The Basics of Pixel Art: Limitations

In this series of articles, we look at the very basics of pixel art; things you should know before jumping in. Want to just go ahead and jump in anyways? Have a look at our series of tutorials, but be aware you’re missing out on some important knowledge.

This series consists of four articles:

Limitations are your friend!

At its core, pixel art is all about limiting yourself. First off you already limit yourself in tools, as you can only use tools without automatic anti-aliasing. Historically, pixel art is about limiting the filesize of a piece to make it usable for games. This meant limitations in canvas size as well, and very importantly: limitations in colours. When animating you additionally want to limit your frames to as few as possible.

You could say that pixel art is all about making the image you want to make, with as little detail as possible in order to still let it have the amount of detail you want it to have.

Size

When it comes to the canvas size, this means that you go as small as you can. That doesn’t mean a single-pixel canvas; you still want the piece to actually look like something. So you always need some detail. The challenge is to show those details with as few pixels as possible. When you’ve found the size where the smallest detail you want to put in looks right, you’ve found the right size for your piece.

Of course sometimes it works the other way around. When you’re making a character for a game, you have most likely been given a size limit for the character; common sizes are 32×32 and 48×48 pixels. Then the challenge is to make an interesting looking character within that size.

Colour

The early Mario sprite

Historically, pixel art uses as few colours as possible. In those early days each colour added significantly to the filesize of the whole game. The first sprites for Super Mario Bros.’ Mario used only three colours!

These days there are no longer hardware limitations limiting the amount of colours we can use. However, the more colours you use, the less it looks like pixel art. Again it’s about getting the job done with as little 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 (arranged in a certain pattern) to create the illusion of another colour.

Animation

Animations are basically just several images shown one quickly after the other. Usually with some small differences between the two. With traditional animation, there are different types of frames, each with their own function. Some frames are absolutely required to show the motion, others are there to fill out the space between those required frames, to make the whole motion more smooth.

By now you can probably guess what this means for pixel art! Only the absolutely required frames are used. In pixel art, the challenge is to show the motion in as little frames as possible to get the smoothness you want.

The general rule here is that the more frames you use, the smoother the overall motion will look. Animations do quickly get larger in filesize though; so for games it’s still good practice to have a very limited amount of frames.


Picture credit:

Mario copyrighted to Nintendo, used for educational purposes only. Image taken from Wikipedia.

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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