Learning Pixel Art: First Steps

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 perfectly fine 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 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.

The ‘painterly’ approach starts similarly to a painting, hence the name. It usually does 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 (game assets), this technique often results in a sprite without an outline unless one is added at the end. For more information on this style, I recommend having a look at this tutorial by Cyangmou, a highly skilled pixel artist.

The ‘line’ approach first makes the outlines, which then get coloured in and shaded. This technique often (but certainly not always) starts with a sketch, on top of which the lines are put. The outline is usually present in the final result, unless it gets incorporated into the piece at the end. In my experience this seems to be the most common approach. Neither one is better than the other though, so go with whatever you’re most comfortable with.

Software and hardware

Pixel art is a digital 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 choosing to use the latest versions of Photoshop (which you certainly don’t need).

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; it’s simply healthier for your wrists and fingers.

In terms of software, I highly recommend Aseprite. It’s a simple program completely focused on pixel art and has everything you need. You won’t be overwhelmed by a huge amount of tools and buttons you’ll never use. 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 something familiar. 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 pixel art!

About Rhynn

Rhynn picked up the pencil as soon as she was physically able to, and never put it down again. She currently focuses on pixel art, but is trying to brush up on her digital painting skills and general art skills at the same time. In her daily life, she's a canal boat skipper in Amsterdam.
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