proper transitions between keyframes. Rather than drastically changing positions between frames, animate “in-betweens” to show the natural progression of movement. For example, when making a character walk, the leg should transition from back to front position over multiple frames.


Some examples of pixel art animations include:

  • A blinking eye
  • Leaves blowing in the wind
  • A campfire flickering
  • A character walking or jumping
  • A bird flapping its wings

Start with simple animations of only a few frames before tackling more complex sequences. Planning the keyframes on paper first can help visualize the animation before executing it pixel by pixel.

pixel art animation sequence

Environments and Backgrounds

Creating environments and backgrounds is an important part of pixel art, as it sets the stage for your characters and story. Some key things to consider when making pixel art backgrounds include layout, perspective, and parallax scrolling.

Layout refers to the overall composition and placement of elements in your background. You’ll want to think about how to create depth and lead the viewer’s eye through the scene. Using objects in the foreground, midground and background is an effective technique, as is incorporating overlapping shapes and a clear sense of distance.

Perspective allows you to create the illusion of 3D space in your 2D pixel art. Using techniques like foreshortening, vanishing points, and scaling objects smaller in the distance can make backgrounds feel more immersive. Isometric perspective is commonly used in pixel art for its retro aesthetic.

Parallax scrolling is a popular technique where background layers move at different speeds to create a sense of depth. The layers closer to the viewer move faster than those further away. This adds visual interest and dimensionality as the player or camera moves through the scene.

When designing pixel art environments, you’ll also want to consider color palettes, lighting, and visual storytelling through props and details. Referencing real-world environments for inspiration can help ground your fantastical pixel worlds.

For those looking for pre-made backgrounds to start with, sites like offer a wide selection of free pixel art backgrounds to download.

Converting Images to Pixel Art

There are a few different tools and techniques for converting existing images into pixel art. Some key programs used for this purpose include Aseprite, Piskel, and Photoshop. Online converters like Pixel Art Converter can also automate the process.

To convert an image manually, first reduce the color palette to a limited number of shades, usually 16 or fewer. Then use a mosaic or posterize filter to reduce the level of detail. Adjust the image size to match the desired pixel dimensions. Finally, use the pencil or brush tool to tidy up jagged edges and fix any issues caused by the automated conversion process.

The main limitation of converting images to pixel art is that the results often lack the intentionality and polish of hand-drawn pixel art. Complex gradients, textures, and details don’t always translate well. However, for quick prototypes or drafts, converting photos to pixel art can save time and provide a starting point for further refinement.

Practice and Final Tips

By now you should have a good grasp of the fundamentals of pixel art. However, these skills will only improve with regular practice. Here are some ideas to help advance your pixel art abilities:

  • Recreate characters or scenes from your favorite retro video games. This allows you to emulate professional pixel art.
  • Join pixel art communities online to share your work and get feedback from fellow artists.
  • Start a daily pixel art sketchbook to experiment with new techniques.
  • Use pixel art generators to convert photos into pixel versions that you can try recreating.
  • Practice animating basic motions like walking, jumping, or waving.

In addition to practice, here are some final tips to keep in mind on your pixel art journey:

  • Start simple. Don’t get overwhelmed trying complex pieces too early.
  • Study color theory to create appealing palettes.
  • Pay attention to light sources and shadows to add dimension.
  • Zoom in close to tweak individual pixels for clarity.
  • Watch speedpaint videos to learn techniques from pros.

With diligent practice and patience, anyone can master the charming retro art of pixels. The active community provides ample resources to learn from and find inspiration. Don’t be afraid to start simple and let your skills progress naturally. Pixel art is a wonderful creative outlet, so enjoy the process!