Giving Your Right Brain a Regular Workout

How to Create Pixel Art

For those of us that grew up in an arcade, or were firmly planted in front our televisions holding a controller of some sort, pixel art is a part of our visual culture. Much like the music that accompanied these retro games, we know when something feels out of place. It’s because of this that learning how to make pixel art can be a daunting thing, but for those interested in digging in and getting to the bits and blocks, it can be very rewarding.

Aside from creating art in the style of classic video games, knowing how to create pixel art can help with creating your new mobile indie game, or even icons/emoticons for use on the web or a new app. The style even works perfectly for the products in your shop, like pillows, shirts, and of course stickers. So, we have a quick tutorial to get you started and I created a little coffee mug to show how it’s done. I’m not at the level many pixel artists are at such as those featured in our Spotlight on Pixel Artists, but this tutorial is more of an introduction that will hopefully inspire you to learn more.

"Indigo Nebula" by Sp8cebit

For this tutorial I will be using Adobe Photoshop, but pretty much any program can be used to make pixel art. At the end I’ll even have some links to some great apps specifically designed for making pixel art.

The first thing you want to do is create a new document. We want it to be small so that it’s easer to place the pixels and have them align with the pixel grid we’ll be using. Start with 50px x 50px, 72 ppi, and for the “resample” we’ll use
“Nearest neighbor (hard edges)”. This is commonly suggested for pixel art as it allows your pixels to stay sharp when resizing.

The the next thing you want to do it make sure you’re using the pencil tool and it’s set for 1 pixel in size. Also, set the eraser tool mode to pencil and also 1 pixel. It’s easiest to alternate between pencil and eraser while you are working. It’s also good to start with some warm-ups to get the idea of what works and what doesn’t.

You can see in the image below that the left and right lines look good, while there is something off with the middle one. This is due to the pixels not following a pattern like the other two. This might not look too bad right now, but once you really build your work up, it will cause problems.

It’s good to also practice curved shapes, as the way in which you place the pixels during the curve will make it look natural. You can see in the two larger circles that depending on the size, the curves have different patterns to them. Even though the longest line in each of those circles is 5 pixels in length the curves are made of different pixel lines, in the smallest size there is no pixels for the curve at all. However, if you zoom the image out all three will look like circles. This is a good thing to check once in a while to make sure your lines and curves look as they should. It will take a bit of time, but understanding how and when to place pixels will become second nature.

After all this talk of circles, or was it donuts and cookies.., it’s time for the coffee. I used my trusty coffee mug for reference, but you can also use an image on it’s own layer and trace above it if you like. The first thing I am going to do is create the outline on it’s own layer. This is handy as it helps to get the initial shape of the mug down and make it easier to add the other elements later. Again, notice how the curves have a similar pattern to each other, the bottom right portion of the mug looks like the bottom left. Without the handle this would look like a soda can.

The next thing I will add is that delicious dark roast coffee. Notice how the shape of the coffee resembles the shape of the top and bottom of the mug? It’s good to think about how the shapes interact with each other. Place your pixels, erase when needed, and always add new colors and lines on their own layers. This is non-destructive and makes it easier if you wish to change colors.

A note on color: In my color picker I have it set to “Only Web Colors” as this limits my palette to only 216 colors. It’s more in line with pixel art and makes it easier depending on how you plan to use your art.

Ok, the next layer we are going to add is the shadows. Pick a color that’s a little darker than the white of the mug, and then follow along with the shape of the outline paying close attention to the curves. In the opening of the mug I have chosen a lighter color for the shadow closest to the viewer, but that’s just my preference. This is looking like a cup of coffee now. Zoom out and see how yours looks.

Now for the final layer I have decided to add some fun details. A little bit of steam and a happy face for the mug. I am now done with my mug and can save the PSD and my layers, and get the art ready for my shop.

Our image is only 50px x 50px, and that’s way too small to add to products. So we need to enlarge it. Now remember when I said we should set the document resample to “nearest neighbor (hard edges)”? Here’s why. If we had kept the resample to “automatic” or even chosen “preserve details (enlargement)” as we normally do, this is what the mug would look like if we simply resized it to 500px x 500px. Yuck, what happened to my coffee??

This is happening because we are adding new pixels to the document, and Photoshop is turning our hard edges into soft gradients. It might look ok zoomed out, but this is not ideal for printing at all. So, it’s a good thing we didn’t use that resample mode.

Since we used “nearest neighbor (hard edges)”, we can enlarge the image to any size we like and it will stay crisp and clean. Photoshop is still adding new pixels, but the ones it’s adding have the same information (color, value, etc) as the ones next to it. Keep in mind though, this really only works for pixelated artworks such as this. It’s not recommended to use this method on photos or intricate drawings, it will just make the work look choppy when making extreme enlargements.

Now you know how to make pixel art. The next thing to try is more intricate designs, aside from coffee mugs. If you want to create more effects, and pixel art that’s more 16 bit and less 8 bit, look up “dithering”, as this method will give your pixel art more depth. And if you get really into it, do some research on Isometric Pixel Art which is very snazzy.

Here is a list of some fun apps specifically designed to make pixel art:

Graphicsgale (win)
Pixen (macOS, Ipad)
Piskel (web, linux, win, macOs)
dotpict (android)
dottable (iOS)
Pixaki (iPad) – advanced

Make some pixel art, and share your creations in the comments below.

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