The Basics of Pixel Art: Tools

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:

Program Requirements

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, or ‘smoothing’ of the lines) 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 (see the article on saving for more on that).

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.

Recommended Software

A few programs to try out (all work on both Windows and Mac):

Piskel. It’s free and works in-browser, so it’s perfect when you’re just trying out pixel art or just getting started. This also means it works on smart devices, making it one of the better options for pixel art on the go (I have yet to find a good app). You can also download the program to your computer, for when you want to work offline. Piskel does have a lot of limitations however, so don’t stick to it for too long – it will get frustrating.

Pyxel Edit. It’s still in beta, but don’t let that stop you. Pyxel Edit is currently the best option when you want to make tilesets for games. I personally don’t like it much for things other than tilesets, but I know plenty of artists who use it for anything they make. Since it’s in beta it is still missing some things and others aren’t quite the way they should be; it’s actively being developed, so expect improvement in the future.

Aseprite. This is my personal favourite program; it has everything I need, and nothing more. It’s built specifically for making pixel art, and it’s good at it, too. The one thing it’s currently missing to make it perfect for my own goals, is a tileset editor similar to Pyxel Edit; this is planned for the future however. Aseprite is available on Steam.

Other Software

Photoshop. This was my go-to program until I discovered Aseprite. Photoshop has everything you need for pixel art (aside from a tileset editor). The problem is that it also has so much more. Getting Photoshop just to make pixel art, is like getting a massive top-of-the-line tool kit just because you need a screwdriver. Its animation system is also overcomplicated. Unless you already have Photoshop anyways and know your way around it, don’t use it for pixel art.

Mouse or Drawing Tablet?

Drawing tablets are fantastic… but you really don’t need one to make pixel art. A simple mouse is perfectly fine.

It is important to think about ergonomics, however. A drawing tablet, when used correctly, is better for your arm and wrist. So when you’re spending a lot of time in a day making pixel art, definitely start using one (or even better: a drawing screen. But those are very expensive!).

A simple, normal mouse is really all the average pixel artist needs. I used to use a drawing tablet almost exclusively, but have since switched to using a mouse. I find it forces me to think about the pixels more than I did when using the tablet, and that’s a very good thing – it’s one of the core principles of pixel art, after all.


The most important thing you need for pixel art, is without a doubt time. You’re going to be putting down pixels mostly one at a time, 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. Don’t rush your work just to have it finished; take the time to perfect it until you’re satisfied with it.

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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