Pixel Art Tutorial: The Basics of Pixel Art

So, you want to learn about pixel art? You’ve come to the right place! In this pixel art tutorial I’m going to teach you about pixel art. We won’t be actually doing any of it yet, but if you want to get started in pixel art I highly recommend you to read through this first, since we’ll look at some very important basics.

What basics, you ask? Let’s have a quick look:

  • What is pixel art?
  • What types of pixel art are there?
  • What do I need to make pixel art?
  • Any general info about pixel art I should be aware of?

Beware, this is going to be long. So without further ado, let’s get started!

What is pixel art?

Before we answer that, we should ask ourselves: what is a pixel? Well, unless you’re reading this as a printout, you’re looking at pixels right now. Your screen is made up of tiny little dots: pixels. A pixel is the smallest possible dot a screen can have. Every single thing on your screen is made up of them.

Pixel art can be defined as ‘an artwork in which every single pixel was placed with an express purpose in mind’. While in other digital art forms you generally don’t look at single pixels but rather at the shapes they create as a whole, in pixel art you think about every single pixel on its own and how it relates to the rest of your piece. Since this can be quite a time-consuming process, pixel art is generally small- however, there are plenty of artists who do pixel art on a larger scale.

History and origins

Pong screenshot

Pong – some of the earliest pixel art in gaming

To understand more about the art form, lets have a look at the history and origins of it.

Long, long ago (well, not that long ago, really), computers weren’t as powerful as they are these days. They had incredibly limited processing power, so images had to take up very little space and power. Do you remember the game Pong? The visuals in it could be considered a very basic form of pixel art.

Legend of Zelda screenshot

A Legend of Zelda screenshot, showing the use of very limited colours in early gaming pixel art

From Pong it soon evolved into Pac-Man– lo and behold, circles! More colours! As computers evolved, so did the images. On early gaming consoles all games used pixel art, because those images (in games often called ‘sprites’) were the only way to cram everything onto the gaming cartridges. The practice of making images as small (data-wise) as possible for games is still used today, most notably in mobile gaming. However, the need for small images is disappearing as computers grow in power.

One of the restrictions in those days, was the amount of colours that could be used. Each computer/gaming system had its own specific restrictions, but none of them could show the massive amounts of colours computers can nowadays. The restriction in colours is part of what makes pixel art what it is. It’s considered good practice to use as few colours as possible.

These days pixel art is mainly used to get a retro style reminiscent of the early days of gaming.

Types of pixel art

As with any type of art, pixel art has several styles in itself. There are two main categories: isometric and non-isometric.

Isometric pixel art

Isometric pixel art

Isometric pixel art is used to create a 3D look. Isometric perspective is technically 30 degrees from the horizon, but this wouldn’t translate into neat pixels well so the closest possibility is used (roughly 26 degrees). This style is often used for cityscapes and other images involving a lot of architecture. Isometric images are often very sleek and modern-looking, although there are very notable exceptions to this. Geometrical shapes abound, though circles are rather difficult to correctly pull off.

Non-isometric is a bit of a catch-all term. There’s no one defined style that can be called non-isometric. A notable part of this category, however, is spriting. Sprites are technically character images for the use in video games and don’t necessarily need to be pixel art, but within the spriting community a sprite is pretty much any character image with a transparent background. Some sub-types of spriting exist as well, such as Dolling – making characters using a nude pixel figure as a base and giving it body features, hair, clothing etc.


Non-isometric pixel art (sprite)

Of course you can also think outside the box of a single art style, and combine them. Why not put your sprites in a photograph? While many pixel artists frown upon the use of non-pixel methods and tools in pixel art, it certainly has its merits. As with all art: use your imagination! Be creative!

So what do I need to make pixel art?

One of the cool things about pixel art, is that you don’t need fancy, expensive art programs to make it. Many great pixel artists use MS Paint or other such basic programs. All that matters is that the program has a pencil tool (or other tool which doesn’t have automatic anti-aliasing – more on that later) and can zoom in a decent amount. That, and that it can save your art the right way – there are some filetypes you want to avoid (more on that later, too).

What it really comes down to is that you need to use the program you’re most comfortable with. Maybe you’ll have to try some different options (and there are a lot of options) before you find the one that suits you best.

What you also don’t need, is a pen tablet. While for other digital art I highly recommend it, for pixel art it doesn’t really matter much. I’ve made pixel art with a laptop’s trackpad and while it’s certainly not as quick and easy as a pen tablet or even a normal mouse, it definitely gets the job done just as well. But here, too, it really comes down to personal preference. I still use a pen tablet almost exclusively, but only because I already have one anyway.

The most important thing you need for pixel art, is without a doubt time. You’re going to be putting down pixels one at a time (mostly), and the bigger your canvas, the more pixels you have, thus the more time it’ll take to finish. Especially in the beginning even small pieces will take several hours to complete, if not more.

General info on making pixel art

Now, this could (and possibly will in the future) get its own tutorial, but I still felt it important to mention these things in a general pixel art tutorial. If you’re going to create (pure) pixel art, there are some things you should be aware of.

Anti-aliasing: do and don’t at the same time

Aliased vs Anti-Aliased

The difference between aliased and anti-aliased lines

Anti-aliasing is what makes a digital image look smooth. It automatically generates partially-transparent pixels which give the illusion of a smooth line. If you zoom in on such a line, you’ll start to see the individual pixels – often in many, many different colours.
You never want to use automatic anti-aliasing in pixel art. If you’re going to anti-alias at all, you’ll have to do it manually.
This is a relatively complicated subject and I have certainly not mastered this yet; in fact, I am but a beginner in manual anti-aliasing. As such, most pixel art tutorials for now will focus on pixel art without any anti-aliasing at all, manual or otherwise. Anti-aliasing isn’t strictly needed to create beautiful images, although when mastered it can give it that extra oomph.

Use of colours

As mentioned earlier on, pixel art uses limited colours. It’s good practice to use as few of them as possible. This leads to some incredibly interesting and creative solutions to (for instance) shading, where the mid-tone of one colour is the darkest shadow tone of another; or where colours are dithered to create the illusion of another colour. The use of colour is a subject which will definitely get its own tutorial later on; for now, just do you best to limit yourself.

Saving your files

As you may know, images can be saved in different filetypes, each with its own properties. Perhaps the most well-known types are .jpg and .gif, both widely used online. You may also have heard of the .png filetype.
Only two of these, however, are suitable for pixel art: .gif and .png.

jpg artefacts

PixelSensei saved as a .jpg – note the muddiness

A .jpg (or jpeg) file will always give your image a (white) background, which usually isn’t what you want, but more importantly it compresses your file and actually somewhat changes the image itself. This creates so-called ‘jpeg artifacts’: smudgy spots all over your image which make it look muddy and ugly.

Never use .jpg to save your sprites.

.gif is the best way to save pixel art, as it has some restrictions which help you keep it ‘pure’ (if that’s what you’re interested in, of course). This is also the only filetype which supports animation. Any animated image you see online which isn’t a video is a .gif (well, that’s not entirely true anymore since html5, but that’s another subject entirely). Gifs don’t support partially transparent pixels, which means you won’t be able to have an image which has a see-through part through which you can partially see whichever background it’s on.

Masked Lung animated dragon head

An animated .gif file

Gifs can also have only a limited amount of colours (which is why animations will sometimes look weird and discoloured), up to a maximum of 256 colours. This may sound like a lot of colours at first (and indeed, when properly spriting it’s way more than you need), but when you consider that images can have millions of colours these days, it really isn’t all that much.

A small footnote: if you use MS Paint, you may find that saving your file as a .gif gives some rather odd results. If this happens to you, I recommend using .png instead.

Stag patronus partially transparent

A .png with see-through pixels

The last type, .png, gives you more liberties in colour than .gif but doesn’t support animation. Really the only reason to use .png for pixel art is if you want partially transparent pixels, since .png supports these no problem. There is no colour limit, so you could technically have thousands upon thousands of colours – though if this is the case, you probably aren’t working with pixel art.

Whew – if you managed to make it all the way here, kudos to you! Leave your thoughts, comments and questions below or check out the first steps!

Picture credits:
Pong, taken from Wikipedia, copyright Atari
Legend of Zelda, taken from Wikipedia, copyright Nintendo
-Fragment of Coca Cola by eBoy
-Other images made by Rhynn


About RhynnSensei

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. A fan of fantasy, her work is likely to feature lots of dragons.
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