Ah, pixel art. Even in this day and age of super
high-res graphics with normal mapping, specular lighting, and parallax
with occlusion, pixel art still holds a certain charm. In this
tutorial, I'm going to draw an FN F2000 assault rifle for use in a mod
First off, even for humble pixel art I recommend using an advanced graphics editor like Paint Shop Pro (my favorite) or Photoshop. If you don't want to spend hundreds of dollars, fear not, for you could try using the Gimp,
which is free. I made this tutorial using Jasc Paint Shop Pro 9, which
I maintain is the best version ever made (Corel just made it slower
with no useful new features). I strongly recommend not using MS
Paint, since it lacks any way to do any kind of gradient, support for
layers, the ability to open more than one image at a time, a decent
image zooming ability, and so forth, all of which are critical to how I
draw my pixel art.
1) Basic shape, color, and initial detailing
| Some people take the reference image and simply resize it. I strongly advise avoiding this, for the following reasons:|
1) It will be ugly.
2) It will be blurry.
3) Every detail will be lost.
4) The light and shadows will, in all likelihood, vanish.
5) People can tell that you just resized it, and will not be impressed one bit.
Therefore, it's much better to draw the whole thing from scratch.
It's more effort, but it will look a thousand times better. So first,
I'm going to open the reference image side-by-side with the image I'll
be drawing on, and scale them to the same size. Then, using the color
picker to get basic colors from the reference, I'll draw a rough shape.
The few simple details I add are there because I'm considering them as
key details that I want to bring out, and to help me keep proportions
straight. Having both images side-by-side is very useful because it
allows you to easily pick real colors from the reference, and it helps
you to more easily see if something isn't accurate.
(Glaring Green is
used by Soldat and many other games to mean transparency)
| Next I'll add in some lesser details. Try not to add too many, or else
they'll all end up blending into a mess. Also, the more details you
have, the more distorted they must be. The trick is to find
eye-catching, unique details, and embellish them. It's okay if you make
them a little too big, but try to keep them in the correct position as
much as possible. Deciding which details are going to be embellished
and which are not going to appear takes an artistic eye more than
anything else, though these guidelines may be helpful:|
choose details which are large enough to be represented (writing, logos, and
small textures are generally sub-pixel size, and therefore shouldn't be depicted).
2) Choose details that are unique to the
object or otherwise distinguishing (what makes it stand out? What makes
it interesting to look at? If you can't think of anything, you should
consider choosing something else to draw - who wants to look at some
bland, boring, forgettable thing? Why waste your time making something
that isn't memorable?).
3) Choose details that are important to how
the object functions - moving parts, mechanical details, and so forth
(the best pixel art looks like it's actually functional - it could
potentially work in real life).
| Now for the most important part: Shading. I like to use something I
call "separated shading", because it allows me to apply shadow and light
however I want very easily, and at the same time not destroy the
original image. To set up separated shading:|
1) Select the object
you want to shade, and deselect the background. In my case, I could do
this easily by selecting the entire area and using the magic select
tool to deselect all green areas (ctrl+click).
2) Make a new layer, set to the "overlay" blend mode ("hard light" or "soft light" blend modes may also be used, and give different results. Try experimenting.).
3) Fill the selected area of the new layer with color #808080 - medium grey.
done correctly, the image should now look... Exactly the same. However,
you can use the lighten/darken tool or any other method to this new
layer to add light and shadow to the image without destroying your
details. While shading, consider that the object is lit in areas that
face the light source, and shaded on the opposite areas. Imagining the
light source as coming from the top-left or the top-right tend to give
the best results, as bottom-lighting can be hard to pull off a correct
look, and top-middle lighting looks boring and of poor quality. So,
after doing some freehand lightening and darkening on the shading
layer, I end up with this.
| Look how much of a difference that made! Unless you're deliberately aiming for a very retro style (like Fez,
for instance), shading is about the most important aspect of the
artwork. Shading is the difference between "little kid with MS Paint"
and "Metal Slug" in terms of quality. Do not rush through this step.
Once you have the shading to your satisfaction, it can be a good idea
to go back and re-emphasize details that may now be hidden in the
gradients. For instance, a few of the lines separating the rifle's body
segments are now almost unnoticeable in my picture. Also, you probably
want the shading to make the object range from about 15% black to about 75% white in terms of shadow and light - but not 0% or 100% lightness. Pure black and pure white almost never look good, with the exceptions of
outlines and bright, uncolored light-emitting objects (an LED,
flashlight, or so forth). So, after some fine-tuning the shading and
reworking the details, I now have this.|
3) Finishing touches
| Now we're ready to outline it. Pure black outlines serve two important
functions: They add visual style, and (more importantly) they help
separate the image from the background. In general, I prefer to draw
outlines around what I've already drawn, however in some cases (such as
the area around the sights), having the outline cover the outermost
pixel may show higher detail. Whether or not to add outlines to small
details with background showing through (in this instance, the holes
around the handgrip) is a stylistic choice: Some don't outline them,
some do, and others simply fill the area with black. Likewise, some
people think you should never use an outline on the inside of an
object, and some (like myself) think it can be appropriate (in areas
you want to show a significant difference, large gap, etc.). At the
same time, remember that using pure black (or white or any other color)
as a color of the object will look positively awful 99% of the time.
Also, you may have noticed that even in these late stages, I'm changing
the basic shape a little in nearly every step. You need to get into a
habit of this, letting the image evolve, as it always gives a better final
result. The initial shape will never be perfect, and forcing yourself
to keep it will mar your work.|
| It's getting close, but the image still isn't done. The color is too
perfectly matched, and overall just doesn't look right. The secret to
fixing this is to add some slight imperfection. There are two things
that bring the image to completion. First is to break up the perfectly
flat color. An easy way to do this is to Add Noise to the shading layer
- very low percentage (1%-10%) Uniform or Gaussian will be fine, just
don't overdo it. Additionally, it may be worthwhile to add some
scratches, smudges, and so forth. Lightening and darkening a few select
pixels can achieve this. The key here is to be subtle. Finally, you
must consider that reference pictures are commonly in perfect lighting,
and that objects in real life (or in a game) are not, so a general
darkening of the shading layer will help darken the image to a more
appropriate level (for this, I prefer to use the "curves" brightness
tool, for fine control over shadow, highlight, and midtone).|
| While it may be annoying, never consider any aspect of the art to be
final until the entire picture is done. Redrawing takes time and makes it feel
like previous work was wasted, but in reality not only does it sharpen
your skills, it lets the art grow in ways it needs to. The initial
blocking out will never result in exactly what you'll need in the end,
so feel free to redraw parts mid-work. And when it comes down to it,
there's no finer way to get better at anything than to practice.|