Note: This tutorial uses Adobe Photoshop but some of the principals can be applied to all pixel painting programs.
First start with the shape of your character. I’ve chosen the Dragonborn character from Skyrim as he has a very recognisable and defined silhouette.
Block out the basics. Make sure you’ve resolved your character’s proportions and that everything feels weighted properly. By this I mean balanced. The weight of the character should not feel situated too much in any one direction (unless of course your pose is an action shot, which can sometimes shift the weight in the direction of movement). A good way to test this is to flip the canvas horizontally. If it still feels balanced, flip it back and move on to step 2.
Now we want to start fleshing out the detail. I typically choose 5 or so tonal values ranging from dark (our silhouette colour) to light.
Choose your second darkest tone and start blocking in areas you want to be hit with light.
Once you’ve defined the areas being lit up, move on to your mid tones and start defining the finer details.
Repeat this process until you have defined all the important areas. Keep in mind with pixel art, you don’t always need to define every single detail (in this case a mouth, feet etc). Usually less is more. When in doubt, go back to the games from the 80 and 90s and look at how they define their characters and scenery. A great example is the game ‘Another World’. Of course, you can create more detailed pixel art by increasing the resolution of your image, but the more you do this, the less your art will have that retro, pixel art look.
I usually create my environments first in my regular high resolution digital painting, but in pixel art I find it distracts me too much from the character design. So I add this once the character design is resolved.
Those familiar to the original Skyrim image will notice I haven’t put mist in front of the character. This was deliberate for the purposes of this tutorial as mist would obscure the details we’d just defined.
Step 3: Colour
If you look at games from yesteryear, you’ll notice many of them have a very limited colour palette.
I usually ignore this when making my own pixel art because I love colour and a lot can be achieved with it. However, the original Skyrim image had a washed out palette so for this particular image, I used a technique in Photoshop to colour it.
The technique uses a Gradient Map to assign colour to tonal values. It’s an extremely useful tool that can be used in all digital painting. You can find it in your Layers window in Photoshop under effects. There are many tutorials on using this tool by far better artists than me so I won’t go into more detail here.
Apply this effect to individual layers or the whole image as you see fit. You’ll notice you retain the original image, and thus the tonal values. This can be useful if you ever want to change the colour of your artwork again in the future.
So that’s it! Simple techniques to suit the majority of your pixel art needs.
I’ll be doing tutorials on other styles and techniques in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!