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Step by Step : My Pixel Basics

Sun Feb 24, 2013, 2:17 AM
Title by firstfear

Book by firstfearIntro by firstfear

I've had people from time to time ask me how I pixel, and I've never really been sure how to explain. It hasn't been until the past few years that i've really thought too much about what I was doing beyond experimenting and learning new things. I think I've rounded out some basic guidelines I usually follow and a friend wanted some advice so I decided to attempt some sort of explanation :)

Below are some step by step images and commentary. Please note that there is no one right way to create a piece of art. This Step by Step is meant only to impart some understanding of how I do things :). In Pixel art alone there are many many 'styles'. I encourage anyone reading to look up more than one tutorial and seek critique if trying to learn their own pixel style.

Please excuse any spelling mistakes, and take note that I use Photoshop 7.0, but the same principals should apply to Newer Versions as well as possibly Gimp and other programs as well.

Pixel   Construction 2 By Firstfear-d4qfk9n by firstfearPixel   Construction 1 By Firstfear-d4qfk0q by firstfearPixel   Construction 2 By Firstfear-d4qfk9n by firstfear

Please do not trace/edit/or recreate any images in this tutorial. The images here are meant to show you what I was doing step by step, the apple is just an example. This tutorial is not teaching you how to pixel an apple :). (Feel free of course to pixel one yourself, just do not use my outlines)
Cubeturnclr by firstfear

Book by firstfearWhatis by firstfear

I'm going to assume that anyone reading this has at least a basic visual understanding of what pixel art looks like, but here's the finished example for this tutorial.

Apple by firstfear

Below are some very basic rules* to follow when creating Pixel art .
definition of pixel art varies from person to person sometimes, so my word isn't be all end all here haha <3.

  • Pixel art is made using the Pencil tool set to 1px

    This tool can be found in Photoshop, Gimp, MSPaint, and other Image Editing Programs.
  • Pixels are placed individually (one by one)

    for outlines and shading. Bucket/Fill tool can also be used to fill large areas with a single colour.
  • Tools like Dodge, Burn, the Paintbrush, any special 'effect' added renders the piece no longer 'True Pixel Art'


  • Drawing* with the Pencil tool set to an Opacity lower than 100% renders the piece no longer 'True Pixel Art'

    *Note that you will see later that I do use opacities to create my palettes sometimes, but using opacity while working on the actual piece creates extra colours out of your control.


Other Examples from my Gallery


Avatar - CaityBear Shock by firstfear AV - Pink Bow Transformation by firstfear Pixel - Eternal Moon Article by firstfear
Pixel - Welcome Home Mockup by firstfear Pixel - Through the Haze by firstfear

Cubeturnclr by firstfear
1 by firstfear

I never work on a white background. The contrast looking at pixels that close tends to hurt my eyes. Try using a light neutral grey colour.

Start out by creating a new layer(see image below sketch) above the Background layer and doodle/sketch what you want to Pixel, but use the Paintbrush Tool (1px). This is just a preliminary sketch to help us out later.

1 by firstfear

Cubeturngrey by firstfear

Before moving on to step two. Make sure you have your sketch layer selected and set it's opacity to somewhere around 50%. Just light enough to pixel over, but dark enough to still see.

2b by firstfear

Cubeturnclr by firstfear
2 by firstfear

Create a new Layer to Pixel on

  • Select the Pencil tool (1px) and try following the darkest pixels of the paintbrush line you created. I've used a dark grey, but you can use any colour really so long as it is darker or brighter than the sketch behind your pixel layer (so you can see where you've placed your lines)
3 by firstfear

Cubeturnclr by firstfear
3 by firstfear

hmm something doesn't seem right here still. We have wibbly lines!

With Pixel art it can be important where -every- pixel is placed. Making a pixel segment too long or too short can create jagged and wibbly bumps in your line when viewed from 100%.

3b by firstfear


In order to avoid these jagged lines for smooth surfaces (like the apple), we need to take some numbers in to account and turn our Wibbly line in to what I call a Gradiated line. We need to gradually angle/slope the pixels.

Below is an example of an unGradiated line vs a Gradiated line.

Gradiated by firstfear


Notice how on the un-gradiated line that the segments (groups of pixels that create smaller lines within the line)are very fragmented in their length. There are segment lengths of 3 right next to segment lengths of just 1 for example.
 This creates ‘juts’ or angles that often create detail we aren’t looking to be there.

In the Gradiated line no segments are touching another segment with a length any more than 1 pixel longer than itself until it reaches the top where the ‘curve’ ends. For example, if the segment was two pixels long. The segments touching it would be typically 3 pixels, or 1 pixel long. The length of the pixel segment beside it will determine the rate of decline/incline of the slope/angle.

Think of diagonal 1 pixel segments as segments unto themselves as well. I’ve marked these in green so you can see their decline as the slop rises.

Changing the number of pixels in segments will change the slope/angle as seen below :)

Slope by firstfear


There is a lot more information I could go in to on this subject. I may try to go further in a separate tutorial at a later date, but for now here is what I ended up with after applying the above and just using my own best judgment or trial and error (zooming out and viewing 100% then zooming in again and making small changes).

4 by firstfear

Now that we have our basic Pixel lines you can delete or hide your doodle/sketch.

Cubeturnclr by firstfear
4 by firstfear

Book by firstfearPalette Intro


Before we can start shading in our lines we need to create a Palette.
There are many ways to create a palette depending on different factors like lighting, style, size of the image, etc.

I may create a separate tutorial in the future that goes more in depth with palette creation and colours. For now I'll give a brief explanation of some things before moving on to actually creating our palette for this example.

Cubeturngrey by firstfear

The size of your image and/or the area you are shading can make a difference in the number of colours you use, and the contrast between each of them.
  • The smaller the area the fewer colours you need to convey the same amount of detail. Too many colours in a small space can make things look muddled and hard to read. Too few colours in a larger space without Dithering (Dithering Step by Step coming later) creates jagged visible lines in your shading
  • The smaller the area, the more contrast you need to convey the same amount of detail. Too little contrast makes things muddled and hard to read. Too much contrast in a larger space creates jagged visible lines in your shading.

    So to recap.
    Small areas = More Contrast, Fewer Colours
    Large areas = Less Contrast, More Colours

    Normally my larger areas have at least 7 colours, but it will again depend on the size.

Cubeturngrey by firstfear


I'm unsure about other Programs, but in Photoshop, you choose your colours using the Color Picker.

Clrpckr by firstfear
- Double-Click this in your Toolbar to open the Color Picker.
-Click the arrow in the right corner to switch between the two colours selected.

I won't touch on using the color Picker right now (there are tutorials for this already), but this is what it looks like.

Sat by firstfear


Here is the Palette I created to use with this Step by Step.

Below, I'll explain how it was created.

I've named the colours for convenience in this commentary :).

Palettefull by firstfear
  • First choose a Base Colour for each part of the image using the 'Color Picker'.
    In this case I'm pixeling an apple so I need a red, a brown, and a green. I've named these colours, b3, r6, and g6.

Palette0 by firstfear

  • Then, choose a darker version of each colour. This will be your Outline Colour.
    Try to keep them around the same darkness and saturation to the eye regardless of how light/dark the base colour is. I've named these colours b1, r1, and g1.
Palette1 by firstfear

  • Next create an 'Inner Line' colour
    I create this colour by selecting the Outline colour (r1 for the red), setting the pencil tool to around 70% Opacity and colouring over the Base colour (r6). I end up wth r2, and g2.

    (There are no 'Inner Lines' on the stem so the Brown palette does not need this colour!)
  • So Using your base(r6) create a square of colour. Then, select your outline colour, set the pencil tool to 70% and colour over top of the Base colour square you just made.  The colour you create is your Inner Line Colour. Remember to set your Opacity back to 100%! Opacity by firstfear - Pencil Opacity located on 'Options' Bar (Window>Options)
Palette2b by firstfear

  • Create a Highlight Colour
    This I create by selecting the Base colour and upping the Brightness and Lowering the Saturation using the 'Color Picker'. I have no set amount for how bright I make this, I just go by eye. I end up with b4, and r7.


    Take note! The brown highlight is Brighter because it will be for a smaller area. Therefor as mentioned earlier, I need more contrast between these colours.

    (There is no Highlight colour for the leaf because the green is already fairly bright. Use your own judgement here)

Palette2 by firstfear

  • Create a Midtone between the Base and Inner Line Colours.
    I create this colour by selecting the Inner Line colour (r2), setting the Pencil tool to around 60%, and colouring over the Base colour (r6).
    (note that because the brown area is so small i decided it only needed 4 colours. To find this colour I actually set the Pencil tool to 50% instead of 60%). I end up with b2, r4, g4.
  • So Using your base again(r6) create a square of colour. Then, select your inner line colour (r2), set the pencil tool to 60%  and colour over top of the Base colour square you just made.  The colour you create is your Midtone.


Palette3 by firstfear

  • Create the Remaining filler shades required.
    To create the remaining colours I Selected the Midtone (r4), set the Pencil tool to 50%, and coloured over both the Inner Line Color (r2), and The Base Color (r6). I end up with r2 and g2 from the Inner Line Colour, and r5 and g5 from the Base Color.
  • So This time create new squares of colour using your Base(r6) and your Inner Line Colour(r2). Then, select your Midonte (r2), set the pencil tool to 50%  and colour over top of the Base and Inner Line squares you just made.  The colours you create are your remaining filler shades..

Palette4 by firstfear


And so here we have our finished Palettes!


Palettefull by firstfear
Cubeturnclr by firstfear
5 by firstfear

Shading Begins!

This tutorial doesn't touch on *how* to shade things according to light source. There are many tutorials about this subject and it doesnt specifically apply to just Pixel Art. This is again to just show my process :)

  • Use your Base Colours to 'fill' the open areas of your Outlines. (b3,r6,g6)
    Select the Paint Bucket Tool and make sure that Contiguous has a checkmark beside it. 'Fill' Each area with the colours you want by clicking in the open spaces contained by your lines.

    The Contiguous option allows you to fill in only the contained area you click in. Otherwise it would fill -everything- of the same colour you are clicking (in this case transparent since there is no colour yet.)

    Contig by firstfear - located in the Options Bar along the top when the Paint Bucket is selected. (Window>Options)

  • Use your Outline Colours and fill or pixel the Outlines. (b1,r1,g1)
    You have a few options here. The first being to simply go back over the outlines pixel by pixel with their respective new colour.

    or, You can  Use the Paint Bucket Tool to 'fill' the Pixel Segments with their new colour. (again keeping contiguous selected)

    OR, you can 'lock' your layer, select a larger pixel size for your pencil (Say..3-5px) and then scribble/colour over your lines. Locking the layer keeps the original shape of the layer. No transparent pixels can be filled or coloured in. no current pixels placed can be erased. So it's a fast way to fill an entire layer with new colours and not 'go over the lines' so to speak.
Layerlock by firstfear

  • Use your Inner Line Colours and pixel over any 'Outline' contained 'inside' that coloured area. (r2,g2)
    Each separate 'area' of the pixel (apple, leaf, stem) should be contained within the Outline Colour (b1,r1,g1). Use the Inner Line Colour only within these areas for now.

5 by firstfear

Cubeturnclr by firstfear
6 by firstfear


  • Select your Midtone (r4) and begin Shading with the pencil tool where you think shadow might hit.

    For now we're just thinking in two colours. Shadow, and highlight.


6 by firstfear


Cubeturnclr by firstfear
7 by firstfear

  • Select your lighter Filler colour (r5) and create some shading between the Midtone and Base Colors (r4 and r6).

    The larger the areas of colour touching each other, the larger the area you will need to shade in between them (note the larger area of this new shade at the bottom of the apple compared to near the stem).

7 by firstfear

Cubeturnclr by firstfear
8 by firstfear


  • Select your darker filler colour (r3) and add some shading between the Midtone (r4) and the Outline/Inner Line (r1/r2).

8 by firstfear

Cubeturnclr by firstfear
9 by firstfear

This Step is Optional for beginners.
  • Using the Inner Line Colour (r2), Add some Anti-Aliasing
    Anti-Aliasing is pixels you've added to try and 'smooth' contrasting shades together to avoid jagged lines against darker/brighter colours.

    I won't go in to it right now but here is at least a visual example of how I do this. Look at the previous image again to compare.

9 by firstfear

Cubeturnclr by firstfear
10 by firstfear

  • Select your Highlight Colour (r7) and shade in where you think your light source would hit the most area.


10 by firstfear

Cubeturnclr by firstfear
11 by firstfear

Everyone Makes Mistakes!


Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes it's hard to see things from so close up. Always make sure to zoom back out and take a look from proper scale.

Here I fixed an area on the left where I thought it was too dark.

11 by firstfear
Cubeturnclr by firstfear
12 by firstfear

After shading all the areas this is what I ended up with!

There are still some shading mistakes in this example, but I hope you enjoyed learning my process!


Apple by firstfear


12 by firstfear
Cubeturnclr by firstfear

So...We're done right?....or are we?

Dithering - Coming Soon
Anti-Aliasing - Coming soon
Palettes In Depth - Coming Soon

Have a Step by Step Request? Let me know :)
Cubeturnclr by firstfear


Add a Comment:
 
:iconspeedxaaa:
SpeedXaaa Featured By Owner May 16, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Could use a bit of work on the color part, but this is a wonderful illustration of jagged lines and fixing said lines. put a couple of your apple images in a post showing a deviant what jagged lines are and how to fix them. Thank you for creating this!
Reply
:iconcelio-hogane:
Celio-Hogane Featured By Owner Oct 12, 2014  Student Digital Artist
Seeing tutorials of things i did learned by myself is pretty funny, seeing how people do in a diferent way.
Reply
:icondo7anii:
Do7anii Featured By Owner May 17, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Pixel-ed my OC using this tutorial. I really love the technique used with the colors :star:
My finished work: fav.me/d7iqsiz
:heart:
Reply
:iconpandatony:
PandaTony Featured By Owner Jan 11, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Good lesson, thank you ^.^
Reply
:iconchessmilysan:
chessmilysan Featured By Owner Jan 10, 2014  Student Artist
This is so helpful! Thank you:))
Reply
:iconwisp-night:
Wisp-Night Featured By Owner Jan 4, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you for this =). It is well-detailed and organized, which helps a lot. I'm going to be going into pixel-art soon, so I'm glad I found this. It has some helpful tips for a beginner ^-^.
Reply
:iconoqstudio:
OQstudio Featured By Owner Nov 2, 2013  Hobbyist Interface Designer
Fantastic! Thank you for the very much.
Reply
:iconiyoonarawrx:
iYoonaRawrx Featured By Owner Oct 26, 2013  Student Digital Artist
THAT APPLE IS BEAUTIFUL OMG
Reply
:iconcappippuni:
Cappippuni Featured By Owner Oct 26, 2013
Oh that seems really interesting, thank you for this tutorial! I will keep this helpful tutorial in my bookmarks. ^____^ I never tried pixel art before but I admit I would like to try it in the future, I love the meticulous work done by pixel artists. <3
Reply
:iconpinksheepyunnie:
pinksheepyunnie Featured By Owner Oct 5, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
This was very useful! ^^
I'm just starting to do pixel art, but can you explain a little about zooming in and out? Say I have a 150x150 pixel, when I zoom in the grid is changing(?) I guess, and it gets me confused. > < Like do we just fill in the squares? > <
Reply
:iconjupiterlily:
JupiterLily Featured By Owner Aug 20, 2013
Thank you, this is really helpful. :)
Reply
:iconj-chan33:
J-chan33 Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2013  Student Artist
Ohmai! I really like it!! It was so usefl for me this tutorial, i hope you make more..i really need those kind of tutorials because i like to do pixel things but is so hard to do xD
i love your icons too ^-^
Reply
:icontenchibaka:
tenchibaka Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2013
this is a shame, it is only for people who use photoshop and the like XD i was hoping for something simple that could be used in all programs, oh well, the pictured were nice
Reply
:iconlucypham:
LucyPham Featured By Owner Oct 6, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
There's a free program called paint.net that's FREE (yay!) to download and it can be used to create pixel art too. I'm sure it will do everything that you will need to create awesome pixel art.
Reply
:icontenchibaka:
tenchibaka Featured By Owner Oct 9, 2013
i have a perfectly adequet program that is more stable and user-friendly than paint.net actually ^^;;; it just does not convert well to photoshop instructions
Reply
:iconlucypham:
LucyPham Featured By Owner Oct 9, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
What program are you using?
Reply
:icontenchibaka:
tenchibaka Featured By Owner Oct 9, 2013
photoimpact 8, it's a decade out of date but is great for pixels XD
Reply
:icontheowl68:
TheOwl68 Featured By Owner Jun 20, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Great tutorial for a newbie like me =D thank you so much for sharing!
Reply
:iconshugarsketch:
ShugarSketch Featured By Owner Jun 10, 2013
This is very helpful, thank you :)
Reply
:iconpandaming:
PandaMing Featured By Owner May 24, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
May I ask, how do you get rid off the extra canvas? Because every time I finish pixelating something I can't get rid of the white un-used places of the canvas ;^;
Reply
:iconspiritaxew:
SpiritAxew Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Do you use MS Paint? If you do. Go on www.iaza.com or download Paint.NET to make it transparent c;
Reply
:iconpandaming:
PandaMing Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Oh! Thank you! >.<
Reply
:iconspiritaxew:
SpiritAxew Featured By Owner Jun 5, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Your welcome! Glad to help~
Reply
:iconpandaming:
PandaMing Featured By Owner Jun 5, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
^^' I was like, NO! DAMN U CANVAS!!!!
Reply
:iconzephyrie:
Zephyrie Featured By Owner May 19, 2013  Hobbyist Interface Designer
WOOOW nice tutorial , love it sis ~
Reply
:iconellycoo:
EllyCoo Featured By Owner May 11, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
:O
This way is soooo long!!! :->
Reply
:iconarisaxkureno:
arisaxkureno Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2013  Professional General Artist
WOW! ty for making this! it is REALLY helpful! xD
Reply
:iconaxdxr:
axdxr Featured By Owner Apr 4, 2013  Student General Artist
I plan on rereading this on my laptop tomorrow! Looks really helpful! Thanks :D
Reply
:iconfirstfear:
firstfear Featured By Owner Apr 5, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
no problem! ^^ I hope its helpful in some way <3
Reply
:iconpixiedoodlez:
PixieDoodlez Featured By Owner Mar 23, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
It's a really helpful tutorial :hug: .....and it is awesome!!!..
Reply
:iconharajukutacky:
HarajukuTacky Featured By Owner Mar 20, 2013  Student Artist
Thank you for sharing the pixel apple c:
Reply
:iconyurikitten:
YuriKitten Featured By Owner Mar 16, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
this is great im gonna share this ^^
Reply
:iconfirstfear:
firstfear Featured By Owner Mar 18, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
thank you very much! ^^
Reply
:iconyurikitten:
YuriKitten Featured By Owner Mar 18, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
You are very welcome ^3^/ xo
Reply
:iconmissseraphim:
MissSeraphim Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
SUPER helpful.... now if I can ever find the patience to do pixel art I can make my own emotes and avi ;w; ty so much
Reply
:iconfirstfear:
firstfear Featured By Owner Mar 18, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
no problem! ^^ I hope you do give it a shot!
Reply
:iconbarbieecho:
barbieecho Featured By Owner Mar 2, 2013
this is a very good step by step tutorial !
Reply
:iconfirstfear:
firstfear Featured By Owner Mar 18, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
thank you! ^^ <3
Reply
:iconclefairykid:
ClefairyKid Featured By Owner Feb 27, 2013
I've always been curious about your processes :eyes: haha, not so sounds creepy though, but because I admired since before I ever made my first pixel art piece, and I always feel like I can benefit from hearing about it from different perspectives. This also reminds me I'm very behind on my own articles :faint: :lmao:
Reply
:iconfirstfear:
firstfear Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
aww thank you dear ! :blush: ^^ I love seeing the different ways people achieve their pieces/style. I definitely think one can benefit from seeking multiple sources of information ^^. You can read one 'book' and know a lot on the subject, but everyone is biased in some way. Especially when it comes to art and style haha :x

and hur hur >_> goose, what kind of articles do you normally put up? :3 I'm trying to get better at interacting here and doing more than just reading comments in between drawing ^^; Hopefully I can put more journals up like this one soon ^^
Reply
:iconclefairykid:
ClefairyKid Featured By Owner Apr 25, 2013
Oopsies took a while to reply to this: [link]
Reply
:iconpockaru:
Pockaru Featured By Owner Feb 26, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Awesome tutorial! This is really helpful information <3
Reply
:iconfirstfear:
firstfear Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
thank you! ^^ I'm glad it might be useful <3
Reply
:iconwhitekimahri:
WhiteKimahri Featured By Owner Feb 26, 2013
This is a wonderful tutorial, so informative and pleasant to read. It makes me feel like I was able to make pixel art too! :D
Thank you for your effort! :thanks:
Reply
:iconfirstfear:
firstfear Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
no problem! ^^ I hope you do give pixel art a try! Thank you for reading <3
Reply
:iconwhitekimahri:
WhiteKimahri Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2013
I've tried already some time ago with a little emote... nothing to scream about indeed, but it was a funny experiment! Your tips will be surely useful for a deeper practice. :)
Reply
:iconrakki-omamori:
Rakki-Omamori Featured By Owner Feb 25, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
This is so helpful! Thank you so much for this.
The explanation for making a Gradiated line is great.
I look forward to your upcoming step by steps :)
Reply
:iconfirstfear:
firstfear Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
thank you! I'm glad the gradiated line example/section was understandable. I found it hard to put in to words for some reason :x. Its something I learned over time and definitely not in one go so I never really thought about it too much as a 'lesson' Id learned and could pass on in some way ^^;.
Reply
:iconlajoyli:
LaJoyLi Featured By Owner Feb 25, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
damn, girl. you have some serious patience. CAN I BORROW? I appreciate this tutorial on the real...! i will save for when I have patience.
Reply
:iconfirstfear:
firstfear Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
hahaha! :D I'm pretty good at zoning out on pixel art so it doesnt take much patience for me but only because a lot of what i do is second nature now. So I guess I've got plenty of patience to share with you! haha ^^ *gives*

I hope this helps when/if you give pixeling a shot! Feel free to leave me a comment/note if you end up having any questions etc.
Reply
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