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Pixel Art tutorial

Preface

    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 for Soldat.

   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:

1) Only 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).



2) Shading

   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.

   If 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).


Afterword

   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.
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