A Basic Sprite Tutorial


Here’s a basic runthrough of how to turn your drawing into pixel art using some Photoshop or GIMP tricks.

Step 1: The Drawing

Note how there aren't any mask details and how the hands are nice and simple

Note how there aren’t any mask details and how the hands are nice and simple

A tablet is nice to have for drawing directly into an art program like Photoshop. Otherwise, scan a drawing with heavy pencils or inked lines. If you want to imitate a specific game style, use an enlarged sprite as reference for body proportions and width (which unfortunately I didn’t do with this sketch). Keep details to a minimum so that you don’t clutter things up when you shrink it.

Time: varies

 

Step 2: Resizing

Don't resize with constrained proportions - stretch and squash to match your target's proportions

Don’t resize with constrained proportions – stretch and squash to match your target’s proportions

Find a sprite similar to the size (or pose) you want to copy. Shrink the drawing down and simultaneously make it as wide as it needs to be to match, if you didn’t work it out in step 1. Note that in this sketch, I want about the same height but a tad wider.

Time: 30 seconds

 

Step 3: Sharpening

Use Photoshop's or GIMP's Threshold tool to save yourself a ton of cleaning time

Use Photoshop’s or GIMP’s Threshold tool to save yourself a ton of cleaning time

Merge the layer with the resized linework onto a layer with a solid white background. Go to IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > THRESHOLD in Photoshop or the equivalent in GIMP to thin the linework down to pure black and white pixels. Make sure you’re zoomed up close to see the pixels best. Keep all your original details as understandable as possible so you don’t need to refer back and forth to your original drawing too often.
This step will make cleaning the lines and filling in color easy and save you a ton of time over cleaning by hand.

TIME: 10 Seconds

 

Step 4: Cleaning

Sharpen the outlines until they're 1 pixel wide. Don't be afraid to break some outlines, and don't worry about finer details yet

Sharpen the outlines until they’re 1 pixel wide. Don’t be afraid to break some outlines, and don’t worry about finer details yet

Make a layer just for the lines (delete all white). Zoom in and clean up the outlines. If you ‘re in to breaking lines, this is the place to do it. It isn’t time to work on the fine details yet (again, mask and hands) – just start giving yourself anchors for the coloring.  When finished, lock the layer.

TIME: 10-20 Minutes

 

Step 5: Fill-tool the Flats

Flat colors are filled in - in this case the shadow colors

Flat colors are filled in – in this case the shadow colors

Fill in flat colors on a layer underneath the lines. Work out details of the outfit, etc, but don’t do any shading. Light will be added after. This step really gives spriting the ‘comic book production’ feel. Special note: Some people prefer using the light area’s colors for their flats, then adding the shadows after. This will produce a different end effect, so experiment.

TIME: 2 or 3 Minutes

 

Step 6: The Shading

Save time and get good colors by using white on layers set to Overlay to brighten shadow flats

Save time and get good colors by using white on layers set to Overlay to brighten shadow flats

Right now you have a layer for lines and a layer for flats. Here’s where Photoshop saves you some major time. Insert two layers between the lines and flats. Change them to Overlay style and make the upper one 50% opacity. Select a 1 or 2 pixel pencil and start putting down some whites. Instant lighting through your colors.
Note: Work with the 100% opacity layer first.  When you’ve got the shading down about how you like it, use the magic want tool to select the non-white areas. Then move on to the 50% layer for the mid-shading (after hiding the wand’s marching ants). You don’t want the two layers to overlap their whites or you’ll get extra highlights.

TIME: 30-90 Minutes

 

Step 7: Shading Check

Check the details of your shading by rendering to grayscale and eliminating color distractions

Check the details of your shading by rendering to grayscale and eliminating color distractions

Sometimes you need fresh eyes to check that you got the shading right.
This is what your layers should look like – the flats filled w/ black is what we’re adding right now. Copy the flats layer, lock it, fill it with black (Edit > Fill). Then change your two white layers from Overlay to Normal. You should get this:
Step 7a - the list of layers
I really can’t think of a better way to test shading than to take out all the distracting costume color and ramp it up to maximum contrast. It’s the easiest way to find little things that don’t look right, or even big things that you were too focused to notice. What’s better, correction is just a matter of fixing the whites – not changing each and every color. Try it with a black background, too.
Hmm. I think I’ll have another look at her left hand before I’m completely finished.

TIME: 90 Seconds to check; varies for corrections

 

Step 8: Color Lines

Match the outline darkness to the rest of the shading

Match the outline darkness to the rest of the shading

Now that they’ve done their b&w job overlapping for step 7, it’s time the outlines got colored in and antialiased in the light areas. With their layers on ‘lock’, it should be a snap. ALWAYS REMEMBER: Work on darkly colored (but not pure black) backgrounds when doing outline work. It helps the antialiasing.

TIME: 30-60 Minutes

 

Step 9: Details & Cleanups

Finish off the finer details

Finish off the finer details

This is the ‘subtlety’ stage. *Get the colors just right (Overlay actually does some pretty good work with coloring) *Add hard-to-pixel details (Triangle on mask, blue lines around glove edges, etc) *Finish the subtle details you saved for now (hands) *Last go around for mistakes. Note I ‘forgot’ about her yellow boots – but with this process, it’s just a matter of adding the yellow to the flats layer. It’s pre-shaded!

TIME: Varies by Perfectionist

 

Step 10: Post Sprite, Obtain input from others


41 Responses

  • Caleb

    What is the equivalent of step 3 on gimp i go to image but there is no adjustments or thresholds option.

    • In GIMP, find it in COLORS > THRESHOLD, and drag the slider left or right until the lines are just thick enough

  • Julian

    in step 8 when you outline the pixel art, do you just pick a darker color than the flats to do it or is there something in Photoshop that makes it easier?

    • Kiwi

      If you want an easy way to get a good dark color for outlines, try this: let’s say you want to do the reds. Pick the red’s shadow color with the Eyedropper tool and switch to the Pencil. Make the Pencil’s brush size about 5 or so, and switch its Mode to Multiply, and its Opacity to 50%. Now put a spot of that Pencil’s red over an area of the shadow red and you should get a very dark (but not too dark) red. Select that very dark red with the Eyedropper, undo the Pencil mark and reset the Pencil settings to normal again, and use that color to fill in the outlines of the reds.

      • Julian

        thanks for the help, and also is that the way everyone does it or is there a traditional way of doing these outlines?

      • Kiwi

        No these are all just suggestions for shortcuts, which people can do nowadays thanks to Photoshop. There really is no one traditional way, especially since people were making pixel art long before Photoshop.

  • mpgp

    Great, very good explanation

  • theGreatAlbertus

    Great Explanation. Love it :)

  • Becca Draws

    This was so helpful! I’m just starting to work on a project, and your article breaks everything down nicely. Thanks!

  • HuskyDragonWolvez

    Oh, by the way, will this work with pre-colored drawings?

    • Kiwi

      Most of the time it won’t. When you shrink it, the colors will make the drawing much more messy to work with than if you shrink just lines. Try tracing the lines on a different layer or use Photoshop to delete everything except black, if possible.

  • HuskyDragonWolvez

    Thank you very much! This should be very helpful :)

  • francesco

    very nice

  • Master K

    Amazing

  • Ant

    woahSKi

    interesting!

  • Vaughn

    Very helpful, thanks

Back