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Pixel This: How to Draw with Pixels

Posted on October 7, 2011 and read 8,813 times

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russell Pixel This: How to Draw with PixelsRussell Tate

This article was originally featured on, IHAVEANIDEA’s partner in all things related to stock imagery.

Pixel illustrations are great for making computer icons, isometric images and even whole scenes. They can be made quickly and easily using Photoshop® with a couple of quick tweaks to the preference settings.

The only drawback though, is that the pixel art looks best when each pixel has been placed by hand as opposed to using some Photoshop filter. That’s right, placed by hand – I know this sounds a little crazy especially when some pixel scenes have thousands of pixels in them. But without the hand placement your pixel art can look like a bad Lo Res image, so beware!

I think a good rule of thumb before starting off is that you should be able to see your creation clearly as group of different coloured squared bricks, but then if you squint and blur your eyes you can make it out as an image. Imagine that you’re making a tile mosaic, only you don’t need any grout.

OK let’s set up for drawing. Just incase you don’t have a copy of Photoshop, there are some free dedicated Pixel drawing programmes available for free download

Pixen (Mac)
Graphics Gale (Win)
Find more apps here.

I’ve had a play around with both but came back to Photoshop because i’m used to the keyboard commands.

Okay, let’s set up a page:

  1. First open the preferences in Photoshop and set the Image interpolation to “Nearest Neighbour”.
  2. Create a new Page 300 px x 300px at 72 dpi.
  3. Select the Pencil tool at 1 pixel. The Pencil and Eraser tool are the only tools you will really need.
  4. Occasionally you might use the magic wand to select an area to fill, just make sure Anti Alias is off
istock generic 101838 180x156 Pixel This: How to Draw with Pixels

Lean & Mean

If you did use the brush tool at a whopping 9 pixels instead of 1, you’ll get anti-aliasing occurring and that will spoil the hard-edge pixel effect. So stick to 1 pixel. “Keep it lean keep it mean,” as my Mother used to say.

When your pixel drawing is viewed at 100% (actual size) the pencil tool at 1 pixel wide is very small, so you might find it hard to see and manipulate. An idea is to enlarge the view to 800% so you can see what you are doing. I often have a 2nd window open in Photoshop with the same screen view at 200% so I can quickly see how my drawing looks up close and also from a little further away at the same time

We can save our working doc as a PSD file and export for web use later as a gif file. We can also enlarge the file afterwards and turn into a .tif or cmyk printing

OK let’s have a go at drawing something like this open book. With the Pen tool draw around the edge to create your black outline. Then fill in the flat colours of the page and book mark.

Create the idea of text on the page with some single pixel lines. See how we put a slight kink in the line to give the impression of a slight curve on the page.

Lastly add some highlights down the middle of the pages and side of the bookmark. A nice little touch is a single pixel highlight at the bottom outside corner of each page, it just gives a hint of a page edge instead of being a solid block.

Once you’ve got the basics of outlines, colours, hightlights and shading, you can try your hand at building other simple shapes.

istock generic 101958 Pixel This: How to Draw with Pixels

Pixel icons like the ones above can be designed as a series of lines that are just 90º to each other and are very much squares and rectangles. Occasionally though, you might need a line at an angle.

istock generic 101915 250x87 Pixel This: How to Draw with Pixels

The irregular line will look lumpy at 100%.

Something to bear in mind is angled lines look best when they are a regular pattern. If they are irregular like the line on the left they can appear lumpy and crude when viewed small. The line on the right is much smoother

Isometric angles look great with pixel drawings, but it’s not the 30º ‘iso’ angle you used in Technical drawing class – it’s actually something closer to 26.5º. 30º unfortunately gives a lumpy line at 100%. If you make a line that regularly runs 2 points over and 1 point up, you’ll get 26.5º.

istock generic 101914 250x117 Pixel This: How to Draw with Pixels

Smooth line patterns at different angles.

Shall we try drawing something else that’s a little more Geometric and uses more of those line patterns?

The irregular line will look lumpy at 100%.

Let’s draw a wooden log. The lines down the length are easy we know how to do those now, but how about those round ends?

istock generic 101917 Pixel This: How to Draw with Pixels

istock generic 101920 193x156 Pixel This: How to Draw with PixelsThese two are regular patterns but are changing from wide horizontal lines down to squares and then to vertical lines. It does look a little jagged but if you blur your eyes it does look correct!

The curve on the top right of the log end is also the reverse pattern of the bottom left section I often count the pixels or remember certain combinations. The pixel combo on the circle is…

3 squares (across)

istock generic 101921 193x156 Pixel This: How to Draw with PixelsA little tricky to get the hang of at first like using bezier curves in Illustrator but you soon get a “feel” for it. The length of the log is easy: we just use the 2 along 1 up system and make the log as long or short as we want.

Smaller concentric circles on the end give a nice ring pattern and some areas of darker shading at the bottom of the log give it some depth. We’ll give the log a flat fir colour to start, then to create depth, we can create dithering by placing pixels of contrasting colour either side of our high light/low light lines.

istock generic 101922 Pixel This: How to Draw with PixelsYou can build up the patterns and make them more complex. Careful though – the more realistic and tricky you try and get the fuzzier the image may appear if it’s destined to reproduce at small size.

I did throw in a few more random pixels on log #3 as I wanted it to have a rough look and contrast a little with the squirrel.

istock generic 101923 Pixel This: How to Draw with PixelsFor the final log I worked in an area of stripped bark and a small branch. I found it best to complete one area or style first and then work more detail into it. I don’t think I could have drawn the stripped bark log with dithering pattern from scratch – instead, I just kept adding layers over top of layers. Simple stages work best!

Let’s move onto something a little more irregular, like an Squirrel to sit on our log. For something complicated like this, it’s best to start out with a pencil and paper.

istock generic 101943 Pixel This: How to Draw with PixelsFirst I drew an isometric square on my page to get the right dimensions. Since we’re using this particular example for editorial purposes, I used a photograph for reference. Remember that if you’re planning to upload anything to iStock, you need to include any reference material that you used. Then I start to sketch. I pay particular attention to the angle on both ears and feet as I want them to follow the isometric lines.

As you can see the detail is very minimal – I just want to get the basic shape and correct angles worked out first. We’ll do the rest of the work in Photoshop.

Bring in the sketch, put on a new layer and ghost the opacity so you can see the pixels you are about to create clearly. It’s not a hard and fast rule but I find pixel drawings look best when they have black outlines.

istock generic 101944 Pixel This: How to Draw with PixelsHere I am going around my Squirrel with the pencil tool creating the black outline. One thing to be avoided is clumping up where outline pixels touch each other on more than one side.If you draw an extra square just delete it with your eraser too (also kept at 1 pixel width, see the red circle ) it will look neater and your audience will thank you for it.

It still looks a little messy but it will shape up! Keylines inside the illustration also help to give it a bold look, just make sure they are a darkish colour that isn’t black to make some contrast. Call me a radical but I went with brown on this one.

istock generic 101945 Pixel This: How to Draw with PixelsWhen the shape is complete fill the inner area with a nice mid tone colour (soft brown) and maybe use a light colour to bring out some highlights.

The black outline rule is not a hard and fast one, I I did leave some black keylines below the front jaw and paw as it was getting hard to what was going on.

The hand placing, removing,changing of pixels etc, is where the skill comes in. Sometimes.

The hand placing, removing, changing of pixels is where the skill comes in. Sometimes. But once you start to get the hang of it, you’ll be able to draw just about anything – all you need is some patience.

Here are some resources for further pixel reading:
Mark’s Pixel art tutorial (shows more detailed pixel shading and creating pixel characters called “Sprites”)
Creating Pixel Art Painting Pixel by Pixel – Tips and Tutorials. A good list of pixel sites to visit.
Some pixel files I’ve drawn and animated as gif files. See the Squirrel in action!

Hope this helps, and inspires you to create great work of your own!




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