Pixelblog - 9 - Melee Attacks by Raymond Schlitter

Intro

Title_Image.png

Time to face it straight and swing some limbs! Melee attacks are heavily used in games across many genres and come in many forms. In this lesson we'll examine some basic melee attacks using side-view characters. Even if you're more of a lover than a fighter, it's an important animation challenge. Especially if a game focuses on melee mechanics, the animation quality can make or break the game. A melee attack with just the right timing, motion, and sound effect can be a thing of beauty. Let's see if we can make some pleasing action starting with simple punches. 

Punches

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Before you just start carelessly swinging limbs around you need to think about exactly what kind of punch your character is throwing and study the proper form. Of course, you can exaggerate and create abstract motion but the real physics should be studied first. It all starts from the punch stance. Depending and the fighting style the stance may change. My fighter has a standard boxing stance; fists raised up by the face, hips between the feet, knees slightly bent. 

Jab - If right-handed, the jab should come straight out with the left hand. While the hips slightly open and the legs tense, most of the motion is in the punching arm.

Cross - If right-handed, the cross comes from the right hand in a straight line from the face. The cross has more power and range than the jab but is still quick and easy to throw. you can put a bit of a step lunge into the cross but make sure the back doesn't hunch over and the head stays up straight. After the recover frame I move the stance one pixel to the left for one frame to create a bounce effect. This illustrates an important animation principle known as overshoot, which says that an object stopping will slightly ‘overshoot’ the stop point before eventually stopping.

The overshoot is applied to the recovery frame.

The overshoot is applied to the recovery frame.

Introducing weapons brings in all kinds of possibilities. While there is always room for creativity, the stance is largely influenced by the weight and balance of the weapon. For example, a broad sword is commonly held with two hands like in my example. But a lighter curved blade might be held with one-hand off the side of the body or possibly over the head. Choose a stance that makes sense in concerns to the weight balance of the weapon and the strength of your character.

It's also important to think about how you want your character to attack and make sure the motion naturally transitions from the stance. For example, if you want your character to make backhand upward slashes with a blade, it makes sense to have the blade start in a sheathed position off the hip. On the other hand, for downward vertical slashes a raised two-handed grip like my example works well. 

To emphasize weight you can add more frames or hold certain frames a bit longer. I hold the follow through a slight moment longer than the other frames to give the sword a touch of weight. For heavy weapons like a mace or two-handed axe, one would expect a slower anticipation and recovery. However the smear frames should always be few and fast. 

Gameplay

Realism is good and all but when it comes to games, gameplay is king. Moreover, you should always think about how the melee attack will translate into gameplay. Anticipation and recovery frames add realism but can make sluggish gameplay. Too much anticipation will give a nasty feeling of input lag, and too much recovery will make your character feel sticky and vulnerable. If you intend to have slow methodical gameplay it's okay to have realistic weighty movements. However, when a player pushes a button they expect immediate feedback. Most pixelart games keep it snappy and can get away with even fewer frames than my examples. 

Another thing to consider in terms of gameplay is the area of attack. My sword attack example is actually quite strong, as it covers a large 90 degree area from above the head to straight in front of the character. This allows the character to attack enemies from above without jumping. Only the lower body is left vulnerable to low attacking enemies. However, if it were a straight pierce motion or pure horizontal slash, more precision would be required to align your attacks. There is no right or wrong, it just depends on how you want your character to feel and the gameplay you are going for. Generally, weapons with a wide area of attack are slow but powerful, while weapons with a small attack area are fast with weak to moderate power. 

KEY POINTS

Stance - It all starts from the stance. Choose a stance that fits the character, weapon, and attack motions. You don't have to always play it by the book though. The stance is a great opportunity to give your character a unique feel.

Smear frames - Typically a smear frame is a non-keyframe that is blurred to emphasize the motion and add expression. Smears are essential to creating a smooth feel, especially when using few frames. Usually a single smear frame can get the job done. Make sure your smear motion follows a natural path from stance to follow through. Experiment with a variety of smear shapes and colors to find the right motion and expression. Adding color gradation to a smear can enhance the smoothness without adding extra frames.

Freeze Time - Hold a pose for a few extra frames to add impact. I like to do this for anticipation poses and the sometimes the impact frame on strong collisions. This should be subtle, and not held for too long. Use this technique only for exaggerated actions.

Overshoot - Any moving object that is stopping will miss the stop point a bit before eventually stopping. The faster the object is moving the greater the overshoot. This principle can be illustrated by a pendulum swinging to a stop.

Exaggeration - It never hurts to exaggerate movements to bring more energy to your animation, as totally realistic poses sometimes feel stiff in pixel form. I often make the arms or weapon slightly elongated at the max extent to give a loose feel and increase the range of the attack. 

Gameplay - If you are animating for a game, the desired gameplay should dictate how you handle melee attacks. Quick low frame animations may not be super fancy but they always work well for quick responsive gameplay. On the other hand, long high frame animations look sexy but often translate into sluggish controls.
 

Final thoughts

The world of hand to hand combat is rich in style and weaponry. To make nice melee attacks requires some understanding of the real world physics along with a sense of how the action translates to gameplay. Here I've provided some standard attacks to build from. In the future I intend to elaborate and explore more attacks, weapons, and how to string together combos. Also, I want to explore similar animations for different styles and perspectives. For example, 3/4 top-down characters. There's so much to yet learn and teach!

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 all the frames from the featured tutorials as separate png files, and the separate animations as gifs. I've even included the punching dummy and simple hit effects. All files have a clean transparent background. Having access to the raw files makes it easy to analyze the frames and use them as a template to design your own attacks. The gifs also reveal the frame timing. Please enjoy playing with my animation frames

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 - 8 - Intro to Animation by Raymond Schlitter

Intro

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While the economy of pixel art makes it a splendid medium to animate in, the limitations present peculiar nuances. The majority of pixel art is animated in a traditional frame by frame manner. Most often you will find pixel art animation in the form of short looping cycles, especially when used in video games. As simple as they may seem, looping animations demand great attention to detail. When repeatedly played over an over again you notice every detail, and a single misplaced pixel can create an eyesore. In other words, you can't hide poor cluster work with fluid animation. Furthermore, I recommend developing confidence in your basic pixeling skills before getting too carried away with animation. But ultimately, the most effective way to learn is by going through the motions. Best to start with simple small sprites and limited colors. Let's ease in with some idle cycles. 

Idle Cycles 

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Idle animations are a simple and effective way to bring life to your art or game. The basic requirement for an idle cycle is movement. It doesn't even have to make sense, just move. In 8-bit JRPGs you commonly see them reuse the same 2-frame walk cycle for the idle animation, so the character appears to always be marching in place. I thought this was quite funny as a kid but I realized it's actually a clever way to bring life to incredibly small and simple sprites on a tight memory budget. However, the most common idle cycles come in the bouncy breathing variety.

As for the above examples, they are all reasonable solutions. The complexity of your idle cycles should be determined by the scope of your project. For example, if you are a small team making a game with lots of unique character sprites it might be unreasonable to give every character an 8-frame idle cycle. However you choose to approach idle animations they should be consistent. 

Run Cycles

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Now it's time to pick up the pace and go for a run. This is a good point to become familiar with keyframes. Keyframes are basically guide frames that determine the start and end of a specific motion. For example, say I'm going to animate a character throwing a punch. First I would make one keyframe of the character wound up before the punch, and one keyframe of the punch at full extension. If needed I would then make the frames that fill the motion between, which are called in-between frames.

Keyframes should be the most dramatic poses that capture the essence of the motion. Even with the in-between frames removed the gist of the animation should be readable from the keyframes alone. Many good examples of pure keyframe animation can be found in older games. In the 8-bit era limited memory left little to no space for in-between frames, so developers were forced to create economical animations using only keyframes. While they appear simple, finding just the right poses to create the illusion of motion is an art in itself.   

I particularly admire the Mega Man run cycle. With just 3-frames it captures more kinetic energy than most modern run cycles made with many more frames. Technically there are 4 frames in the loop but the same pass frame is used twice. This is the model I used for my own exampIe. 

In my practice I found a few keys to making a good 3-frame run cycle. First, you want to make powerful stride poses with limbs extended and the character tilted forward. Often the fist is swung up in a manner that almost looks like the character is punching to maximize the action. The pass frame should have all the limbs close to the body in neutral positions so it connects with both stride poses. Lastly, don't forget to include some vertical movement to get the bounce effect. 

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Now let's pick up the pace and look at run cycles with higher frame counts. I first created the 8 frame cycle and simply removed frames to make the economized cycles. So how do I decide which frames to remove? Well, we know from our study of 3-frame cycles that contact and pass frames are crucial keyframes, so we don't want to get rid of them. If you observe all of the frames you can see the recoil frame is quite similar to the contact and adds little movement. Therefore, I first remove the recoil to make the 6-frame cycle, and you can see it's of little consequence and may actually have better energy without them. Finally, the only non-keyframe I can remove to make the 4-frame cycle is the high point. This more significantly impacts the animation but the core movement and energy are still preserved. 

In order to preserve that same energy the playback speed must also be adjusted when frames are removed. For example, each pose in the 8-frame cycle is shown for 80 milliseconds, while each pose in the 4-frame cycle is shown 160 milliseconds.

The most important thing when creating a run cycle for a game is the energy of the motion. As you can see in these examples, more frames creates smoother animation but not necessarily more energy. In fact, too many in-between frames can make your motion look sluggish. It's best to have trust in your keyframes and not weaken them with excessive in-betweens. The above example shows how your imagination fills in the blanks. Making an energetic run cycle all starts with strong keyframes. Nevertheless, I find 6-frame cycles work well in most cases. They are easy to manage and just have a nice gallop to them.   

KEY POINTS

Start simple - Create simple sprites with clear color separation for the sake of animating. You can add details after you are satisfied with the motion.
Size - Tiny sprites limit the motion you can depict, while larger sprites are time-consuming and difficult to animate. Pick a size that is comfortable for you. 
Keyframes - Good animation all starts with strong keyframes
Excessive frames - Too many frames can leach the energy from your motion. Focus more on solid keyframe design
Attention to detail - Respect the clusters of every single frame. A single orphan or misplaced pixel in a looping animation is obvious.
Energy - Smooth movement doesn't necessarily equal good animation. Focus on the overall energy of the motion.
Playback speed - The duration each frame is shown dramatically impacts the energy of the motion. Experiment with many speeds and feel it out.

Final Thoughts

Animation is a wonderful skill to develop and a very effective way to exploit the charms of pixel art. Especially if you want to make pixel art for video games, animation is a must. Don't worry if your first attempts are miserable, animation is a skill learned with practice. The first time I tried animating pixel art in Photoshop it nearly brought me to tears and I seriously thought maybe I should just stay away from animation. But I continued to practice and over the years my dread turned to joy. Now animation is one of my favorite things to make and continues to grow on me as I improve. I hope you too can experience the satisfaction of bringing your pixels to life with motion.

I'm just scratching the surface here and will continue covering animation topics in future posts. I hesitate to do software specific content, as we are all using different tools and I don't want to alienate anyone, but I'm curious to know what subjects or aspects of animation you would like me to cover. Explosive effects, parallax motion, sub-pixel animation, and quadrupedal run cycles are just a few examples on the table. Better make sure I know how to do all that;)  

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 all the frames from the featured tutorials as separate png files, and the separate animations as gifs. All files have a clean transparent background. Having access to the raw files makes it easy to analyze the frames and use them as a template to design your own cycles. The gifs also reveal the frame timing. Really, you are free to do as you like with my animation frames

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 - 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.

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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

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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 lots 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 other apps.

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 other apps.

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 compositions are created at around 128x128px to 256x256px, then scaled 2x to 4x. Usually my target size for the final presentation file is around 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 3/4 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.

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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 - 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.

3/4 TOP-DOWN

Half_Top-Down_Diagram.png

In this projection it's as if you are viewing the house from 45 degrees above. From such a vantage point you see about 3/4 of both the roof and facade. 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

3/4 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 3/4 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.

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 - 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