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80 Level Digest: Introduction to Tools for Pixel Artists

This week's 80 Level Digest will provide you with a beginner introduction to pixel art offering an overview of paid and free tools that will be useful in creating your first artworks and featuring a number of tips and tutorials that will help aspiring artists to get into pixel art.

Pixel art definitely has a charm of its own with its retro vibes, emerging the feeling of nostalgia, and the irresistible appeal of simplicity. While many consider pixel art an easy form of digital art, it actually has its own peculiarities that every artist has to know before they dive into this form of art.

Pixel art can be described as a challenge to find art through limitations – it places heavy demands upon the artist as it requires more discipline and is more rigid than the majority of other art forms. Learning to create pixel art means planning and attention to detail as well as the ability to work within a number of limitations (like the limited palette, the absence of natural curves, and working exclusively in a 2D environment).

Still, pixel art can be really rewarding as an artist who mastered pixel art will gain a number of qualities useful for other forms of art and will be able to devise a strategy to overcome pixel art limitations which will make them not only a great Pixel Artist but also a great designer.

We hope that today's 80 Level Digest will help aspiring artists learn some tips on how to get into pixel art and find out which tools are best for them to create their first pixel artworks.

For starters, if you are a beginner Pixel Artist, it's essential to learn some tips from more experienced folks who can help you learn the basics of what pixel art is and what you can do to be a better Pixel Artist. We can definitely recommend you start with the How To Pixel Art Tutorial by game developer and Pixel Artist Reece Geofroy who has been tinkering with pixel art and game development since he was 16.

It's worth saying that Reece's YouTube channel has a number of videos where he gives useful tips for beginner pixel artists and teaches valuable lessons he's learned from his own past experience. However, we recommend starting by watching this video where Reece teaches some fundamental techniques and ideas.

When you watched this video, you can also check out the video where Reece shares some tips on how to develop your skills in pixel art from beginner to pro in a shorter time and a video where he explains the main principles of pixel art, including advice on lighting, color, and structure.

And here are some more tutorials that can help you get a grip on how to become a better pixel artist:

And now, let's move to some tools that can be helpful when you start your journey as a Pixel Artist. If you're not sure yet that you really want to dive into pixel art, the best choice here is probably some free software.

One of the simplest tools that you can use for free is GrafX2. This program offers 256 colors and includes an enormous number of tools and effects that you can use to create graphics painted with a mouse. The software has the ability to work with layers as well as includes a basic tool for frame-by-frame animation.

GrafX2 features a palette editor that allows very precise operations on the image and its palette and has several features that can be really useful for console or mobile game graphics including palette swap, color cycling, and transparent color for sprites. The software features a built-in brush that appears "stuck" under the mouse cursor and gives an accurate preview, a tool that pastes the brush on the image at several places, and a number of effects that change the way pixels are drawn.

To learn more about GrafX2, you can check out this tutorial:

PikoPixel is a tool that is similar to GrafX2, however, unlike GrafX2 which is available for Linux and Windows, PikoPixel runs on MacOs. It has some pretty basic functions but it lets you choose colors and drop squares onto the canvas so it can suit you if you want to make something simple.

Next up is KRITA, a software that has many brushes and textures, many of which are suitable for pixel art. While the program is mainly designed for digital illustration work on tablets, you can choose a 1-pixel brush and use it for pixel art. The software has an intuitive user interface and its dockers and panels can be moved and customized for your specific workflow, so you will be able to adjust the program for creating pixel art.

If you're not sure how to convert KRITA into an all-in-one pixel art editing software, you can check out this tutorial:

If you're looking for software that will be perfect for animating sprites, GraphicsGale may be your choice.

Its general toolset is pretty similar to Photoshop when it comes to pixel art, however, it has a number of distinguishing features, such as an ability to review your animations in real time while editing sprites, an onion-skinning feature that allows you to see both previous and next frames while your draw as well as palette control, selectively erasing colors, and tools for quickly replacing and trying new colors.

In addition, the software allows you to output your animation frames onto a single sprite sheet, output each frame to its own image file, or export the entire animation as a single .gif file. GraphicsGale's export options are flexible enough to be compatible with any workflow. To create pixel art or pixel art animation, you can use the software alone or in combination with Photoshop.

If you want to learn how to make some pixel art using GraphicsGale, we recommend you watch this tutorial:

And now, let's move to the programs you have to pay for. Probably, the easiest tool for beginners here is PixelBasher, a kitbashing tool that aims to give artists the opportunity to create pixel art with ease.

The tool contains a huge library of retro-styled and auto-tiling objects that can be dragged and resized. It also features several useful sub-tools like an adjustable color limit, various effects that can be applied to objects, and transparency values. It also has the ability to export your projects as a PNG file and add your desired colors in another software. The tool is currently available in early access beta and costs $19.99 (+VAT).

To learn more about the tool's features, check out this video:

Another software that you can use for creating pixel art is Pyxel Edit. This pixel art drawing application was specially designed for working with tiles. The tool lets you place tiles to form a level, edit them directly to see how they all work together, then export your tileset and the level data, and load it into your game. What is more, tiles can even be flipped and rotated, still being editable and synced. 

Pyxel Edit supports making animations and exporting them as sprite sheets or animated GIFs. The software also allows you to export your canvas tilemap in XML, JSON, or plain text format for super quick game prototyping and has an intuitive interface designed to feel familiar to other graphics applications.

Pixel Edit is available as a beta version at a discounted price of $9.00 to support development. The price will later increase gradually with newer versions.

Here are some tutorials that will help you get started with the software:

Aseprite is another program with simple and intuitive tools for drawing pixel art. It was designed for making pixel art specifically and has a number of features that will be useful for both beginners and advanced Pixel Artists. The program comes with a bunch of preloaded pixel art color palettes, including PICO-8 and EDG 32 as well as some game palettes like the Game Boy and NES.

Aseprite also has some cool features like a "pixel-perfect drawing" option that will help you create cleaner lines and curves. The tool also offers an easy way to resize your work for posting online and has an easy-to-use timeline tool that organizes the layers against the timeline of the frame animation. You can purchase Aseprite for $19.99.

Aseprite is quite popular among Pixel Artists, so there are plenty of tutorials on the software online. Here are some of them:

Another great tool for pixel art is Pro Motion NG. It will be perfect for animation, tile-mapping, anti-aliasing as well as it serves as an advanced editor for working with color. On top of it, the program also allows you to easily integrate assets into game engines like Unity and GameMaker.

Pro Motion NG also has a free version – although it offers lower functionality, it is a great chance to try out the tool. The paid version of the software will cost you $39.99.

You can learn more about the software on the YouTube channel of Pro Motion NG's publisher BrashMonkey. There you can find an introduction to the software as well as a number of tutorials. Here are some of them:

Finally, if you feel more comfortable starting your pixel art journey with the software that you're already familiar with, you can choose Adobe Photoshop.

It works pretty well for pixel art if you open a small canvas and use the Pencil tool – this together with a great selection of tools, blending modes, and a frame animation timeline tool can provide you with everything you need to create pixel art. However, it will be a more costly option than any of the tools we've mentioned before – the cheapest subscription that includes Photoshop is priced at $9.99 a month.

If you want to learn more about how to adjust your Photoshop workflow to pixel art, check out these videos:

In addition to the tools and tutorials, we'd like to suggest that the best way to learn a new skill, including perfecting your pixel art skills, is to practice. And probably the best way to do this is by participating in various challenges.

There are a number of pixel art competitions online. For instance, you can check out the Pixel Dailies Twitter account where new challenges with various topics are published every day. You can also check out the Pixel Join+ website where you can find new challenges every week or join the daily drawing challenge on the Pixilart website.

Also, you can look for useful literature that can help you get into pixel art and teach you how to master pixels. For instance, you may check out a great book about pixel art by Michafrar, Pixel Logic. The book is full of various tutorials covering a number of topics – from creating the first line art to making fully animating sprites – and combines examples from the past with modern applications.

And here are some great examples of works created by Pixel Artists that may be a source of inspiration: 

What tools did we miss? What tutorials should we have added here? What helped you learn pixel art? Share your thoughts in the comments below and don't forget to join our Reddit page and our Telegram channel, follow us on Instagram and Twitter, where we share breakdowns, the latest news, awesome artworks, and more. 

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