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Dungeon Data
A blog about game development, game design, and game mechanics

Jan 03, 2019 ∙ 6 min read

What's pixel art and how to start doing it?

The beauty of constraints in gaming art

Zoom in long enough into any image on your computer and you will see what they are all made off squares of colors. Those squares are called pixels; they are the smallest particle of a digital image. There’s a whole aesthetic around doing graphics with low pixel count, let’s dive into why it’s used on games and how you can start making your own.

What’s pixel art?

Today we live in a world of high-resolution screens. Most televisions are “Full HD”, which means that the images they display have 1,920 columns of pixels and 1080 rows of pixels, a 1920-by-1080 pixel resolution—the new 4k standard that is slowly rolling in is bringing even more pixels to your TV panel. Modern laptops have around 2560-by-1600 pixels, and pocket computers (smartphones is just a bad name) 2500-by-1150 pixels. Those devices hold so many pixels on their screens that is impossible to distinguish then with the naked eye.

This world of big resolutions and small pixels is a result of continuous improvements in hardware and software. But of course, it was not always like that. If we go back in time to the ‘90s, we will see that arcade games and consoles (NES, SNES, etc.) had much smaller pixel resolutions; around 256-by-224. Even the Nintendo 64, which came out in 1996, run the majority of its games at only 320-by-240 pixels.

Those systems have screens with a small number of big pixels—as opposed to today’s displays with lots of small pixels. That means those game developers needed to make excellent use of each one of those pixels to convey the game information adequately. In Super Mario World, for example, Mario is drawn with a mere 15-by-20 pixels; and its running animation is made of only two frames. It’s impressive that such a great game was done under those limitations.

Small Mario with a two frame running animation loop, and big Mario with a three frame animation loop.

The limitations of those systems created a unique aesthetic called pixel art; which is low-resolution graphics edited on the pixel level. Despite none of the same restrictions being part of modern game consoles and computers, there are plenty of games coming out today that embrace pixel art as their graphic style. As for example Celeste, winner of last year Best Independent Game Award.

Why do it?

So why are games still being done like that? There is more than one way to answer this question. For one, there’s the sentiment of nostalgia, longing, and affection for the games that were once part of one’s childhood. That feeling makes people want to do and play new takes of the games they used to love. Another aspect is that pixel art is in itself a very interesting and pleasing aesthetic; apart from the technical limitations that lead to it, pixel graphics still thrive because they are pretty and fun. The last way to answer that question—one that I think is particularly important—is that pixel art need less computer power to be shown and less technical resources and workforce to be created. This’s a great asset for indie games and their small development teams.

The smaller resolution means that there are fewer things to be drawn, fewer frames to be animated; while still achieving a result that convinces the eye and the mind. Our brains fill up the missing resolution, interpolate the missing frames. Pixel art is a limited design space that is proven to work; it’s a well-defined set of rules that can yield great results when executed well. When working with bigger resolutions and a greater amount of detail there’s much more man-time needed to achieve similarly good solutions.

That’s not to say that pixel art is easy to execute; it requires artistic proficiency, a good eye, and understanding of the available tools. Doing pixel graphics can feel like puzzle solving: inside a limited number of pixels you need to find a unique configuration that will convey the form and style that you want. Artistic knowledge of color, shape, light and dark, and others, all apply to help to execute pixel art—the same way it helps in other visual mediums—the difference being the much more limited solution space of pixel art.

How to do it?

Ok, you may be thinking now: “pixel art is just what I need to express myself and do my game, but where do I start?”. First, let’s talk about tools. Most digital drawing applications are suitable for painting low-resolution images, but you will want an app tailored explicitly for pixel art. My suggestion is to use Aseprite, it’s a powerful app with a great set of tools: layers, animation timeline, export options, and others. It has been used by several of the recent award-winning indie games (Celeste included).

Next, you should get a drawing tablet. To have the movements of a pen mirrored on the screen is an excellent aid for more effective illustrations. Because of all the constraints of pixel graphics, a small cheap tablet is all you need. I recently got the new Wacom Intuos (with Bluetooth), and I could not have been more impressed with it. It’s small (more than enough for doing pixel art), portable, no cables needed (only for charging), very responsive and at a great price.

With the tools in place, it’s time to start drawing. The best way to begin is to pick images from games and artists that you like and straight up copy then. There will be plenty of time to develop your style and twist on the genre, so don’t be shy, imitate as much as you can. That’s the best way to learn a new skill. On my computer, I have several folders that I use to save and organize pixel images that I like. I keep coming back to those references almost every time I sit to draw something new.

To close up, here are some great pixel art tutorials for you to follow:

I hope you have a great time with your pixel graphics. They are pure fun to play with.

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