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How to Make Pixel Art

A step-by-step guide

In the design article I described the high level overview of how I approached the sprite design in Smol Dungeon. This article is a step-by-step guide executing that idea.

Preparation

  1. We'll need an application to make our art. I use Pixaki on an iPad with an Apple Pencil. If you've never made pixel art before, try Aseprite.
  2. Choose a color palette, making art is far easier with strict constraints. Smol Dungeon uses DB32.
  3. Choose a sprite size. Keep it small! Smol Dungeon uses 16x16 sprites. Constraints are good, especially for learning!

As you practice making art you'll naturally find when you want to break out of these constraints, try different apps, bigger sprites, etc.

Monster laboratory

Here are the steps we will take. The steps are listed in order but we'll probably need to work on each step a few times, that's normal. Art is a muscle, you gotta get the reps in.

  1. Choose a shape.
  2. Choose a feature.
  3. Shadows and details.
Three different red shapes.
Some shapes we could use to build our monster.

Ok we have some shapes, I think there is a monster in each one of those! Now we just need to make a decision. I like all three, but I think we can quickly eliminate the second shape. It's a triangle shape and we already have a triangle shaped monster in our game. If we add another it might confuse the player. Ok it's down to the first arch shape or the skinny shape - let's go with the arch shape.

The same monster silhouette but with different monstrous features.
Some features we could use to define our monster.

Now we're thinking about features. It's a monster, it should be monstrous. Claws and teeth and stingers and spikes and horns, try them all! Here I've doodled up a quick few that were inspired by the arch shape.

The first has a huge mouth, maybe this monster is arch shaped because the arch is actually a huge mouth. Maybe it doesn't have a stomach at all, maybe it chews on its prey and then vomits digestive acid onto the victim and slurps up its meal. Gross. I love it.

The second has spikey club hands. This monster beats its prey with its spiked clubs before devouring them. In my head the spiked clubs look awesome, but limited to 16x16 I'm not sure they look great.

The third is arch shaped because it walks around like a gorilla, with huge fore limbs ending in massive claws that it uses to grab prey and tear apart piece by piece! Sounds bloody.

Ok we have some interesting directions we can go with our monster. Let's elimate the second option. I like the spiked club idea but I'm worried that it won't read well, they'll just end up looking like weird claws. If they look like claws, the third design has cooler claws. I like option one and option three equally. I flipped a coin: option three!

Three gorilla-style monsters but with progressively more highlights, shadows, and details.
Highlights, then shadows, then details.

Choose a lighting direction. If this your first time making pixel art, choose top-down like I've done here. If you already have sprites drawn for your game, choose the same lighting direction. Here I first added a highlight, there was a light red / pinkish color in my color palette. The lighting is coming from directly above so the highlights go on the top pixels of the shape. As you practice you'll see how much lights and shadows define the shape.

Second, I added shadow. For the shadow color I went with a nice dark purple. If you're unsure of what colors to choose for highlights and shadows: choose white and black and use 20-40% opacity. If you want colored highlights and shadows like I've done here, be consistent with how the color shifts. If the highlight shifts warm (more red) then the shadow should shift the opposite, cool (more blue).

Third, I added a little extra detail. Some orange in the eyes to make them look more interesting. A little extra white on the other limb to hint at another claw curled away. Try it many ways, digital drawing apps have layers and undo - they are very forgiving.

Three red squares with different lighting.
Top-left warm lighting, overhead lighting, and top-right cool lighting.

The first square is lit with warm light from the top-left. The highlight color is a warm pink and the shadow is a cool purple. The middle square is lit from overhead, the highlight is white and the shadow is black at 36% opacity. The third square is lit with cool blue light from the top-right. The highlight is a light blue color and the shadow is a brown color. Lights and shadows are how you can make something that looks smooth and flat appear textured and/or three dimensional.

Monster factory

If this new monster was going into the game, the next step would be to give it an idle animation. For the beginner pixel artist I would advise to not yet wade into the murky depths of animation. Instead, start cranking out monsters. As an exercise you should try to get through at least a dozen monsters. See how many you can make in 90 minutes. You might not like all of your creations but I bet you'll make some gems. If you do, please show me! @krisshamloo

More things

There are a ton of pixel art tutorials online. These are my two favorite: