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:
Working File vs Showing File
As you may know, images can be saved in different filetypes, each with its own properties. There are two main categories of filetypes with regards to pixel art: working files, and showing files.
Working files are almost always program-specific. Examples are .psd for Photoshop files, .pyxel for Pyxel Edit files, and .ase or .aseprite for Aseprite files. Working files keep information such as layers; they allow you to pick up exactly where you left off when working on the file last. This does mean that the file size is generally larger; after all, they need to retain a lot of information. They aren’t suitable for showing your work to others; the other person would have to have the same program installed in order to be able to open it.
Showing files are the files you show to others. Examples are .gif, .png and .jpg or .jpeg. They’re images which anyone can view; they don’t need specific software installed. These filetypes don’t save layer information however, so don’t use these filetypes as your working files. They have a smaller filesize, making them very suitable for sharing online.
However, only two of these are actually suitable for pixel art: .gif and .png
I highly recommend to always save a working file for your pieces. This way you can always go back in and change things easily. You can then make showing files when you want to show it off to other people. This means I usually have at least two versions of each piece I make: one working file, and at least one showing file.
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. This is done to make the filesize smaller. That’s a good thing… except it actually somewhat changes the image itself. The compression creates ‘jpeg artefacts’: smudgy spots all over your image which make it look muddy and ugly.
Never use .jpg to save your pixel art.
.gif is technically 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. Almost any animated image you see online which isn’t a video is a .gif. Gifs don’t support partially transparent pixels, which means you won’t be able to have an image which has see-through parts.
Gifs can also have only a limited amount of colours, up to a maximum of 256 colours. This may sound like a lot of colours at first. It certainly is, for pixel art – it’s way more than you need when properly sticking to the limitations inherent in the art form. But when you consider that images can have millions of colours these days, it really isn’t all that much.
The last type, .png, gives you more liberties in colour than .gif but doesn’t support animation. The big upside to .png is that it’s the only filetype which supports partial transparency, allowing for see-through bits in your piece. 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.
.png files are usually slightly larger than .gif in filesize, but with current storage sizes that’s hardly an issue. It’s something to keep in mind when making games though – best stick with .gif then.