Guidelines for creating 8-bit pixel art

Stuck in the past

For the generation that grew up on NES and SNES there’s something endearing about the video game graphics of days since past. And with the rise of indie game development in recent years, 8-bit pixel art saw a resurgence in popularity. Call it the nostalgia factor, but I think it serves as a reminder that we don’t need to use bleeding edge technology as long as games are fun and engage our imagination.

I tend to make pixel art primarily because it’s easier for me to animate and draw sprites pixel by pixel than it is to try and draw them out with a tablet consistently. I have to say making pixel art is one of those things you gradually get better at and so I’ve come up with helpful hint for anyone looking to make 8-bit pixel art.

Sample pixel art

Sample pixel art

Start with a small size

The most basic rule of pixel art is to start out with a small size. Starting with a smaller size reduces the amount of detail you draw. Start off with 8×8 or 16×16 and move on up when you feel you’re ready to start adding more detail. Personally, I just stick with 16×16 as a standard size and increase it as needed. I usually don’t use anything over 32×32.

Limit your palette

If you’re truly going for an 8-bit/NES style with your pixel art then reduce the number of colors you use by using a constrained palette. I tend to to use the NES palette (64 colors) most of the time. The advantage of using a contrained palette is that it will give you a more authentic 8-bit look and it’ll help keep you from going overboard on shading.

Use a 3-color rule for shading

Whether you’re shading background tiles or sprites, try to limit yourself to 3-colors for shading. Before I started using the NES palette I found that I was using 5 or 6 colors for shading and everything often turned out too smooth. Hint, if you’re making background tiles try and utilize your primary background color as dark color.

Use black to make sprites pop

Aside from normal shading, experiment with black to help create emphasis on your sprites that separate them from the background. If you look at sprites from old 8-bit games you’ll notice that sprites are often outlined in black. Also use this to help create definition on the sprite (emphasizing limbs, equipment, or clothes).