The Importance Of Anti-Aliasing In Pixelart

Pixel art is a form of digital art where images are edited and created through the use of software by manipulating individual pixels. Pixel art is created with a limited color palette and resolution, which creates the recognizable retro aesthetic style (

The history of pixel art can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s when graphics were constrained by limited computing power and low screen resolutions. Early computer games and graphics relied on pixel art due to these technical limitations. The style became popularized through 8-bit and 16-bit era video games consoles in the 1980s and 1990s (

Some of the key stylistic goals of pixel art include achieving a retro, low-resolution look while working within a limited color palette and resolution constraints. Pixel artists aim to convey complex scenes, emotions, and actions while intentionally keeping the visual elements simple.

The Jagged Edges Problem

Pixel art suffers from jagged edges due to its low resolution nature. When lines are drawn diagonally or curves are depicted, a staircasing effect occurs because pixels can only be square blocks. This results in a jagged appearance along the edges of any non-vertical or horizontal lines.

As an example, when rotating a sprite in a pixel art game, the edges become noticeably jagged and pixelated ( Diagonals also exhibit stairstepping rather than appearing smooth. This is simply due to the limitations of working in a discrete pixel grid, where diagonal lines must zig-zag to approximate a slope.

While jagged edges are inherent to pixel art’s stylistic nature, there are techniques like anti-aliasing which can help mitigate the problem in certain cases. But at its core, jagged edges are unavoidable when depicting curves or diagonals in low resolution pixel art.

What is Anti-Aliasing?

Anti-aliasing is a technique used in computer graphics to smooth jagged edges in raster images. It works by minimizing the visual artifacts that occur when representing a high-resolution image at a lower resolution. The most common anti-aliasing techniques are:

MSAA (Multi-Sample Anti-Aliasing) – This technique takes multiple samples per pixel and combines them to produce the final pixel color. By sampling a pixel’s neighborhood, MSAA reduces jagged edges along curved lines and diagonal edges. It is highly effective but requires more graphics processing power.

FXAA (Fast Approximate Anti-Aliasing) – This is a faster, more efficient alternative to MSAA. FXAA analyzes the image and smoothens jagged edges using an edge-detection algorithm. It requires less processing power but is not as accurate as MSAA.

SSAA (Super Sampling Anti-Aliasing) – This technique renders an image at a higher resolution and then downscales it to the target resolution. The downscaling acts as a smoothing filter and reduces aliasing. SSAA produces excellent image quality but is extremely demanding on graphics hardware.

Overall, anti-aliasing greatly improves image quality by reducing the jagged, stair-stepped edges that are common in raster graphics. The smoothing of edges makes images appear more natural and aesthetically pleasing.

Applying Anti-Aliasing to Pixel Art

Applying anti-aliasing to pixel art poses some unique challenges due to the low resolution and limited space to work with. Some common tradeoffs include:

Softening edges – Anti-aliasing inherently softens hard edges which can cause loss of detail and clarity in pixel art (source).

Color bleeding – Nearby colors can bleed into each other with anti-aliasing, reducing color contrast (source).

File size increase – Anti-aliased pixel art requires more data to store transitional colors, increasing file sizes.

Some anti-aliasing techniques like supersampling work better for pixel art than others. Supersampling renders the image at a higher resolution and downscales to target resolution. This preserves hard edges better (source). Simple averaging based anti-aliasing tends to overly soften edges.

Best Practices and Techniques

When working with pixel art, anti-aliasing can be a useful tool if applied carefully and in moderation. Here are some best practices on when and how to utilize anti-aliasing in your pixel art workflow:

Anti-aliasing is most helpful when transitioning between colors, blending edges, or softening jagged corners. Use it sparingly in these situations. According to this pixel art tutorial, anti-aliasing should not be applied to an entire piece. Instead, only use it where needed for smoothing transitions.

When anti-aliasing, choose soft brushes and low opacity settings. Hard brushes at 100% opacity will over-soften the pixels. Instead, try a soft, low-opacity brush at around 50% strength. Slowly build up the anti-aliasing for a subtle blended effect.

Only anti-alias the edges between colors. Avoid applying anti-aliasing on top of existing pixels, as this will cause them to lose definition. As a rule of thumb, anti-alias up to 2 pixels around edges to softly blend colors and transitions.

Use layer modes like “Soft Light” rather than normal blending to achieve a subtle anti-aliasing effect. This leaves existing colors intact while gently smoothing edges.

When possible, zoom in close to pixel level when applying anti-aliasing. This helps ensure you are only affecting the desired edges and not blurring inside existing pixel clusters.

Examples and Comparisons

Seeing anti-aliasing techniques applied in pixel art can help illustrate the differences. Here are some examples comparing pixel art with and without anti-aliasing:

This sprite of a slime creature shows jagged edges on the left without anti-aliasing. On the right, subtle anti-aliasing smooths the edges and blends colors for a more organic look (source).

Slime creature pixel art with and without anti-aliasing

In this pixel art landscape, anti-aliasing creates gradient shades along the horizon and softens jagged edges on the trees and grass (source).

Pixel art landscape with and without anti-aliasing

There are also different techniques for applying anti-aliasing. This shows subtle anti-aliasing vs. strong anti-aliasing on the same sprite (source). The subtle version maintains crispness while smoothing edges.

Pixel art creature with subtle vs strong anti-aliasing

Pros and Cons of Anti-Aliasing

Anti-aliasing in pixel art offers some clear benefits but also comes with certain drawbacks.

By far the biggest advantage of using anti-aliasing is that it can help smooth out jagged edges in pixel art. The “stair-step” effect caused by hard pixel edges can be jarring and distracting. Anti-aliasing blends the colors between pixels for a smoother gradient along curves and diagonals. This makes the overall image appear cleaner and less pixelated.

However, the softening caused by anti-aliasing can also be a disadvantage for some pixel artists. Part of the intentional aesthetic of pixel art is the hard edges and precisely placed pixels. Adding blending between pixels takes away some of that sharp, digital look. For projects where a super crisp pixel appearance is the goal, anti-aliasing may not be desirable.

Anti-aliasing also requires more processing power compared to unfiltered pixel art. This may be problematic in games or applications where performance and speed are critical. The extra computation for blending pixels can result in lag or frame rate drops.

Overall, anti-aliasing brings both advantages and disadvantages that pixel artists must weigh based on their specific project needs and artistic vision. It can smooth curves but loses pixel precision, so it should be applied judiciously.

Alternatives to Anti-Aliasing

While anti-aliasing can help smooth jagged edges in pixel art, there are times when artists may want to avoid using it and rely on other techniques instead. Some alternatives to anti-aliasing include:

Dithering – This refers to deliberately applying noise, patterns, or colors to create the illusion of smooth gradients and transitions. Common dithering methods used in pixel art include ordered dithering, random dithering, and error diffusion. When done well, dithering can mimic the effect of anti-aliasing while retaining the defined pixel edges (source).

Pixel clustering – Drawing groups or clusters of same-colored pixels can create a soft, blurred edge that transitions smoothly. This builds up an area while retaining hard pixel edges (source).

Avoiding anti-aliasing – For some pixel art styles, especially low-resolution retro graphics, jagged edges are an inherent part of the aesthetic. Adding anti-aliasing would diminish the defined pixel look. In these cases, it’s best to avoid anti-aliasing altogether and rely solely on color choices and dithering to improve edges.

So in summary, artists have options beyond just anti-aliasing to address jagged edges in pixel art. Dithering, clustering, and sometimes just embracing the jagged look produce authentic pixelated styles. Knowing when to use or avoid anti-aliasing is key.

Tools and Software

When it comes to pixel art, having the right tools and software can make all the difference in achieving clean, crisp edges. Here are some recommendations for programs with effective anti-aliasing options for pixel art:

Most digital artists agree that Aseprite is one of the best applications specifically designed for pixel art. It has a pixel-perfect workflow and built-in anti-aliasing settings to help smooth jagged edges. The default anti-aliasing mode uses a technique called super sampling, which samples pixel colors at a higher resolution before scaling down. This helps reduce the stairstep effect.

Adobe Photoshop remains a popular choice as well. When working with pixel art in Photoshop, it’s recommended to disable automatic interpolation and use ‘Nearest Neighbor’ for hard pixel edges. The ‘Snap to Pixel’ option also helps align strokes to the pixel grid. Using an indexed color mode like 8-bit or 16-bit can enable more control over a limited palette.

Procreate on iPadOS is another capable option, with the ‘Pixel Perfect’ setting designed to snap brush strokes to the pixel grid. The Smoothing slider under Brush Settings can be adjusted as well to control anti-aliasing behavior.

No matter which software you choose, exploring the anti-aliasing settings available for both brushes and image sampling can help take pixel art projects to the next level of crispy perfection.


In summary, anti-aliasing can be a useful technique for smoothing jagged edges in pixel art. When applied carefully and subtly, it can make edges appear cleaner without sacrificing the intend pixelated look.

Anti-aliasing tends to work best for larger pixel art pieces where jagged edges are more noticeable. For small pixel sprites and icons, anti-aliasing may be unnecessary and can cause loss of detail. It’s also preferable for limited color palettes over a full spectrum of colors.

There are many methods of applying anti-aliasing, from basic blurring to more advanced algorithms. Each has its trade-offs between smoothness and loss of sharpness. Finding the right balance takes experimentation.

Alternatives like dithering can also help with jagged edges while maintaining a retro pixel look. And for some styles, the jagged edges may be part of the intended aesthetic.

Overall, anti-aliasing can be a helpful technique when applied judiciously, but isn’t always necessary for pixel art. The key is understanding when and how to utilize it to enhance your artwork rather than detract from it.