For the bored, locked-down and lonely

Activity: Make pixel art art

The finished product

Pixel art is charming, retro and kinda goofy, and I see no reason whatsoever to restrict it purely to the realm of the computer monitor. I want pixel art I can enjoy in an analogue setting; I need pixel art on my walls; I demand pixel art in my kitchen. And since I’m sure you feel exactly the same way, let’s make some pixel art art together.

You will need:

  • An image editing/painting application such as Photoshop, MS Paint or GIMP
  • Some paper and coloured pencils, a canvas and paint or a medium of your preference (perhaps even cross-stitch kit!)
  1. Set up your digital canvas

A good real-life pixel size is about 1cm square. With this in mind, you need to measure your canvas and figure out the dimensions of your digital canvas. I actually had a couple of cheap canvases lying around so I took this mini one and measured it – it was 20x20cm, meaning that I can work on a digital canvas 20×20 pixels in size. Create a new artwork in your art software with those dimensions and fill the canvas with the principal background colour you want. Then, obviously, zoom right in so you can see what you’re doing.

A 20 by 20 pixel canvas in photoshop

2. Lay out your foundational shape

Rather than drawing an outline like we might in traditional art, pixel art is easiest (I find) when starting with a silhouette. Pick a colour that is common in the object you want to portray, and then draw its rough shape. I decided to paint an apple, since this is going to go in my kitchen – and still-life-style I’m going to use a real apple as a reference. The silhouette doesn’t have to be perfectly accurate; pixel art is more like a cartoon, focusing on the recognisability of an artistic subject.

The silhouette of an apple drawn in a rosy red colour

3. Add in the other base colours

Old-school pixel art for games consoles and ancient computers had serious limitations, one of which being that you only had a small number of colours to work with. We don’t have to worry about these restrictions anymore (unless you want to do pixel art in hard mode) but it’s still worth picking out the base colours in the image and blocking them out on your silhouette to give you a structure to build upon for the next steps.

Now the apple has a green side and a red side

4. Add in the strongest shadows

Carefully think about where the darkest shadows on the object are falling, then choose a much darker colour to block out those areas. Generally the most natural-looking shade colours won’t be directly below the original colour on a colour picker, but will be diagonally down and to the right of the original colour. Don’t ask me why, I just reckon it looks gooder.

Colour picker example
A roughly shaded pixelated apple

5. Identify areas where the colour blocks need to be blended, and create gradients with dithering

‘Dithering’ is a technique where you create the effect of two colours blending together by placing pixels of either colour, or a couple of ‘in-betweeny’ colours, very close to each other at the centre and then fewer and further between as you move away from the border of the two original colours. For the apple, I picked a couple of yellowy-brown shades to give the effect of the gradient from green to red, and dithered the colours out from the line where the red and green meet.

using dithering, the central area where red meets green has been made to look like the two colours are melting into each other

6. Dither the shaded parts to make everything look softer

Using the same technique, dither the shade tones into the lighter sections to soften the shadows for a more natural appearance.

The shadows have been dithered and look softer

7. Now block out any highlights on the image

Where is the light falling on the object? Choose a much paler colour and draw in any shine or reflections on the surface of the object, adding darker colours and/or dither around the area depending on how hard or soft the glare is.

A shine has been put on the upper cheek of the apple
Some more muted highlights are added around the shiny area

8. Add the final tiny details

The most detailed bits of the artwork are best left to the end because you otherwise tend to want to ‘protect’ them while you’re laying out the base colours and have to work around them when dithering and trying to find the right balances between light and shade. Now I’m happy with the actual fruit, I can go ahead and add the stalk.

A stalk is added to the apple

9. Fill in any other stuff you want to add using the same steps

I don’t want my apple to be hovering in a void, so I’m going to have it sitting on a wooden board. Wood is also nice and easy to paint because it includes lots of shades distributed organically across the surface so you can make something that looks great with just a few random streaks of different shades of brown.

A wooden board is filled in underneath the pixel apple
Just like the Dutch masters innit

10. Okay, I’ve got my tiny pixel drawing. Now what?

Now it’s time to draw out your grid! If you’ve decided to cross-stitch your masterpiece, you can of course skip this step. Otherwise, measure out the pixel-sized increments on your canvas/paper and draw a faint grid with a pencil (I’ve made the lines much darker than I usually would so it shows up on the photo).

A pencil grid on a canvas

11. Mark out any outlines that will be helpful to orient yourself as you paint

It can be quite tricky to keep track of which individual squares need to be painted how during the painting process, so I like to mark out any key silhouettes that will be helpful for me to keep my bearings as I paint.

the outline of the apple has been added in a slightly heavier pencil stroke

11. Fill in your grid pixel-by-pixel, ‘Painting by Numbers’-style

Alright, you don’t have to go pixel-by-pixel. I prefer to start with the largest areas of a single colour first, and then work my way through the shades until the individual pixels can be filled in at the end. It’s also a good idea to paint the background last as this is an opportunity to neaten up any wiggly edges on the outline of the focal point(s) of the image. Don’t worry if it’s a bit wiggly though – if we wanted perfectly straight pixels we could have just printed out a PNG of the thing we made earlier! And that would be boring!!

the finished artwork!

I swear to god this makes my nostalgic little nerd-heart skip a beat. Go forth and have fun creating your own pixel decor!

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