Paint to pixels

Four months ago I started doing sketches and paintings in Photoshop to “learn art” for my game. About a month ago I started doing pixel exercises, and now I’ve switched over to pixels entirely because my game is due in 8 months and I need to start focusing on game art. Here are my thoughts so far on the difference between paint and pixels.

Pixeling is simpler than painting but not easier.  Painting practice taught me the basics of form, perspective, and lighting, so when I switched to pixel art, I had those ideas in my head. But I had to start over in learning how to convey those principles via pixels. It’s really very different.

Here’s an example involving rock crevices. If you’re rendering a cobblestone wall or something, you have to convey the facets of each stone and the gaps of shadow between them. At once you want to convey the myriad of stones and the whole wall. Here’s a painting exercise I did:



I can zoom way in in Photoshop to get at the shadows between stones, at their seams against the wall, and along their forms, all with as many brush strokes as I need to get them right.

Conveying form in pixels is hard. Today I tried to pixel a waterfall over a cliff face, which presents some of the same problems of rock crevices and forms:


This is a mere 64×64 pixel image (blown up 4x here). So in 3 colors (light, medium, dark) and 30-40 pixels per crevice, I’ve got to convey the lit top, its darker front, and maybe the space between it and the next crevice. I’m still trying to learn how you convey so many features of light/form with so few pixels.

This gets especially hard when you’re pixeling a texture that’s farther away (such as the higher-up crevices in this image). Good pixel art I’ve seen seems to magically abstract the impression of the texture, so that your mind finds every crevice in its right place, somehow with so little apparent pixel-by-pixel content.

I’m planning to pixel a landscape a day for the next month to see if I can get closer to that impressionistic/abstract ability. With paint I can apply one stroke after another, with so many gradations each time, until the form is right. With pixels, I feel like I’m pushing them around like marbles until they somehow have the fineness of sand.


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