Digital art capabilities have exploded in the past few decades, most recently with the integration of AI and its way of melding vastly different artistic ideas.

Pixelated image of a greenish, squid-like creature hovering around a multi-storied building beneath large words reading “Live Da Life.” 
Class Pixel Perfect: Mastering the Art of Pixel Art 101 by Mostafa Nassar
Much of the appeal of pixel art is the way it evokes an earlier period of video gameplay for today’s audience.

At the same time, many have a lingering love for vintage and retro digital art. Among the most beloved is pixel art, the basis for video game graphics and still clearly seen in games like Minecraft. Although developers now know how to make pixel art that looks far more realistic than before, plenty of people continue to appreciate the look of numerous tiny squares making up characters, buildings and terrain.  

Understanding Pixel Art

As a digital art style, pixel art emerged from the graphics of early video games in the 1970s and 80s. At that time, gaming images were all low resolution, and developers couldn’t hide the tiny squares (pixels) making up entire characters and scenes. 

Over the decades, advancements in digital technology allowed for more realistic graphics, and pixel art became less about necessity and more about style and nostalgia. As you explore how to make pixel art, you can decide if you prefer to make highly pixelated images (akin to those early video games) or more complex pieces involving larger palettes, shading and blurred edges.

Tips for a Successful Start With Pixel Art

Like any art form, pixel art comes with techniques and tips from those who’ve learned the craft. Fortunately, pixel art is relatively easy to pick up, even without any experience. That said, some preparation and understanding will make the process easier.

Drawing Considerations

Although making pixel art is very different from drawing with a pen or pencil on physical paper, you still need to know drawing fundamentals and how to implement them. This basic knowledge is a guide for translating real-world concepts into pixels.

If you’re new to drawing, study concepts of perspective, light and shadow and color theory. It’s also wise to learn general art history and familiarize yourself with human and other anatomies. 

That said, if you want to create easy beginner pixel art, stick to items like a cup, ball, simple face, or flower. That way you can concentrate on positioning the pixels, rather than making something that looks somewhat three-dimensional. 

Basic Tools

You can create pixel art with just free software and a decent mouse, though you may also want to invest in a drawing tablet and, eventually, more involved software. Several programs are designed specifically for pixel art; others, such as Photoshop, can be set up for pixel art. 

As you explore how to learn pixel art, make notes of what works best and techniques you’d like to try. 

Split screen with the left side showing a pixelated green lawn and dirt path up to a log home, and the right side showing a video game scene of a character underground, sword in hand and ready to capture treasure.  
Class Introduction to Pixel Art by Simon Sanchez
While these scenes don’t look like photographs, they required significant color selection and shading to create the “natural world” video game scenes.  

7 Easy Steps for Creating Pixel Art

Anyone can learn how to make pixel art with only basic ideas and free computer programs. Your very first step is to think up a couple ideas for sprites, the term for objects and characters in pixel art. From there, it’s learning how to use the pixels as individual units to make and colorize that image. 

1. Choose Pixel Art Software

Try out a few different options, ideally something user-friendly and easy to navigate. You can even start with Google Sheets, using the spreadsheet cells as pixels for basic beginner projects. 

If you don’t know what to use, read a few articles on the best pixel art software for beginners, or reviews comparing your top choices. 

2. Define Canvas Size

Create a new file, and determine how big your canvas will be. If you’ve never done pixel art before, start with 16×16 or 32×32 pixels. This is big enough for some detail, but small enough to keep it basic and learn how pixels interact with each other. 

3. Configure the Pixel Grid

The grid is a tool for accurate placement of your pixels. If you know what you plan to make, you can build and align your pixel grid accordingly. You can also fill in the background color.  

4. Create an Outline

The first step in actually drawing your sprites is an outline. Ensure your drawing tool is no wider than the width of your pixels, and carefully think about the placement of each unit. Keep in mind that, unlike with other forms of drawing, the outline cannot be a thin, delicate line.  

5. Select and Apply a Color Palette

In pixel art, a limited color palette is ideal. It preserves the look and feel that many people appreciate about early pixel art and doesn’t overwhelm you with options. One suggestion is to use the original Nintendo palette of just 56 colors. Using just a few colors makes it easier to focus on the pixel placement, especially for a beginner. 

6. Add Shadows and Highlights

Depending on the style you’re going for, shadows and highlights might be an appropriate addition to your piece. This will likely require some trial and error in terms of colors used and pixels chosen, but once you figure it out, the art will look a bit more three-dimensional and interesting. 

7. Save, Export and Share Your Art

Always save your pixel art as a PNG or GIF file. While JPG is common, the way it compresses images has the potential to disrupt your very specific pixel design unless you have a thorough understanding of raster and vector images and image vectorization.

If you’ve joined a pixel art community, consider sharing your work there for fun and feedback. 

The steps here are just a start–with time, you can increase the pixels on your canvas, incorporate more colors and figure out tricks for adding texture and lighting. 

Video game scene of five young characters traveling in a wooded area at night. 
Class Pixel Perfect: Mastering the Art of Pixel Art 101 by Mostafa Nassar
These characters might be relatively simple in design, but the choice of colors and hairstyles tells a lot about their personalities. The nighttime wooded background adds to the drama.  

Start Creating Unique Pixel Art

Despite the limitations of using pixels as an artistic unit, the possibilities for unique design and detail are vast, especially with newer drawing technology. Whether you want to recall an earlier time with looks from the 1980s or create fantastic worlds for new projects, you can turn your pixel art ideas into reality with just a few tools.

Take advantage of online tutorials, free software and examples of various types when learning how to make pixel art. After a while, you may want to pay for your preferred software upgrade or a drawing tablet. You might even look into AI tools.

Skillshare is a leading resource for learning a range of digital arts, including how to make pixel art. Your instructors are professional artists with a passion for sharing their knowledge, and the classes themselves are organized into digestible segments. You can take the ones we’ve linked to here, and explore further into Skillshare’s pixel art offerings. Happy drawing!  

Written by:

Katie Mitchell