The following are some tools and techniques I use regularly when drawing pixel art. I hope everyone, regardless of skill level, can find something new and useful to try out.
There is no real shortcut to learning art; the best you can do is practice and constantly analyze. Analyze your work and everything that inspires you, consider what in particular you like and what skills you are currently missing. Avoid overloading yourself and stick to clear goals: specializing is faster than learning everything available.
Getting feedback and criticism can feel intimidating, but those often speed up the learning process. Moreover, be aware of what and why you are drawing.
Best of all: learning art theory and animation techniques in pixel art has benefited me in all other art forms and vice-versa.
TIP #1: Mirror your artwork to get a fresh perspective.
Originally, pixel art was limited in scale and color: each pixel had to be placed manually to create an artwork. However, in recent years the art form has evolved drastically, pushing all possible boundaries.
With technological improvements and various available art programs, pixel art has become an aesthetic choice rather than a graphic limitation. The sense of nostalgia often influences even canvas size and color limitation of pixel art. Of course, pixel art can still be used for its limitations, and it’s great for small indie game development teams. Either way, pixel art has many forms and uses.
TIP #2: Analyze your favorite artists.
The scale of the art will influence the final style. However, you can still have other more defining characteristics like color palette, anti-alias shading patterns, and even some unique themes you choose to draw.
My initial canvas size does not constrain me unless I’m creating a tile sheet. Personally, I prefer to sketch for a bit and then adjust the canvas size to fit the art. The canvas size will often depend on the amount of details I want and the time I have to make the drawing.
Sticking to one consistent canvas size or ratio can save you time and nerves. The other trick is to always start by filling the canvas with a neutral flat color, to avoid the glaring blank canvas art block.
TIP #3: Use deadlines to your advantage.
Decide What to Draw
If you have trouble deciding what to draw, I highly recommend art challenges and drawing prompts. Sometimes deciding what to draw is the hardest, so using a prompt can get you inspired quickly.
The art in this tutorial, the Diver, is another drawing I made for Pixel Dailies.
This twitter group provides a new theme every day and regularly retweets participants who post before the 24h deadline.
You can check out my previous Pixel Dailies artwork and tutorial here: How to draw a Dungeon entrance door.
When I have a bigger project to work on, I make a detailed list of everything I need to draw and another list of things I potentially need to draw. I prefer writing in notebooks, but I keep digital notes as well, especially on my phone. In general, I like to use Trello to organize my ideas.
TIP #4: Take notes of everything.
I usually save references to my PC, but for the past couple of years, I’ve mostly been using Pinterest. I love the website since it gives me great recommendations for anything I search for. I try to keep my boards organized and make good use of secret boards option. You may need to adjust your settings to get the best search results.
For the Diver, I searched “1800s diver”, and after a couple of clicks, I got the results I wanted. I always try to use minimum keywords.
The reference I used: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/247275835761018429/
TIP #5: Organize and name your files.
Scaling Pixel Art
Scaling pixel art can be tricky, but it can save you lots of time.
If you have a photograph, it’s better to scale it using smooth/automatic setting and use the result only as a reference. It’s really handy if you prefer to use color picker.
Otherwise, you can scale the photo with nearest-neighbor settings several times by small increments.
For the Diver, I started with a bigger canvas, but I wouldn’t say I liked the direction it was going. I wanted the focus to be on the diving visor, not the metal texture or background. So I scaled down using nearest-neighbor setting to the point where I had minimal shading/anti-aliasing. I continued painting from there.
TIP #6: Decide what details matter.
Initially, I wanted an ominous and desaturated atmosphere, but I realized I needed more than just colors to achieve that. So instead, I added saturation with an overlay layer to the helmet for a stronger and more catchy contrast.
For me, art is exploration. I may set off to draw one thing, but I like to see where the art takes me instead. I pay attention to light source, reflections, and local colors. I make my own color palettes, but I regularly find inspiration in unrelated images.
You can check my previous detailed tutorial on how I use colors here: Experimenting with Colors
TIP #7: Try various color adjustments and palettes.
Patience and Awareness
Even if your patience is currently thin, fortunately, it’s a skill that can be improved. You can try writing down all of the distractions and ideas, so you can let go and focus on what you are currently doing. I try to do this at least once a month, and the positive results are instant. I usually get rid of the notes in a month or so when they become obsolete.
Being in the moment can teach you things, like how metals shine and reflect the environment. Attention to detail is a step closer to being a professional at what you do.
I took some extra time to clean up the Diver drawing. For example, the big yellow square on the chest was distracting, so I used a little darker color to blend it in. Next, the left visor had leftover artifacts after scaling down, so I cleaned those up and removed those distracting bright spots.
Zooming out regularly helps me find any irregularities and artifacts. It also helps me see if I need more brightness/contrast in my drawing.
TIP #8: Take a deep breath and take it one step at a time.
Last but not least, not every artwork has to be perfect. You choose what to share. It’s fun to keep some personal experimental sketches just for yourself.