If you’re learning pixel art, there are some things you need to know first. We’ve already looked at the history of pixel art and what it actually is in a previous article. Now we’re going to have a look at some more general knowledge about pixel art, and what you already need to know and be able to do.
Pixel art’s easy, right?
Well – yes and no. It’s pretty easy to get started with, since the software needed for it can be extremely easy to work with and acquire; Microsoft Paint is perfect for beginners. But it’s a common misconception that pixel art is easier than ‘normal’ drawing, so you don’t need all those fancy skills of form, anatomy, colour theory, etc. In fact the opposite is true; since you need to condense it to its essence and need to show it on a really small scale with only a few pixels, you need to know exactly what you’re doing.
Even when working off of sketches other people made, it definitely pays to know these things; often you’ll need to decide how to change an angle of, say, a leg to work in a few pixels while still making sure it’s anatomically correct. In these cases the sketch is a guideline, but the decision is yours, and you’ll need to know what you’re doing.
So, if you want to make amazing pixel art but don’t want to put in the work to learn skills which aren’t directly related to pixelling, you’re setting yourself up for failure. As PixelSensei says: there are no shortcuts to any place worth going.
Of course, there’s something to say for learning pixel art and fundamentals at the same time, if your goal is solely to become a pixel artist.
Approaches to making and learning pixel art
There are two main approaches to making (and thus, learning) pixel art, which are quite different: the ‘painterly’ approach, and the ‘line’ approach. If you’ve got a background in painting, the first one will probably suit you better; if you’re used to drawing with lines, you’ll likely have an easier time with the second approach. I personally use the ‘line’ technique, so that’s what I’ll be teaching here at first; a tutorial series for the ‘painterly’ technique is planned for the future, however!
The ‘painterly’ approach starts similarly to a painting, hence the name. It may start with a separate sketch, but then progresses to silhouettes and vague shapes, which are slowly refined into detailed forms. When used for making sprites, this technique often results in a sprite without an outline unless one is added at the end. If you don’t want to wait for the future tutorial on this site, I recommend having a look at this tutorial by Cyangmou, a highly skilled pixel artist.
The ‘line’ approach starts with a sketch and builds on top of it. The outline is made following the lines of the sketch, which then gets coloured in and shaded. The outline is always present in the final result, unless it gets incorporated into the sprite at the end. In my experience this seems to be the most common approach, but perhaps that’s just because of where I’ve interacted with other pixel artists most!
Software and hardware
Pixel art is a digital art (unless you count cross-stitching as pixel art), so you’ll need to have the right software and hardware. Luckily, you don’t need anything fancy! Even older computers should be perfectly able to make pixel art as long as you’re not using the latest versions of Photoshop.
Aside from a computer you will, of course, need a mouse. A normal, everyday mouse is perfectly fine; there’s no need for a drawing tablet. I do recommend using a drawing tablet when you spend more time in a day making pixel art though, is it’s simply healthier for your wrists and fingers.
In terms of software, I recommend a simple program like Microsoft Paint when you’re just starting out (Mac users should check out Paintbrush, available for free download here). You won’t be overwhelmed by a huge amount of tools and buttons you’ll never use, and you’ve probably already played around with it at least once. If you’re already familiar with more fancy programs like Photoshop, however, you may want to use those to have the ease of working with layers. In the end, use what you’re most comfortable with – as long as it can zoom in a decent amount (1600x should be good) and has a tool which can make single-pixel dots, it’s good enough.
And that’s really all you need. Ready to start making your own? Check out how to prepare a sketch for spriting!