Teach me how to pixel. For a while now, people have been asking me if I can offer them any tips or tricks to making pixel art. And for a while now, I have been promising a blog post going over some of the basics. This post started out as a tutorial, but I decided that I didn’t want this to be that. A tutorial would just be me telling you what to do; instead, I want to take the time to explain why and how I do the things I do. My hope is that, in the end, that will help you more than just posting a screenshot happy to-do list.
I don’t make scenes or anything terribly complex, so I use Adobe Illustrator and build everything one square at a time. Building these pixel by pixel introduces a deliberateness and a tedium that I find pretty satisfying. The tedium helps to slow me down and question the placement of each element. I can almost assure you that this isn’t the most efficient way to make pixel art; these are simply the methods and techniques I use. Like I mentioned before, it’s designed to be a tedious process.
Figure out your scale. The scale of my pixel portraits have varied depending on the detail I want to work into them. As of late, a single ‘pixel’ actually measures 10x10px. If you need help visualizing that, take a look at my Cable pixel portrait. Determining your scale will help you figure out how to disperse your gridlines and what to set your keyboard increment at. Which brings us to…
Change that keyboard increment. Hit ⌘+K to hop into Illustrator’s preferences. If the “pixels” in your piece are going to be 10x10, set your increment to 10 pixels. When working within such a dense canvas, nudging pixels with your arrow keys will be a lot faster than dragging everything with your mouse. While you’re in preferences, click ‘Guides and Grids’ and set it so that there’s a Gridline every 10px with 1 subdivision. Then, once you’re back at your artboard, hit ⌘+’ to turn on the grid. Also be sure to toggle ‘Snap to Grid’ by hitting Shift+⌘+’. All of this will make it nigh impossible for a pixel to fall off grid, ensuring that your final pixel piece will be 100% pixel perfect.
Embrace keyboard shortcuts. ⌘+C + ⌘+F. This is copy + paste in front. I prefer this to copy + paste in place because paste in place has a stupid long shortcut (Shift+Option+⌘+V+lolz). If you don’t like pasting shapes on top of one another, you can always use ⌘+B to paste behind. Working on a relatively small canvas means that if you can spam ⌘+C + ⌘+F and get pretty agile with your keyboard keys, you can move things around pretty quickly (as long as you have changed your keyboard increment settings).
Work in layers, keep your file clean. This will save you a lot of headaches down the line. If you decide you want to push your darks at the end of the process, selecting a layer and uniformly changing its opacity will be a lot easier than picking through a bunch of squares on a single layer to find the ones you want to alter. Sure, you could go to Select > Same > Opacity, but what if you have different colors set at the same opacity but with different blend modes? Look - just work in layers.
Some other general tips.
Try to keep your view mode at 100%. Zooming in too much can lead you to get caught up in details that may not work or be noticeable when viewed at actual size.
I pretty much start everything with a base color and build on top of that. From there, I just add layers on top of it, which makes it a lot easier to move around darks/highlights as you see fit while always maintaining a good base color to work on top of. This way, your base color will influence colors on top of it (well, colors that aren’t set at 100% opacity), which helps to unify your overall palette.
Sometimes when I get stuck on a detail within the piece, I try sketching out what’s giving me trouble and then try to replicate the sketch on the pixel grid. It may sound backasswards, but it’s helped me in the past.
And finally, so that you can see the results of these methods, I’m making available my Cable Pixel Portrait source file. You may download it here [312kb zip].
Did I leave your questions unanswered? Let me know via twitter and, if I can answer your question, I’ll edit this post to include the answer.