Pixel art is an often-overlooked art form, but it’s just as valid and rich as any other medium. Whether you’re a lover of classic video games, or you just like the simplicity of the format, you can get into pixel art more easily than ever.
If you’re wondering what sets pixel art apart from other art forms, what types of pixel art exist, or how to start making pixel art, read on.
What is Pixel Art?
A pixel is the smallest unit of a digital image that can be seen on a display device (like your TV, computer screen, or mobile console screen). Today, all digital images are still formed by pixels, but each individual pixel used to be much more visible when computer resolutions were lower.
Pixel art first grew out of necessity. In the early 1970s and 80s, all video games were low-resolution as the technology emerged. It was impossible to hide the individual pixels on each screen of video game graphics.
Since hiding them wasn’t an option, artists did the best they could to represent images with the simple palettes they had available. The style is defined in large part by a limited color palette and simplified blocky shapes.
The most iconic pixel art is from early video games. Think classic Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog, Legend of Zelda, even Pong. Back then, just a few pixels had to be legible as a character’s face or clothing.
In the 1990s, the 16-bit era came around as video game technology improved. Pixel art became more detailed, but the essence was still the same. Every single dot counted. Moving a single pixel could completely change the look of a character.
That deceptive simplicity continues to define pixel art today. People still make pixel art, not out of necessity, but as a deliberate artistic choice. And it isn’t just about making art out of pixels; most pixel artists specifically aim to capture the look of early computer and video game visuals. It’s a way to evoke nostalgia by evoking the feel of retro games.
Pixel art still has lots of uses in gaming, but that’s not the extent of its uses. Lots of people use them for cool, retro online avatars or just as a work of art in and of itself.
How to Make Pixel Art
There’s nothing scarier than staring at a blank white screen and trying to create art from nothing. Even experienced artists often struggle to get started with pixel art because the medium is so different from traditional methods. Here are a few tips to get started making pixel art:
Choose your software
You can choose any program that lets you put colored squares on a grid, which gives you plenty of options. Adobe Photoshop is known for more high-tech art forms, but you can certainly use it for pixel art. Adobe Illustrator lets you align your work on a pixel grid. And, of course, there’s the classic MS Paint, where lots of amateur pixel artists first got their start. While there are definitely better art programs out there today, the fact that you can still get started on MS Paint means just about anyone with a computer can try making pixel art.
If you don’t have access to any of those programs, you can do a deeper dive and choose from a comprehensive pixel art software list. That way, you can choose the program that fits your needs best. Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong platform. We recommend trying out a few and seeing which one you’re most comfortable with.
Start with the Pencil and Line Tools
No matter what program you end up using, get friendly with the Pencil and Line tools. While the Fill and Brush tools do come up in pixel art, single, carefully placed pixels are what will really make your pixel art sing. There are no shortcuts in pixel art.
Watch a Tutorial (Or a Lot of Tutorials)
Anytime you’re trying out a new skill, one of the best places to start is by watching people who know what they’re doing. If you want to get really good at baseball, you watch professional baseball players work their magic and study their moves. And how many people got their start as painters from watching Bob Ross?
Pixel art is no different. Staring at a blank screen and trying to create something from scratch tends to feel overwhelming. But watching a tutorial helps you learn a thing or two to get you started, so you don’t feel like you’re reinventing the wheel. Some will even let you follow along, mimicking a more experienced artist’s moves.
There are plenty of tutorials online, both for free and for a fee. We recommend watching at least a few to get started. That way, instead of relying on just one person’s style, you can pull from a wider range of knowledge and expertise. Here are a handful of free tutorials to start with:
Beginner PIXEL ART Questions Questions – Tutorial, Tips and Tricks by MortMort
This quick 14-minute crash course will answer a few of your burning questions about pixel art with helpful visuals to help the knowledge stick.
Pixel Joint’s Pixel Art Tutorial by Cure
This tutorial provides an in-depth overview of what pixel art is, major terms, common errors to avoid, and how to create a color palette – all complete with helpful visual examples. As an exhaustive approach it might take you a little while to get through, but when you finish, you’ll have a much stronger understanding of how to create pixel art you can be proud of.
Make Games With Derek’s Pixel Art Tutorial: Basics
Here’s another in-depth look at how to get started making pixel art, all from the perspective of creating a single character sprite. The language and references are friendly and approachable. This one uses a wide range of pixel art sizes, complexity, and styles, which we appreciate. It’s helpful for beginners to see the full range and breadth of what their art form can look like.
As you learn more, you can look for more specific tutorials on specific styles or subject matter. But to start, even general information can be helpful.
Try Copying, Emulating, or Borrowing From the Classics
Making pixel art can be painstaking, especially while you’re still getting the hang of it. If you’re still stumped after messing around on software you’re comfortable with and after watching a few tutorials, take a cue from art students: study the classics.
We’re not telling you to pass off someone else’s work as your own. But a lot of pixel art today involves creating a hybrid of different existing pieces. Stitching them together in a logical way that feels natural and creates a whole new piece is a challenge in and of itself. Or try copying the style of your favorite pixel artist. Breaking it down into its components will help you understand what’s so great about your favorite pieces of pixel art. It will also help you find your own art style along the way.
If you post your replicas anywhere public, just be sure to credit the original artists, just like you would if you replicated an oil painting.
Reference Other Pixel Art, Not Live References (At Least to Start)
This might feel unfamiliar to artists who are used to working from live references, but you’ll be better off working from other pixel art references. Why? Take it from pixel artist Emi Monserrate:
It makes sense if you think about it! Pixel art is such a distinctive medium that until you really get the hang of translating real life into pixel form, it’s best to start with references closer to the end product you’re aiming for.
Always Save Your Files as PNG or GIFs, not JPGs
When you save your file as a JPG, the information in the file is compressed. This compromises the quality of the art and changes the overall look of the piece. Similarly, if you’re working closely from a reference or creating a hybrid of existing art, make sure you’re not working from a JPG. Using a GIF or PNG file reference will ensure you’re working off the best possible visual information.
Be careful of this! JPG is often the default, so you may want to change the default settings on your computer to prevent any unhappy saving accidents.
You can watch all the tutorials and do all the research you want, but you’ll never improve if you don’t practice. Even if you feel silly, you’ve got to start somewhere. Pick a simple object and give it a try. Doodling in a 16×16 grid is a good way to give yourself the perception of space that you will be working with in pixel art.
Share Your Work
No matter how much pixel art you create, eventually, you’ll run out of room to improve unless you show it to someone else and ask for their opinion. Lots of artists hesitate to ask for feedback or share their artwork with the world, but ultimately, aren’t you creating art so people can enjoy it?
Pixel art communities are an accessible and supportive way to dip your toe into the pixel art world. Ask for feedback and offer up your feedback in return. You’ll be surprised how much you learn.
Brush Up on Your Drawing Skills
The better you are at drawing (or other areas of art), the better pixel artist you’ll be. That’s because all art draws on the same principles: color theory, hue, proportion, perspective, anatomy, light, and shadow, even art history (including the history of pixel art as a genre). Learn everything you can. If it’s been a while since you’ve picked up a pencil and tried to draw something, give it a shot. And if you’re really serious about taking your pixel art to the next level, consider a traditional art class to improve your eye.
Pixel Art Sizes
In pixel art, you’ll often find that art sticks to a common set of “canvas” sizes. The more pixels, the bigger (and more complex) the image can get. Conversely, the smaller the canvas, the more constraints you have to work under. With fewer pixels to work with, each individual pixel has to shoulder a heavier weight. This can be an interesting challenge, as well as instrumental in achieving a certain style.
The smallest standard size of pixel art, you’ll be able to create very rudimentary, very simple images. Imagine the original Mario Bros sprites from the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a very distinctive style, and while it might seem simplistic, there’s an art to that simplicity.
On a medium-sized canvas, you can achieve medium complexity. Picture imagery from the 1990s like the Super Nintendo. This is the utmost in retro gaming aesthetic.
Current “retro-style” pixel art is usually this size. It allows much more detail than the smaller canvases while still retaining the constraint of working in a small space so every individual dot can shine through. Think of the homey, pixelated style on the game Stardew Valley.
Pixel Art Resources
The Pixel Art Subreddit
As you find your pixel art community, the thriving subreddit can be an excellent place to start.
Lospec’s Pixel Art: Where to Start
This is far from a comprehensive tutorial – more of a crash course – but it provides quick, valuable information about how to get started creating pixel art. It’s also a fantastic place to find other resources with links to things like a pixel art palette list. It even has a pixel art mini canvas right on the page to serve as a little sketchpad.
Open Game Art
This open-source collection of pixel art is an excellent source of references and inspiration. As you gain confidence, you can even post your own art here for people to comment and enjoy.
Lospec Pixel Art Software List
If you’re finding Photoshop, Illustrator, and MS Paint aren’t doing it for you, this list of alternative pixel art editors can point you in the right direction. It includes editors suitable for all experience levels, browser and download-based, and free and paid.
Make Games With Derek’s Common Mistakes in Pixel Art Overview
When you’re past learning the ropes with pixel art, we recommend taking a look at this overview of the most common beginner mistakes. When you’re ready, it’s a friendly and easy-to-understand way to identify areas for improvement in your art.
Summary – Starting Out With Pixel Art
Pixel art is an intimidating medium to start. But after you’ve gotten yourself going by watching a few tutorials, working from references, and finding a supportive community, you’ll be well on your way to creating art you can be proud of – charming retro vibes and all.