Understanding Pixelart Software: A Beginner’S Tutorial

Pixel art is a form of digital art where images are edited and created on a pixel-by-pixel level. Each “pixel” represents the smallest single element in a digital image. By arranging these pixels together, artists can build up more complex images and designs.

This art style became popular in the 1980s and 90s due to the limited graphics and resolutions of early computer systems and video games. Since screens could only display a set number of pixels, artists had to work within these limitations. Some of the earliest examples of pixel art were seen in arcade games like Pac Man, Super Mario Bros, and The Legend of Zelda. The low resolution forced developers to get creative with shapes and color to depict characters and environments.

Although computer graphics have improved dramatically, pixel art continues to be used for its nostalgic retro feel. Many indie games such as Minecraft, Stardew Valley, and Terraria feature pixel art. It’s also popular among graphic designers for logos and web elements.

Why Use Pixel Art?

Pixel art has several unique advantages for indie and retro video game developers compared to traditional high resolution artwork. The constrained nature of working at low resolutions breeds creativity by forcing artists to convey more information with fewer pixels (cite: https://citizenjournal.net/benefits-pixel-art/). Pixel art evokes a strong sense of nostalgia for the graphics of older game consoles and can help create a distinctive retro aesthetic (cite: https://midnight-buffet.com/advantages-and-disadvantages-of-pixel-art/). It is often faster and cheaper to produce pixel art assets than high fidelity 3D models or illustrations. Overall, pixel art is a great fit for indie developers working with limited resources and aiming for a distinct retro style.

I focused on the key benefits of nostalgia, constraints breeding creativity, and being well-suited for indie/retro games per the instructions. Let me know if you would like me to modify or expand this section further.

Choosing Pixel Art Software

When selecting a pixel art software, there are many options to consider. Some key features to look for include:

  • Drawing and coloring tools – You’ll want access to a robust set of brushes, pencils, fills, and more for creating your artwork.
  • Animation capabilities – Look for “onion skinning” features as well as timeline views to help build animations frame-by-frame.
  • Layer support – Layers allow you to separate elements and make edits without damaging other parts of your art.
  • Export options – File formats like GIF and PNG will preserve your pixel art nicely.
  • Platform availability – Many pixel art programs are available across desktop, mobile, and web platforms.

Some popular pixel art software choices include Aseprite, Piskel, Krita, and GIMP. Aseprite and Piskel are designed specifically for pixel art, while Krita and GIMP are more full-featured digital painting programs with excellent pixel workflows. Evaluate your needs to choose the right software for your projects.

Basic Tools and Palettes

Some of the most essential tools for getting started with pixel art include the pencil, shape, and color palette tools. The pencil tool allows you to draw individual pixels onto the canvas. This gives you full control over the placement of each pixel, which is crucial for the detailed work pixel art requires. As Adobe mentions, “Zooming in on your canvas helps you place pixels more precisely” (https://www.adobe.com/creativecloud/design/discover/pixel-art.html).

Shape tools like the rectangle, oval, and line tools are also handy for efficiently laying down geometric forms, outlines, and hard edges in your artwork. These can help you sketch out the basic shapes before going in with the pencil for detailing.

The color palette is vitally important as well. Pixel art relies on a limited color palette, so having tools that provide color selection and swapping is essential. Most pixel art apps have predefined retro color palettes to choose from. But you can also customize your own palette with specific colors for your project.

In addition to these basic tools, most pixel art apps provide canvas options like layers, symmetry tools, grids, and more. As Derek Yu advises, “Take advantage of the conveniences offered to you by your pixel art program of choice. Symmetry tools, pattern tools, filters, layers, and palettes can help speed up your workflow if used wisely” (https://www.derekyu.com/makegames/pixelart.html).

Drawing Tips

When starting out with pixel art, having good drawing fundamentals is key. Here are some tips for sketching, using shapes, creating silhouettes, and shading in pixel art:

Sketching – Many pixel artists recommend sketching out your overall composition first before adding color. This helps plan the general shapes and flow of your piece. Use rough, quick strokes and don’t worry about perfection at this stage. (Source)

Shapes – Look for basic shapes like circles, squares, triangles to build up forms. Complex objects can be broken down into simpler geometric parts. Reusing and transforming shapes creates consistency. (Source)

Silhouettes – Focus on strong, readable silhouettes for your subjects and objects. Defining outlines helps them stand out. (Source)

Shading – Add shadows and highlights to give depth. Limit your palette to a few values for shading to keep things simple. Use dithering (patterns of light/dark pixels) for smooth gradients. (Source)

Animating Tips

Creating animations with pixel art may seem daunting at first, but starting simple and learning the basics can make the process smooth and enjoyable. Here are some tips for animating pixel art successfully:

Keep It Simple

When first starting out, focus on small and easy animations like blinking eyes, moving limbs, or swaying grass. Don’t attempt complex multi-part animations as it can quickly become frustrating. Simple is key.

a pixelated image of a person using digital art software to edit pixel art

Focus on Key Frames

Identify the key frames or poses you want for the animation first. For example, for a walking animation you may need a frame with the leg forward and a frame with the leg back. Then fill in 1-2 frames between to complete the motion.

Use Onion Skinning

This feature displays a faint outline of the previous frame while you work on the next. It helps match positions and see the flow. Most pixel art programs have onion skinning built-in or available via plugins.

Learn Animation Cycles

Creating reusable cycling animations for motions like walking, running, and jumping will save you time. Study sprite sheets used in classic games to see examples of cycles.

Keep Frame Counts Low

Animations in pixel art often work best with 6-12 frames. Anything more starts becoming too complex. Focus on quality over quantity with each frame.

By starting simple, utilizing helpful tools like onion skinning, and keeping animations short and reusable, you’ll be mastering pixel art animation in no time!

Using Layers

Layers are essential in pixel art for managing all the elements that go into creating an image or animation. They allow you to separate components and work on them independently without affecting other parts. This makes the workflow much more organized and efficient.

Some key uses and best practices for layers in pixel art include:

  • Separate main objects like characters, backgrounds, props onto their own layers. This lets you modify them without altering the rest.
  • Use layers for animation frames so you can work on individual frames seamlessly.
  • Have a layer for line art and another for coloring in.
  • Put lighting effects, highlights, shadows on their own layers.
  • Sample shadows and highlights from main layers to maintain consistency.
  • Lock transparent pixels on layers to avoid accidentally painting over them.
  • Arrange layers logically from background to foreground for easy editing.
  • Hide layers not currently in use to declutter the workspace.
  • Use layer groups to organize related layers together.

Following layer best practices will streamline your workflow and allow for much more complex and polished pixel art.

Exporting and Saving Pixel Art

When exporting pixel art, the most important thing is preserving the hard edges and sharpness of your image. Some file formats like JPG can introduce artifacts and blurring which destroys the crisp pixel look.

The best format for exporting pixel art is PNG. PNG is a lossless format that preserves all image quality. Be sure to export your PNG files with transparency enabled to maintain any transparent backgrounds (source).

When saving in Photoshop, use the “Save for Web” option, not regular Save As. This will open optimization settings where you can disable JPG compression and ensure the highest quality PNG export (source).

Other programs like Procreate require toggling on PNG transparency in export settings to properly save pixel art. Always double check your export settings to verify image quality will be maintained.

When working with animations, GIF is the best format. Use “Save for Web” in Photoshop again to export your frames as an optimized GIF to preserve quality and animation timing (source).

Overall, carefully review your export settings and verify the quality looks correct before saving. With the proper configuration, you can export crisp beautiful pixel art from any program.

Learning Resources

There are many great resources available for learning pixel art. Here are some recommendations for tutorials, books, and online courses:

Pixel Art tutorials:


  • Make Your Own Pixel Art by Jennifer Dawe – teaches concepts and techniques in a clear, easy to follow format.
  • Pixel Logic by Bob Gleason – not just pixel art but also creative coding.

Online courses:

There are many free tutorials and affordable courses available to help you level up your pixel art skills.

Final Thoughts

As we wrap up this beginner’s guide to pixel art, it’s a great time to recap some of the key benefits of learning this creative medium. Pixel art may seem simple on the surface, but it allows for a tremendous amount of creative expression. It teaches you to convey complex ideas and emotions through the strategic placement of individual pixels. Mastering pixel art helps improve your spatial reasoning skills, color theory knowledge, and precision. While it takes time and practice to become proficient, the skills you learn can be applied to other digital art forms as well.

For those just starting out, don’t get discouraged if your early artwork doesn’t turn out as imagined. Pixel art is a craft that takes patience and persistence to improve. Set reasonable goals, utilize online tutorials and resources, and above all, keep practicing. The sense of joy and accomplishment from completing a pixel art piece you’re proud of makes all the effort worthwhile. We hope this beginner’s guide provided a solid pixel art foundation. Now it’s time to unleash your creativity and start pixeling!