In this tutorial, I’ll walk you through the detailed steps of how I created the painting above. I’ll explain the steps in a way that they can be used to draw various kinds of environments.
The drawing was inspired by the Pixel Dailies theme “door”. They provide a daily theme and regularly retweet artists who participate (the theme deadline is one day), it’s a fun way to practice and get inspired.
When I saw the theme, the first thing that came to my mind is a grand dungeon entrance door. So, I spent 15 min collecting some inspiring pictures on Pinterest. I prefer to find any additional references on the go. For example, columns, torches, Necronomicon… Avoid spending more than a total of 30min (max 1h) on collecting references, as it’s an easy procrastination trap.
Important: if you plan to copy a photo (or a significant portion of it), then credit the original photographer/ artist; or even better, use public domain images like on Pixabay. I didn’t use any particular reference for this image, as the references are to jump-start my imagination. This can be a slow process, but it worth practicing.
I use a single pencil brush and sometimes experiment with various brushes at the very end of an art process. Also, I keep all anti-alias settings turned off, and when I scale pixel art, I always use Nearest-neighbor setting.
When I plan a more complex scene, I start with thumbnails – small quick sketches. If I’m testing values or colors, then I’ll sketch digitally, but if I want to test shapes and details, then I tend to use pen and paper.
I spent around 15 min on each sketch, trying out different angles and door shapes. Afterward, I used an overlay layer to add some atmospheric lighting.
After doing the three above sketches, I liked the composition of the last one and the door of the first sketch, so I combined them.
I scaled up the original thumbnail and set it to barely visible opacity just so the canvas isn’t dauntingly white. On the layer above, I started roughly sketching the scene, and for this image, I create the canvas to fit my drawing.
However, if I’m making a scene for a game, I use the 1920x1080px screen resolution. So either 480x270px, 360x640px or 320×180 pixels canvas which is then scaled up by the programmer. It’s good to include some leeway for cropping, so make the canvas a little bigger.
This is a rough sketch, but I want to note all the important details, sometimes I use text, so I don’t miss anything. I do this step even for characters and sometimes items. At first, I was worried that the scene would be too empty, but a few more details were all I needed.
First of all, I wanted something dark and ominous, so I made the door carvings resemble a skull. Next, I added some sharp spike-like details on the pillars and a few fun patterns. I added the carpet for contrast and to lead the eye to the door. Finally, I added torches, which would give me some mild light and color contrast to work with. In general, torches and candles don’t disperse light well, so later I’ll add more light sources to the scene.
This grid is very easy to recreate and incredibly useful. Save it somewhere, where you can always easily find it and use it again.
At first, I approximated the perspective, but later I had to spend time fixing my mistakes. Hence, it’s better to set up a correct perspective grid right after the thumbnailing phase.
Above is a cropped version of the grid I regularly use. I simply drop it into a scene (with transparency), find the horizon and move the point to where it should be. I scale and transform it however it fits. For this painting, I used 2 point perspective. The second point’s horizon line should match with the first one.
In the GIF above, you can see how I fixed the ground to fit the perspective grid more. However, the perspective grid isn’t the only way to create a feeling of distance. Repeating elements like the columns helps add a sense of space.
If you’d like to avoid perspective, then it’s better to draw front view scene, or you can try 1 point perspective.
Since I decided to keep my outline visible, I spent extra time cleaning it up. Good outline drawing makes it easier later to select and fill areas. However, since the canvas is way bigger than my average pixel art drawing, I didn’t worry about making every pixel being positioned perfectly, yet. Depending on the theme or atmosphere, I’ll spend more or less time on each of the steps.
Lighting and Shadows
This is a rough lighting test of the scene on a separate layer. I wanted the most dramatic effect I could manage without worrying about it being messy.
I prefer not to limit my color palettes or art tools like in traditional pixel art, but this really depends on what I’m painting. It’s more fun to experiment and try a bit of everything. In this painting, I only try to limit my colors in terms of hues, but not number of shades. Sometimes I combine similar colors, but my main focus is on color contrast and color harmonies. The goal is the atmosphere, like the blues meant to feel cold and the greens, which I’ll add later for a more ominous/sickening effect. The carpet is for contrast and to lead the eye to the focal point.
I made a backup of my lineart and then started coloring sections. I also color the outlines to blend them somewhat. I filled each area manually, approximating the colors. I decided to add another colored light source to make the atmosphere more interesting and to emphasize the focal point. Now I have a total of 3 light sources in this image – behind the door, torches, and the sky/off-screen windows.
I took several breaks while painting, so I could analyze the scene objectively.
The scene felt too flat, so I added a shadows layer over the whole painting.
I kept it off while rendering the image, but I turned it on to check every once in a while. Even though I use layer adjustments, I avoid having gradients or blurry effects. I sometimes use blurry glows, but that can be distracting and look very inconsistent. I try to manually create clean effects.
Above is the shadow layer I set on layer adjustment – multiply, 30% opacity.
Breaks and Cracks
To create a crack, I use a medium color to draw some jagged lines. Then I add a thin darker line over it, closer to the light source, and a highlight on the opposite side, away from the light. For deeper cracks, I put the dark line next to highlight. Drawing the shadow and highlight the opposite way will result in a bumpy look instead of an indent. For more shallow cracks, I skipped the dark shadow.
Torches and Dithering
For the torch glow, I used an overlay layer adjustment with adjusted opacity. However, I manually rendered the metal details to appear like they’re reflecting the flames. I make the metal look shiny by using strong value contrast and banding lights and darks.
I like using layer adjustments to exaggerate effects, but I try to render most things on my own. As you’ll see, the final image works even with all layer adjustments turned off.
Also, you can see dithering on the right – blending colors without blurring them. I made random dithering since I want a more rough atmosphere. For a clean look, you can dither colors evenly.
Flip the Canvas
The door was the hardest to do, so I left it for the last. I flipped the canvas to get a fresh look of the image. This really helped me to start tackling the door details and fixing any distracting artifacts. One side of the door looked too deformed, so I duplicated the good side, flipped it and transformed it a little bit.
I love mysterious symbols, so I used them for the focal point. Initially, I overdid it, so it looked more like noise than mysterious signs.
I use a black layer set to hue or color layer adjustment to check my values. I made some minor adjustments, but most importantly, I can see that the door needs more contrast and defined details. Also, I can see that the tentacles at the door are hardly visible, so I brightened them and added some shadows.
Final Painting with and without Layer Adjustments
Thank you for reading! I hope these steps were helpful, but my last tip is to practice patience. I had several frustrating moments working on this image, but I took breaks and kept working. Pushing your comfort zone is the best way to improve and learn. Also, it’s easier to put extra effort into themes you find interesting, so pick what you draw carefully. Do a lot of thumbnails regularly to practice generating ideas. Final tip: Keep all of your art! Even failed attempts may have great ideas you can reference in the future.