Pixelblog - 7 - Developing Style by Raymond Schlitter

Intro

Despite the limitations set on the medium, pixel artists have formed a diverse range of styles over the years and continue to evolve the art form today. Developing your own personal style goes a long way to finding commercial success. The consumer and potential employer are attracted to specialization. Furthermore, you need a brand to get noticed. But don't expect it to come to you over night. In order to properly form a style you must first explore and develop skill. Allow me to share an encouraging account of my own growing pains. 

 Think of style like an aesthetic concoction.

Think of style like an aesthetic concoction.

My Journey

If you've decided to focus on pixel art, half your journey is already over. Before I committed to pixel art I was all over the place in my creative endeavors. At one point my portfolio included logos, drawings, paintings, photography, and various digital mediums. My explorative nature was applauded by other creatives, yet I had a hard time finding jobs and selling my art. I thought the diversity was demonstrating my talent, but it was actually holding me back. I needed to find my thing. 

Thankfully, I finally discovered my passion for pixel art and it became obvious where I should focus my effort. I had greatly narrowed my path but I had only just begun my adventure in the realm of pixel art. Just like everybody else I sucked at first and had no apparent style.

 Eww, my first attempts at Pixel Dailies from March and April of 2015. We all gotta start somewhere.

Eww, my first attempts at Pixel Dailies from March and April of 2015. We all gotta start somewhere.

Let me take you back to early 2015 and show you my first 3 attempts at Pixel Dailies. I had done a few sporadic experiments before, but this was at the point where I decided to focus on pixel art. Pixel Dailies and other pixel art communities are a great way to develop your skills in the company of other artists. It really helped give me the initiative, and I learned a lot about my art based on feedback and level of engagement.

'Octopus' - I think the size was restricted to 32x32px. I had never worked so small before and it really forced me to become aware of the clusters. You can see I made a lot of noob mistakes just like everybody else (pillow shading, doubles, excessive and ineffective color).  

'Study' - The study was to create a Neo Geo Pocket style sprite. I used the Ryu sprite as a template and I was amazed how much character could be expressed with simple outlined clusters and limited colors.

'Akira' - This was just a theme with no restrictions. Being a huge fan of Katsuhiro Otomo's work, I couldn't pass up the challenge. Still pretty rough but you can see my aptitude for mechanical subjects, as I started to develop a better sense of light, giving the sprite more depth than my previous attempts. 

 More early work from April to May of 2015

More early work from April to May of 2015

Here are more assorted Pixel Dailies from my first few months practicing pixel art. Dithering, outlines, no outlines, chibi sprites, large sprites, isometric; you can see how I was exploring many different techniques just feeling out the medium with no particular style. There are some bright spots but I was still struggling with lighting, color, and making clusters do what I want. At this point I remember it was very difficult for me to work from scratch without literally tracing a reference to get started. Somehow I had aptitude for the isometric viewpoint right away, probably because of clear established guidelines. 

 In June of 2015, about 4 months after I started pixeling seriously, a style started to emerge.

In June of 2015, about 4 months after I started pixeling seriously, a style started to emerge.

At about the 4 month mark things were starting to come together in a more cohesive manner. Once I discovered the brilliance of minimal colors I was able to focus more on clusters and my lighting/shading improved dramatically. I can't stress enough the importance of limited color. Especially for a beginner, I recommend using only about 5 colors until you feel super confident in your shading and cluster work. Excessive color choices will only impede your development of the fundamentals.  

At this time I was beginning to develop an affinity for certain colors, cluster patterns, and other aesthetic elements. Consequently a style started to emerge, however it was vague and I was still in exploration mode. Even though I was adept in certain techniques, I was not about to rest on my laurels. Even today I still strive to evolve.

 In July of 2015, I began to exploit the 1/2 sideview and my passion for mechanical design, which helped crystalize the core of my style.

In July of 2015, I began to exploit the 1/2 sideview and my passion for mechanical design, which helped crystalize the core of my style.

Within the next month I discovered one of my favorite perspectives, which I now call the 1/2 side view. As far as I can tell the airship in the top image was the first time I used this skewed projection angle. I still use this perspective all the time and it's become one of the most prominent elements in my work. Also, notice a familiar theme emerging at this time? 

 Over the past couple years my style has continued to evolve but the foundation I established in my early development is still evident. 

Over the past couple years my style has continued to evolve but the foundation I established in my early development is still evident. 

Although still a bit raw, the nucleus of my style had formed in matter of months. Through repeated refinement of techniques and subjects it became a legit style. To this day I continue to evolve my techniques and append new ones, but the core I established in those early days is still a huge part of my style. I learned to manage more colors, but limited palettes and minimalism is still a major slice of my brand. It's important to always continue exploring while keeping sight on your brand. But most importantly, make sure your work gives you pleasure. 

What Defines STyle?

Every aesthetic choice you make including the subject matter plays into the definition of a style. Here are some of the elements that most strongly define a pixel art style. 

Color - Color can have a deep psychological impact and usually determines the first, and overall impression of a work. There are endless ways to handle color; particular hues, color combos, saturation levels, brightness levels, color count. What are your color tendencies?
 
Cluster Work - Remember, clusters are any group of touching pixels with the same color. How you handle clusters can totally change the feel of a work. Lots of simple and repetitive clusters arranged in a controlled manner tends to create a clean or cute look. Widely varied spontaneous clusters creates a sketchy organic look. Clusters express your handy work.

Perspective - As you saw in my own account, frequent use a of a particular perspective can certainly distinguish a style. 

Resolution - The size/resolution of pixel art impacts the overall look. Some artists like minimalistic super chunky pixels and others brave large canvases to deliver great detail. There's a range for diversity but the scale can tip too far at either end. Usually too high resolution brings out the pixel snobs, and that would include me. 

Subject - What do you depict with your pixels? Cute characters, landscapes, mecha, monsters, or maybe non-objective designs? If a particular subject dominates your portfolio it certainly plays into your style.

Self ANAlysis

You don't just pick a style out of a hat, it comes from within. You should always be reflecting on what you are actually doing, and why. You might not know why at first but over time an aesthetic philosophy will form. The more conscious you become of your philosophy the more likely your creative decisions will result in a distinguished style. For example, I value clean lines over realistic perspective. This is just one guiding philosophy that answers why I so often use abstract projections to achieve depth. By analyzing your work you can see what defines your style, and why. The greater the sample size the more you can refine the definition, but it's not to be written in stone. Just as you change through life, your style undergoes refinement and evolution. 

Inspiration

Developing a style requires exploration. The best way to explore is to analyze other artists and pixel art games. Let's take a look at some other pixel artists with evident style.

Nemk.png

Formerly known as Nemk and now @deadlyyucca creates lovely minimalistic pixel art. I was especially impressed with her sci-fi scenes from a few years ago. The airy compositions and pale colors create a beautiful desolation. The minimalistic approach influenced me, and I'm pretty sure it was her work that turned me on to the 1/2 side-view.

Yur Gus.png

Yur Gus (@yg_fool) creates exquisite scenes with natural colors. The whimsical painterly quality gives his scenes a story book feel. A mythical story book crafted by gods. Aim for this style if you want to kill yourself. Just kidding, but really I can't even estimate how many hours of work I'm looking at. A true artisan.

Valenberg.gif

Valenberg (@MrValenberg) is decidedly married to the cyberpunk aesthetic and sticks to an appropriate color palette strongly featuring pink and blue. Rain soaked night cities, neon signage, hover cars, cyborgs, and cigarettes commonly grace his scenes. I appreciate the aesthetic, but what makes his work great is the cinematic quality of his compositions. A skill that makes him sought after for music videos. 

Kirokaze.gif

Kirokaze (@kirokaze) is a prolific artist who makes a variety of scenes often presented as game mock-ups. He sticks to a consistent slightly muted palette, but often jumps between sci-fi and fantasy scenes, or somewhere in between. Every scene includes interesting narrative woven into the details, and the worlds feel well thought out beyond the boundaries of the canvas. 

Johan_Vinet.gif

Johan Vinet (@johanvinet) is a gamedev centric pixel artist. His work exhibits quite a bit of diversity but he still has a style. I would say it's mostly defined my his enthusiastic use of vivid color and low-res cuteness. With very few pixels he manages to create expressive sprites with fluid animation.

I'm always hesitant to reference other artists because there are so many good ones and I don't want to leave anyone out, but it can't be helped. There are many more talented pixel artists out there worth analyzing. Get on the webs and check em' out! 

Balance

While a unique style will help you get noticed, it's a good idea to remain flexible. Ideally, you could just make that one thing you really dig and everybody wants your thing. But you'll likely have more opportunities if you can adapt your brand across various styles and subjects. Usually a client wants to take advantage of your strength, but sometimes they might see a potential in your style you hadn't considered a part of your visual vocabulary. If you feel something is just too out of character it could potentially hurt your brand. However, stepping from your comfort zone often leads to a new discovery and it could evolve your style rather than muddle it. You can widen the spectrum of your brand and still have a recognizable style, but open it too wide and people can no longer see what makes you special.

Sprite Styles

Often the overall style of a game or artwork starts with the sprite design. When deciding on a style for a game it's most important to make sure it suits the gameplay. Large sprites look cool but can be clunky to control and also require much more time to animate. Let's look at some simple examples of side-view sprites.

12-Sprite_Styles.png

FINAL THOUGHTS

Reviewing my early days of development sure was a trip down memory lane. But I didn't write this article just to reminisce. Analyzing my path of progress should encourage and help you navigate the development of your own style. Just let it happen naturally and don't force it. Everybody develops at their own pace. My previous creative experience and intimacy with retro video games gave me a head start. If you're coming in with little to no creative experience it will require more time, but you can achieve your goals if the motivation is there. Explore as much as you can to discover the aesthetic elements that speak to and uncover your style, but never become complacent. There's always room to grow. 

RESOURCES

Was this article helpful? If you find value in my content please consider becoming a Patreon member. Among many other rewards, Pixel Insider members get extra resources to compliment my tutorials. But most importantly, you allow me to continue making new content. 

This month's resource is another master color palette. Introducing all 200 colors of Bright Future! You might have seen my Steam Lords palette. Well, it's derived from Bright Future, and there are many more resplendent possibilities with this massive palette. 

Get caught up on all my downloads

If you're not ready to commit to the subscription model of Patreon, make a one-time donation and receive exclusive art and downloads. Fan support is necessary to keep producing content. Thank you! 

-By Raymond Schlitter

Pixelblog - 6 - Light and Shadow by Raymond Schlitter

Intro

As with any form of illustration, a good sense of light is key to capturing depth and atmosphere. Pixel art especially has a tendency to appear flat if light is not handled with care. Finding the right approach to light can be a delicate matter when working within low spec parameters. However, limitations can allow more flexibility in terms of abstraction, and subtle details go a long way.  

Intro_Image.png

What is light?

Light is what lets us see the world and affects the way we see color. Color is the way objects emit light. In terms of pixel art I'm referring to the management of color and clusters in order to simulate shadow, highlight, and mid-tones. 

Light source

A light source should be established at the very start of any illustration. This will dictate the flow of shadows, tell you where highlights should be placed, and otherwise guide you with selecting color. Don't overthink it, context should always help you determine a light source. Often light comes from multiple sources at different intensities, but the most common and natural light source is from somewhere above. This always feels natural because the sun is usually above us, and most artificial light comes from overhead as well. Personally, I most often have primary light from the top right or left hand side of the composition. I feel this creates dynamic highlights and shadows while remaining balanced and natural. But this is just one simple approach. Light can come from any combination of sources, directions and intensities. 

9-Lightsource.gif

Mood

How do you want the viewer to feel when they see your art? Happy? Relaxed? Melancholy? Light is one of the biggest factors in determining mood. Changing the mood often involves changes to cluster work, but simple color selection can make all the difference.

10-Mood.png

Notice how I also play with the cast shadows to change the mood. Shadows can be stylized for the sake of expression but they also indicate the quality of the atmosphere. For example, If the air is hazy or if there is thick cloud coverage, light diffuses and cast shadows become less defined and soft. On the other hand, clear atmosphere keeps the light hard and makes crisp dark shadows. In outer space where there is no atmosphere shadows are elongated and razor sharp. 

More Tips

11-Lighting_Tips.gif

Final Thoughts

Well, I've given you some simple concepts to approach light and shadow with confidence. The true nature of light can become much more complicated, but when it comes to pixel art I find the simple approach always works well. While my approach may be simple, the execution should be handled with care. Every detail is magnified under the minimal constraints. Sometimes it just a matter of finding the right level of contrast, adding some cast shadows, and bam, it suddenly jumps off the screen and immerses you. 

Resources

If you find value in my content please consider becoming a Patreon member. Among many other rewards, Pixel Insider members get extra resources to compliment my tutorials. But most importantly, you allow me to continue making new content. 

This month's resource is a blueprint to create a unique pixel art building. I supply the basic design in outlines and you can use it to practice coloring and shading, just like an old fashioned coloring book.

Get caught up on all my downloads

If you're not ready to commit to the subscription model of Patreon, make a one-time donation and receive exclusive art and downloads. Fan support is necessary to keep producing content. Thank you! 

-By Raymond Schlitter

Pixelblog - 5 - Back to Basics by Raymond Schlitter

INTRO

Greetings pixel peeps. In an attempt to answer your most frequently asked questions I'm taking you back to the basics. What helps jumpstart a beginner can also sharpen up a pro. So strap in for a nice collection of tips, personal insight, and a quick lesson in the fundamentals. 

 We all gotta start somewhere. Under the right conditions you'll be amazed how fast you can grow.

We all gotta start somewhere. Under the right conditions you'll be amazed how fast you can grow.

WHAT IS PIXEL ART?

Before even attempting to make pixel art it's good to know what it actually is. Pixel art is a kind of digital art characterized by a low spec aesthetic. In mention of pixel art most people probably think of pixelated graphics of some sort. Low resolution, and other low spec parameters are indeed essential qualities of pixel art. However, the number one defining factor is intention. The pixels should be placed with deliberate thought in a precise manner. Not to say every pixel needs to be hand placed one at a time, but there should be a conscious care and control over every pixel on the canvas. Even a large high resolution image can be pixel art if it's made with precise control on a single pixel level. But if the pixel units become so fine you can't even notice them, you have to ask why? Pixel art should be about embracing limitations. 

Tree.png

The above tree is obviously pixel art. Why? Well, first you can clearly see pixels but what is important is they appear to be arranged in a deliberate manner. Repetition, order, and lot's of similar clusters make it appear all the pixels have purpose.

Tree_digital.png

Now take a look at this digital painting I made several years ago. While it is technically comprised of pixels it is not pixel art, because I paid no mind to the actual pixels as I made it. I was concerned with light, form, color, but the resolution is too high to recognize what the pixel clusters are doing. Also I was using soft brushes with anti-aliasing already applied to the edges of the strokes. This kind of automation is a major contradiction to the concept of pixel art. 

Tree_2.png

On the other hand, low res illustration is not always pixel art. I would not call the above example pixel art, as I just scribbled out the basic forms without care for the clusters. But let's say I did deliberately place the pixels this way. Technically, it would be pixel art then, but the ambiguity makes it an extremely poor style. Pixel art often looks like this at some point in the process, but the artist would go back in to clean up the clusters and treat the pixels with care before trying to pass it off as pixel art.

WHAT IS A CLUSTER?

If you are new to pixel art you are probably wondering what all this cluster talk is about. In pixel art a cluster is any group of touching pixels with the same color. Paying attention to clusters should be a primary focus, as they will dictate the overall look of your work. Do you want a simple sharp look, or a sketchy organic look? Much like lines in drawing or strokes in painting, clusters can unlock the expression of your work.  

 Simple angular clusters makes for a clean sharp look

Simple angular clusters makes for a clean sharp look

 Lots of unique organic shaped clusters makes for a natural look

Lots of unique organic shaped clusters makes for a natural look

TOOLS

What program do you use? While this should be one of the least critical concerns for pixel art it continues to be the most frequently asked question. Honestly, it's whatever works and what is comfortable for you. Masterpieces can be made on 30 year software just as well as today's high end software. Part of what makes pixel art so alluring is the ease of entry. Almost everybody already owns software capable of producing pixel art and probably doesn't even realize it. Hell, I've even seen pixel art made in Excel! That being said, it's important to find the right tool for you.

I've only made pixel art on a fraction of the tools available so I will only speak on behalf of what I'm familiar with.

Photoshop - This is my main jam for pixel art. Being the most ubiquitous image editing software means exhaustive features for endless possibilities. As a graphic designer I used Photoshop for many years before I even realized I could make pixel art with it. Therefore, I feel very comfortable with the interface and extensive list of features.
Pros - Powerful, slick UI, exhaustive features, fully customizable, animation tools, lots of documentation and support
Cons - Excessive features can get in the way of just making pixel art, pricey, nuanced animation tools can be frustrating

 Ah, Photoshop and its cumbersome, yet capable frame animation

Ah, Photoshop and its cumbersome, yet capable frame animation

 I'm a big fan of the smart guides in Photoshop. Subtle pink lines and spacial measurements that indicate positional relationships with other layers. Something of a luxury feature but greatly missed in Aseprite. 

I'm a big fan of the smart guides in Photoshop. Subtle pink lines and spacial measurements that indicate positional relationships with other layers. Something of a luxury feature but greatly missed in Aseprite. 

Aseprite - I picked this up specifically for its nice animations tools. The visual layout of the frames as cells in a timeline combined with the ability to add independent animation layers feels logical and is easy to learn. Funny thing, I used Photoshop for so long I'm still more at home in its cumbersome frame animation tools.
Pros - Simple and easy to jump right into, affordable, layered animation interface, handy tools designed specifically for common pixel art tasks, comes with lots of color palettes, easily converts images into color palettes, pixel art UI is charming if that's your thing
Cons - Few luxury features, performance can suffer with large canvases and lot of layers, pixel art UI can be jarring if it's not your thing

 Aseprite animation timeline has layers!

Aseprite animation timeline has layers!

Dotpict - This is a super simple editor for mobile. I wouldn't recommend it for any serious work but it's a fun way to pixel on the go. The only time I really use it is when I'm stuck at some family gathering or traveling. There are better mobile apps if you have a tablet with a pen, but if you're looking for some free fun on your phone this is a good one.   
Pros - Free, lots of nice default palettes, customizable palettes, built in community features, intuitive control for dotting with fingers
Cons - No layers, limited canvas sizes, dotting technique can be tedious  

 Dotpict is a fun free way to pixel on the go. 

Dotpict is a fun free way to pixel on the go. 

There are so many more pixel art programs but these are the few I actually have sufficient hands on experience with. For an exhaustive list of pixel art programs check out Lospec (an all around great resource for pixel artists). There are many free options, which includes several online editors. Personally, I prefer Photoshop and create almost all of my pixel art with it, but like I said, the software isn't terribly important. Creativity and a fundamental understanding of the principles involved in making pixel art take precedent.    

HARDWARE

While I constantly get asked about software I rarely get asked about hardware. However, I actually think hardware is equally important, if not more important than software, especially if you're planning on pixeling for the long haul. It's all a matter of physical health. Pixel art requires long hours staring very closely at a monitor while making repetitive actions over and over again. The more comfortable you are the better. But be warned, you may think you are comfortable now, as it can take years before health issues manifest.   

 My view all too often. 

My view all too often. 

My personal setup is a Wacom Intuos 5 tablet with my iMac. I prefer using a stylus over a mouse for just about everything, but more than a matter of preference I think it's actually healthier. The natural gestures made with a pen use the whole arm and feel much more sustainable than the clicky ckicky mouse action focused on one specific repetitive movement. Since we're talking about a form of illustration here it's no surprise that I'm also much more proficient with a pen. The tool doesn't make the artist though, it's mostly a matter of comfort.

As for the eyes, the best thing you can do is take breaks. It's good to go outside and let your eyes focus on things in the distance from time to time. They also make special glasses designed to reduce the harshness of screen light, but I haven't tried them for myself. Another tip is to make sure your monitor brightness is turned low and don't work in a completely dark room. Work on a gray background instead of solid white. This is easier on the eyes and better for balancing your colors anyway.

While we are on the subject of health I also have to warn you, sitting for long hours is very bad for your back and can cause other health ailments. Make sure you have a nice chair that keeps your posture upright. Standing desks are highly praised for improving back health and energy. They can be a bit pricey so I just set my laptop on some boxes when I feel I really need to get off my keister. The best thing is to just take breaks often and get daily exercise. Especially focus on strengthening your core to avoid back pain. 

CANVAS SIZE/RESOLUTION

I was surprised to see so many people lost when deciding canvas size, but it does take some practice to get a feel for how size impacts the overall look. Generally, pixel art is low resolution, or in other words created at a very small size. With all the HD graphics and displays with thousands of pixels these days it can seem very odd to get situated in front of a canvas that's no more than 100 pixels square. That's actually quite a bit to work with when it comes to pixel art. For context the resolution of NES games is 256x240 pixels. If you're totally lost you should find a reference point like this to base your work in. And don't forget you can always change your canvas size during the process. I often start small so I can focus in on a simple idea and I expand the canvas bounds as needed. I think this is better than starting too large and feeling like you have to use all the space.  

8-Size_And_Scale_T.png

Another concern related to size is scaling. Since pixel art is created at such low resolution, if you were to present it at original size it would be too tiny to appreciate. Therefore, it is usually scaled for the sake of presentation. Scaling your art is simple but there are a couple key rules. When scaling pixel art you should increase the image size only by whole number multiples in order to preserve the uniformity of the pixel units. For example you can scale the original size by 200%, 300%, 400%, and so on. If you try to scale to an arbitrary size like 193.5%, you will notice the pixel units become distorted and are not all perfectly square. The other key rule for scaling is to make sure there is no anti-aliasing applied. This goes for all operations in pixel art. Anti-aliasing provides an algorithm to automatically smooth the edges of curves and angles. That's a big no no in pixel art. We want to preserve the hard edges of the pixels. Anti-aliasing can be applied manually, but that's for another topic.  

For reference, most of my designs are created at around 150x150px to 300x300px, then scaled 2x, or 3x. Usually my target size for the final presentation file is 500x500px to 800x800px. 4x scaling is about the max I ever go. Anything beyond that is just too chunky. 

STUDY TIPS

I'm often asked for advice on how to study and improve as a pixel artist. As with anything, practice makes perfect. When you are first starting I think exploration is key. At this point you probably don't have a particular style and that's perfectly reasonable. In order to find your style you must heavily experiment. Study the classic games of the 8 and 16-bit eras. Study other artists styles. Do tutorials. There is no shame in mimicking or even directly tracing over another artist's work if it's only for the purpose of studying. Sometimes you can only do so much analysis with your eyes and you don't get it until you go through the motions. Eventually, you'll find the colors, clusters, and techniques that resonate with you. Before you know it a style will emerge! 

In order to stay motivated and keep a constant flow of challenges coming it's very helpful to post your art online and engage with the pixel art community. I got started making Pixel Dailies on Twitter 3 years ago. The variety of themes and imposed restrictions forced me to try new challenges I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. Also, the interaction with other artists and instant feedback you get from posting your art online is incredibly valuable. There are many circles of pixel artists doing cool studies. Here's a list of the popular ones, again brought to you by Lopsec.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Although the basics have been repeated time and time again, it's nice to consolidate things in my own words. There are actually some other bits I was going to include in this feature but I have to save them for another time.  

RESOURCES

If you find value in my content please consider becoming a Patreon member. Among many other rewards, Pixel Insider members get extra resources to compliment my tutorials. But most importantly, you allow me to continue making new content. 

This month's resource doesn't exactly relate to the article but I thought it was time for another palette share, and it's a whopper! The complete 140 color palette used to create Thyrian Defenders!  

Get caught up on all my downloads

If you're not ready to commit to the subscription model of Patreon, you can also make a one-time donation and receive exclusive art and downloads.

-By Raymond Schlitter

Pixelblog - 4 - Graphical Projection Part 2 by Raymond Schlitter

Intro

Welcome back for another round of graphical projection. In last month's Pixelblog I created a farm house from top-down and side-view perspectives. Now I'm going to take it to the next level and reveal more dimension to our humble little abode. Get ready to produce graphics in one of the most iconic pixel art styles!  

Iso_Scene.gif

ISOMETRIC

Isometric_Diagram.png

Isometric projection uses a tilted top-down view similar to 1/2 top-down, but it also rotates the building 45 degrees. This unique 3D perspective allows you to display a great deal of information by revealing the roof and multiple walls at the same time. 

Isometric_Cube.png

In true isometric projection the angles between the projection of the axes are equal, or 120 degrees if a cube. In pixel art this is most closely achieved by using angled lines with a 2:1 pixel ratio. I sometimes refer to these as two-step lines. It's possible to use a different projection angle, but two-step lines create the most realistic perspective. Essentially, isometric pixel art can be made by conforming to a grid of such lines. 

Key Points

Isometric pixel art has been heavily used in video games since the early 80's as a means to produce convincing 3D graphics. Now, It's become iconic of the retro aesthetic and is still a crowd-pleaser. It sure does look nice but there are a few things to consider.

Advantages - Creates convincing 3D assets. Can be tiled. Opens more dimensional possibilities in terms of gameplay when used in video games.

Disadvantages - Economical but still more demanding to produce than straight side-view or top-view. The rotated perspective makes it difficult to create video games with precise direct input controls. Twitchy games like shooters can be very hard to control when presented in isometric perspective. 

6-Isometric_Cube.gif

Now let's make an isometric version of our farm house from the previous lesson.

7-Isometric_House.gif

That wasn't so bad, was it? Check out some tips to sharpen your isometric skills.

workflow tips

Define rules - You will save yourself a headache by establishing some guidelines as early as possible. For example, color palette, light source, scale, proportions and other style properties should always be consistent. This goes for any style of pixel art.

copy_paste.gif

The art of copy and paste - You will often see the same clusters repeated in isometric forms, so why not reuse them? Work efficiently by copying and pasting this and that here and there.   

Work on a grid - Using a grid can be a good way to quickly lay down lines with the correct angle. Patreon members can download a custom isometric grid.

Use a ruler - If you find grids to be distracting simply designate a layer to use as a ruler when things need to be lined up. Make a long line with the 2:1 pixel ratio in a bright color and you're set!

Final Word

So now we've covered top-down, side-view, and isometric perspectives. There are many different graphical projections I haven't covered yet, but these are the most common and those I'm most familiar with. I will revisit the subject another time when I acquaint myself with some other projections. 

Resources

If you find value in my content please consider becoming a Patreon member. Among many other rewards, Pixel Insider members get extra resources to compliment my tutorials. But most importantly, you allow me to continue making new content. 

This month I'm sharing the isometric farm assets of all the buildings featured in the opening image. This includes all the buildings as individual sprites, and the animations as separate frames. Play with these as you like. I'm also sharing an isometric grid that you can work on top of. 

All assets for this feature use colors from my Mondo palette, which I designed in Pixelblog - 1.

Get caught up on all my downloads

If you're not ready to commit to the subscription model of Patreon, you can also make a one-time donation and receive exclusive art and downloads.

-By Raymond Schlitter

Pixelblog - 3 - Graphical Projection Part 1 by Raymond Schlitter

INTRO

Side_View_Scene.gif

The ability to convey convincing perspective with simple abstractions is one of the greatest charms of pixel art. If you really analyze 2D pixel art games you will notice they don't necessarily follow real world perspective rules, yet they still capture a believable sense of depth. This can be attributed to the use of graphical projection. A graphical projection supplies a set of numerical rules to depict 3D objects onto a flat plane. Personally, I don't get caught up in the math. I rely more on my eyeballs than numerical precision. This liberal use of imagination gives me a unique style, which is largely distinguished by a few different graphical projections. For this tutorial I will explain my two most often used graphical projections by illustrating houses. 

Top_Down_Scene.gif

There are many different types of graphical projections but in most cases they should not be mixed in the same scene. So long as all elements in a scene follow the same set of rules the resulting uniformity will please the eyes. If you are interested in learning more about the technical side of graphical projections and the various types, I highly reccomend this comprehensive article by Matej 'Retro' Jan.

1/2 TOP-DOWN

Half_Top-Down_Diagram.png

This projection is called 1/2 top-down, as you see about half of the full height of the facade and half of the full length of the roof. In other words, it's as if you are viewing the house from 45 degrees above. In my style the front of the house is shortened but the angles of the roof are not affected by the implied tilt and remain the same as they would appear from front on. Realistically, these angles would flatten as you ascend above the house and the walls would slightly angle outward, but I prefer the look of the clean angles. When it comes to pixel art, uniformity takes priority over realism.

Top-View_Lighting.gif

This is my common approach for lighting top down objects. The light could come from any corner but it's most natural to come from one of the top corners.

4-Top-Down_Buildings.gif

1/2 Side-view

In this projection it's as if you are 45 degrees from the the center of the house, looking directly at a side corner. From this view you see about half of each wall. As the walls narrow the angles of the roof would actually become steeper. However, I also prefer to preserve the 45 degrees angles in this case. Of course, this limits how narrow the facade can be, as the roof must shorten to maintain 45s. But there's usually enough pixels to work with, and I show more of the facade than would be seen if truly squished in half. Most of the depth comes from lighting details. 

Side-View_Lighting.gif

This is my common approach for lighting side-view objects. Sometimes I omit the strip in the center for a sharper corner, as is exhibited in the house below.

5-Side-View_Buildings.gif

As you can see I don't use a precise science to achieve these projections. Using color to create strong lighting makes the simple geometry appear 3D. The satisfying sense of depth comes from contrast in light where sharp angles meet. If you analyze my art you will find this mechanic used over and over again. Seeing the forms pop out of the monitor with just a few slabs of color never grows old. Certainly, it has become a core feature of my style. 

KEY POINTS

Uniformity - Make sure all elements in a scene follow the same rules and any wonky projection can look good. In other words, don't mix viewpoints. 

Lighting - Most of the depth comes from lighting. Small ledges and outcroppings that catch different light angles can improve depth. Use strong lighting directed from a corner for dramatic results. 

Work Solid - Drafting everything in outlines before coloring can be a good way to establish a complex structure, but you can often skip this step and immediately start making solid shapes with colors based on light source. Best to have a palette in mind for this to work well. 

Palette - Use a simple palette with strong contrast from lightest to darkest colors. 

Final Word

After you get the hang of these projections you can go on to create much more complex structures and apply them to all kinds of subjects. You can even use these techniques to create unique geometric expressions of organic subjects, like people, animals, vegetation, anything really.   

RESOURCES

If you find value in my content please consider becoming a Patreon member. Among many other rewards, Pixel Insider members get extra resources to compliment my tutorials. But most importantly, you allow me to continue making new content. 

This month I'm sharing a farm asset pack of all the buildings featured in the opening images. This includes all the buildings as individual sprites, and the animations as separate frames. Play with these as you like. 

All assets for this feature use colors from my Mondo palette, which I designed in Pixelblog - 1.

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If you're not ready to commit to the subscription model of Patreon, you can also make a one-time donation and receive exclusive art and downloads.

-By Raymond Schlitter

Pixelblog - 2 - Texture by Raymond Schlitter

Intro

Texture can add a whole new level of richness, movement, and overall immersion to your work. However, creating texture with pixel art can be tricky, and If not treated with care, texture details will only add unnecessary noise. As a beginner, I was uncomfortable with texture and tried to stick to flat color fields as much as possible. Over time, I discovered simple principles that make it easy to approach all kinds of textures. So come along and let me ease your fears of texture.  

Texture_Collage.png

Texturing Principles

Simplify - Break down the details into simple abstract shapes. Don't try to depict the fine details of every leaf and blade of grass. If you have the resolution to do so, you're probably not making pixel art.

Repetition - A good texture may only need a few simple clusters. Repeat these same clusters over and over but vary the pattern in which they are distributed. 

Balance - The texture should feel balanced. A little detail here usually means you need a little detail there. It's all a balancing act. 

Contrast - It looks more interesting to vary a texture, rather than have the same consistency across a large area. This can be achieved by placing texture details in select areas and leaving empty areas where the texture is implied. Or, you can achieve textural contrast with color variation. A perfectly homogenous texture can appear unnatural and too busy. 

Avoid orphan pixels - Orphan pixels are single pixel units not connected to a cluster of the same color. They can distract the eye and are usually avoided. However, I permit them when they're not obviously floating alone and relate to a greater texture, in which case I don't consider them true orphans. 

Here is a simple tutorial on making a grass texture, which illustrates all of these principles.

 Wanna make tutorials like this? You'll need a tiny pixel font. Download this one  here

Wanna make tutorials like this? You'll need a tiny pixel font. Download this one here

Examples

These same principles can be applied to all kinds of textures. Let's look at some examples of textures I often use in my work.

Leafy_Tree.png

Free-Form Foliage - First, create a basic shape of the tree canopy by slapping down circles of various diameters with the pencil tool. Then go around the edges of the shape adding a few pixels her and there to give it a natural rough outline. Next, block out general areas of shadow and highlight. Finally, texture over the tree with repetitive leaf shape clusters like those illustrated in the lower-left corner of the above example. I call this the free-form technique.

SPC_EP_23_Our_Place_Full.gif

The free-form technique is illustrated in this time-lapse video, albeit very quickly. For a more detailed view of the process, watch Pixelcast - 23. 

Modular_Texture.png

Modular Foilage - You can quickly create large areas of dense foliage using what I call the modular technique. This method only requires a few textural sprites, which you can then duplicate and layer into larger textured shapes. For example, the above image uses only one sprite repeated several times to create the foreground foliage. Now, let's look at the technique in more detail by making a simple tree.  

2-Modular_Tree.gif

This layered approach creates a consistent look often desirable for game assets. Better still, the sprite layers can be individually moved around to animate a wind effect. I haven't tried this technique for other textures besides foliage, but I imagine it's best suited for highly organic textures. 

Wheat_Texture.png

Wheat - This texture is made with lots of repetition and overlapping. It looks complex but it's really easy to make. 

3-Wheat.gif

This same technique could be used for all kinds of tall grasses and crops. The main point I want to make here is that sometimes it's okay to have dense busy textures so long as you create interest using different colors or patterns. 

Star_Texture.png

Stars - First, create a palette of stars in various shapes and colors. Then repeat and spread them out in a tasteful manner keeping the afore mentioned principles in mind. Mix in complimentary star colors for an even deeper cosmic look. Watch me make a star pattern in Pixelcast - 21. The stars come in at 2:39.

Cloud_Texture.png

Clouds - These are the dramatic fluffy variety I'm partial to. Start with making the basic cloud shape using a variety of diameters with the pencil tool. Then apply a highlighted texture to the clouds based on a series of overlapping arched shapes. Slipping in a subtle spiral shape here and there can really help communicate the light airy feel of the clouds. Watch me making clouds in Pixelcast - 22. The clouds start at 0:55.

Brick_Texture.png

Brick - Create groupings of solid blocks in recognizable brick patterns. It's important to keep the contrast rule in mind and leave some areas empty. Depicting every single brick would appear noisy and detract form the overall forms of the structure. Avoid emphasizing the outlines of the bricks, as this can look very busy. However, If you're going for a bit rougher look you can add an occasional shadow or highlight on select bricks. As you can see in the right-hand example, just a few bricks appear to be jutting out or sunken into the structure and it changes the whole nature of the texture. 

Final Word

My repertoire of handy textures is always growing thanks to the foundation provided by these basic principles. I'm excited to see how other artists transfer the knowledge into creating their own textures.

RESOURCES

If you find value in my content please consider becoming a Patreon member. Among many other rewards, Pixel Insider members get extra resources to compliment my tutorials. But most importantly, you allow me to continue making new content.  

This month I'm sharing a comprehensive texture cluster reference. This includes a .psd document with all the clusters broken into layers, individual .png files of all clusters, and the overall reference image as a .png. I'm also sharing the pixel font used in the tutorial gifs. 

Get caught up on all my downloads

If you're not ready to commit to the subscription model of Patreon, you can also make a one-time donation and receive exclusive art and downloads.

-By Raymond Schlitter

Pixelblog - 1 - Color Palettes by Raymond Schlitter

Intro

Due to my belief in learning through self-discovery and my ongoing creative evolution, I've long put off doing any tutorials. However, after making pixel art for over 3 years I've established many solid techniques worth laying out in a concrete fashion. While I'm excited by the prospect of helping others with my experience, I still urge artists to explore things their own way. The wonderful thing about art is the unlimited number of solutions to a problem. I offer you solutions that have worked for me and I hope they work for you, but I will be even more thrilled if you discover a better solution along the way.

Mondo_Intro.png

When it comes to pixel art, it all starts with a good color palette. Creating a custom color palette can be a very satisfying and powerful way to establish your own unique look. I'll guide you through my method as I create a new palette. But first let's go over some basic principals. 

IT's all about HSB

I find it easiest to understand and control color through HSB.

Hue - The actual color (0 - 360º)
Saturation - The intensity or purity of a color (0 - 100%)
Brightness - The amount of black or white mixed with a color (0 - 100%)

By understanding and adjusting these 3 fundamental properties you can create custom colors with precise control. I recommend this article by Steven Bradley for more detailed definitions of HSB.

Color ramps

A color ramp is a specific range of colors that work well together, arranged according to brightness. Here is an example of what I consider a good color ramp. 

Color_Ramp_Red.png

Brightness steadily increases from left to right in this example. As the colors reach high brightness levels it's important to decrease saturation, or you'll end up with intense eye burning colors. Also, colors with very low brightness can become overly rich and weighty with high saturation. Saturation peaks in the middle swatch in this example.  

A good color ramp should also apply hue-shifting, which is a transition in hue across the color ramp. In the previous example the hue is shifting by positive degrees as the brightness increases. 

Many beginners overlook hue-shifting and end up with 'straight ramps' that only transition brightness and saturation. There is no law that says you can't do this but the resulting colors will lack interest and be difficult to harmonize with ramps of a different hue. This only makes sense to me if you want a monochromatic look and stick to one straight ramp.

the palette

A color ramp is essentially a palette, but most palettes contain multiple ramps. I like to create large palettes with lots of ramps, which I can then pull smaller palettes from per assignment. 

Mondo  - 128 colors

 Become a Pixel Insider member and  download Mondo

Become a Pixel Insider member and download Mondo

I took the opportunity to make a brand new palette for this tutorial. My intention was to create a general purpose palette that strikes a balance between vibrant colors and desaturated natural colors. So, how to make such a large palette?

First I decide how many swatches I want per ramp and how many degrees of hue shift. For this palette I want 9 swatches per ramp with 20 degrees of positive hue shift between each swatch. I like a lot of hue shift because it creates harmony between ramps and just looks neat, but 20 is about as high as I go.

 The color picker panel in Photoshop. We only need to be concerned with adjusting HSB.

The color picker panel in Photoshop. We only need to be concerned with adjusting HSB.

I use Photoshop, but a similar color picker panel should be accessible in just about any graphics software. To start I pick a color that will fit right in the the middle of a ramp. The hue is somewhat arbitrary, but the saturation and brightness is critical. I want the middle color to be be the most vibrant so I set the saturation and hue to the max combined number I'm willing to go.

Palette_Scales_1-02.png

After I've chosen my first color I can set the hue for the remaining swatches based on the positive 20 degree shift I wanted. I could reverse the direction of hue shift if I want but positive hue shift usually results in more natural colors, warming as they become brighter. 

I still need to sort out the increments for S&B. Unlike hue, shifting the S&B in uniform increments doesn't necessarily produce satisfactory results. However, there are a few tendencies I follow. Brightness consistently increases from left to right and usually never starts at 0, unless I want black. Saturation peaks around the middle and never fully goes to 100, or 0. The goal in mind is to create even contrast between each color.

Palette_Scales_2-02.png

After some tuning and eyeballing these are my final values and resulting color ramp. The hue shift looks pretty strong but it will make sense when I add more ramps.

Palette_Scales_3-03.png

This version shows the difference in the increments. Pay attention to what the S&B are doing. You can see there is some consistency in the pattern. The saturation takes larger steps on the ends and smaller steps in the middle where it's the highest percentage. The brightness takes smaller steps as it gets closer to the end at full 100%.

Palette_Graphs_3-05.png

Here's another visualization that clearly shows the flow of S&B as line graphs. You don't have to follow this general flow of S&B. It just depends what look you're going for. I've made ramps where the saturation continues to climb as the brightness decreases, creating an X pattern. This results in vivid dark colors. The biggest mistake is combining high saturation and brightness, unless you want to burn some eyeballs. I recommend a lot of experimentation with the HSB values of your ramp. I've tried to come up with mathematically precise formulas but it always seems to come down to trusting the eyeballs to some extent.  

Now let's finish the palette.

Step_1.jpg

Up to this point all I have been doing is picking colors and drawing them as single pixel dots on a tiny canvas. I haven't actually added any swatches into the swatch panel. With the first ramp established all I have to do to create more ramps for my palette is shift the entire set of hues.

Step_3.png

I want 8 ramps total so I will shift the hues of each ramp by 45 degrees to complete the 360 degree cycle around the color wheel. I could do this in the color picker by adjusting the H value one color at a time, but In Photoshop I can save a lot of time by duplicating the ramp and changing the hue of the entire selection (Image-Adjustments-hue/saturation, or ⌘+U).

Step_4.png

After adjusting the hue of all my color ramps my palette appears like this. It looks pretty nice but It's lacking more neutral desaturated colors.

Step_5.png

To add desaturated colors I duplicate the whole middle section of the palette, omitting only the darkest and lightest colors on the ends, flip it over and desaturate them with the Hue/Saturation panel. I omit the light and dark columns because they appear nearly the same as the originals. I flip the colors because it makes for easy navigation, and it looks cool. The desaturated colors can provide a more natural look, and work well as grays in combination with the vibrant colors.

Color_Picker_Highlight.png

The final task is actually adding the colors into the swatch panel. With the color picker panel open I sample each color with the eyedropper and click the 'Add to Swatches' button. I add them from left to right, top to bottom so they will appear in the swatch panel in the correct order. This is quite tedious but the only way I know of to add the colors in the particular order I want. 

Step_6.png

Once I've added all the colors into the swatch panel I click on the panel options and make sure to save my palette. I can then easily load the palette as a .aco file into the swatch panel anytime. Also, by selecting 'Save Swatches for Exchange' you can create a .ase file, which can be loaded into several other Adobe programs. Save the image of your palette as a .png file and you can load it into Aseprite.   

Well, that completes my 128 color palette - Mondo. Now let's look at how I use the palette with some examples. 

Picking colors

Promo_Image_1-4.png

This example keeps it pretty simple, mostly relying on horizontal ramps of adjacent colors. You can also see how the warm desaturated colors work nicely with the vivid hues. I've added white into palette for extra contrast. 

Promo_Image_1-1.png

This example shows how ramps can move horizontally and diagonally. Because of the hue shift every color is surrounded by colors that can work together.  

Promo_Image_1_2.png

Harmony is everywhere, just pick and play!

Promo_Image_1-3.png

This example uses complimentary color in combination with neutrals. The result captures an ominous yet hopeful feeling that perfectly fits the mood I wanted. 

Picking colors for your art always requires some good sense, but a versatile palette with criss-crossing ramps like this makes it much easier. A little color goes a long way with pixel art, as you can see I never use a lot of colors for any one image.

Creating a palette with this method also works great for game art, and will ensure everything in your game has consistent colors. I used this method to create a 160 color palette for Thyrian Defenders. We've been able to depict an incredible range of environments and characters while maintaining a consistent look overall. Other aesthetic choices come into play, but color is the fundamental ingredient that ties everything together.  

Final Word

Overall I'm quite happy with how this palette turned out. I think you'll be seeing more of my work in the Mondo palette from now on!

I hope this helps you come up with some palettes of your own. I know It can take a bit of time to get a feel for HSB, but even if you're a beginner I think making palettes like this is a great way to understand color. Go crazy with HSB and don't be afraid to experiment with formulas that look different than my example. Also, you don't have to make such a large palette. Start with trying to make a small ramp. 

RESOURCEs

If you find value in my content please consider becoming a Patreon member. Among many other rewards, Pixel Insider members get extra resources to compliment my tutorials. But most importantly, you allow me to continue making new content. 

This month I'm sharing the Mondo palette as .aco, .ase, and .png files. Get Mondo!

Get caught up on all my downloads

If you're not ready to commit to the subscription model of Patreon, you can also make a one-time donation and receive exclusive art and downloads.

-By Raymond Schlitter

Thyria Devlog 06: One Year and Going Strong by Raymond Schlitter

Where did the time go? 

 The bird beckons...

The bird beckons...

Whew, time flies. It's already been a whole year since we started developing Thyrian Defenders. I don't think either of us anticipated it would take so long to make a shoot em' up, but we have no complaints. What started as 'hey, let's make a scaled-down side project with a short dev cycle,' quickly became 'hey, let's make the best shoot 'em up ever.' Now, after a year of solid development the potential for greatness makes the commitment totally worthwhile. Considering the quality and quantity of content, I say we're still making good time. 

Good Progress

It's been quite a long time since I've given a progress report, so for this devlog I'm going to hit you with all the noteworthy updates from the last five months or so. 

2nd Player - In addition to the main character, Taz, we've created another fully playable character. Let me introduce you to Suri, a confident young woman who tries to keep a cool demeanor, but shows a spunky side in the excitement of battle. This duality gives her an awkward cuteness that everyone seems to be aware of except for her.

In the mobile version the player can choose if they want to play as Taz or Suri before each mission. In the Steam and console versions Suri will be the second player in 2P co-op mode. While there are no gameplay differences between the two character's, the cosmetic differences and unique voiced over one liners keep things fresh. 

Sound Effects and VO - We have been working on SFX and VO in collaboration with sound design students in England for a few months now. Things are nearing completion and sounding quite nice. Voice over wasn't even in the original plan, but when the opportunity came we couldn't pass. Currently, we are in the process of balancing and applying effects to the final cuts. I can't wait to share some examples in context once we actually start implementing the VO into the game.

Player Profiles - In order to emphasize the characters and bring more personality to the game, we've included constant character profiles into the HUD for the main characters and the wingmen. To make it worth the space they occupy we've given them animated feedback when taking damage, receiving power ups, and so on. We've even included mouth movements for when they speak. In addition to VO, there will also be text bubbles that sometimes pop out of the profiles.

Roll animation - It seems like a small thing, but it gives the sprite so much more life when it actually tilts into lateral movements. This is pretty much standard animation in all shmups but it was somewhat difficult to get right. First, the sprite itself is quite detailed with persistent directional lighting. Then, all the power up feedback animations needed to adapt to the animated sprite. Finally, implementing the nuanced movement to look natural with the touch control took several iterations to get right. But now she rolls baby! Now I just need to make roll animations for some of the wingmen characters.  

 She rolls!

She rolls!

Projectile design and rate of fire - Back in May we changed the appearance of the player projectiles to make them a bit more unique from the enemy bullets, and significantly increased the rate of fire for the second time. This required a little bit of rebalancing to the level design, but now we have a satisfying flow of bullets and heightended sense of action. 

Magma Tetradon - We completed another boss design earlier this summer, which we are particularly proud of. This squid-like beast required our programmer to spend many hours making handmade animation patterns in order to create smooth and varied motion of the tentacles. The result is another impressive encounter with multiple challenging phases and lots of parts to destroy before blasting its brain to smithereens. 

 The mighty Magma Tetradon

The mighty Magma Tetradon

Story - Detailed artwork for the intro and use in cutscenes is beginning to take shape. This is one of the last items on the list but I'm anxious to get the style and format established. The goal is to make full screen scenes on the vertical mobile format that can easily be adapted to full screen landscape format for the console versions. Turns out it's not so easy and is going to take a lot of pixels. But, I'm confident I can pull it off with cleverly designed compositions. 

 Thyria is in peril! A calamitous alien force threatens the entire galaxy.

Thyria is in peril! A calamitous alien force threatens the entire galaxy.

New levels - Level 6, Hyperspace Beta was recently completed. The art assets for level 7, Krillis are about 90% complete and we should begin building the level within the week. In total 10 levels are planned, so that means we only have a few left. Moreover, an early 2018 release is still looking doable. 

 Krillis is one of our most radical environments.

Krillis is one of our most radical environments.

Patreon

My artistic vision extends far beyond the work on Thyrian Defenders. For the sake of my happiness and well-being I must pursue this vision. At the beginning of August I launched a Patreon page to provide a platform for more pixels and some financial support. The content mostly focuses on my original pixel art, but the funds directly support the development of Thyrian Defenders by allowing me to continue working.

 Just one example of the kind of artwork you can unlock and have early access to every week for only $1. 

Just one example of the kind of artwork you can unlock and have early access to every week for only $1. 

100% quality, consistently produced content on a weekly schedule. However, It cannot be sustained without financial support. How much do you value my work? 

Please have a visit and evaluate the quality of the contents for yourself. https://www.patreon.com/slynyrd 

Bye Bye

You read the whole article. I'm impressed. You should be caught up on all the major updates now. Stay tuned for more and keep up on facebook and twitter. 

-Words by Raymond Schlitter