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Starting with the Basics: Tools

Every artist finds a workflow for their routines. Every artist has a preference for certain tools. They stick with them often because it’s the most comfortable and satisfying way for them to work, but sometimes it’s because it’s the only way they know how to work.

If you’re a pixel artist stuck on a bare-bones image editor because it’s all you know, read on to discover the options you have for speeding your work up, making the process more enjoyable, and getting better results.


Many beginners start their pixelling hobby with basic programs like MS Paint*. It has the standard tools for working with individual pixels that you need, but the features that most pixellers want are the ability to work with transparency, a good way to control the color palette, a good selection tool, a way to save to GIF or PNG with transparency, and a way to animate.

There are numerous GIF building/animating programs on the web, many of which are free, and ..well, some of which that are worthwhile, but in general I find the two best options are: 1) software specifically designed for game spriting and pixelling, and 2) the big, all-purpose image editors like Photoshop.

GraphicsGale: not a bad way to learn spriting

GraphicsGale: not a bad way to learn spriting

Of the spriting-specific tools, one of the best picks is GraphicsGale, which handles color palettes, layers and animation pretty well and helps you visualize pixels on a grid very nicely. In fact, it comes with a pretty large set of tools that help in several different ways. This instantly makes it an enormous step up from Paint, and should ideally be the first program you learn to pixel with. (The free version doesn’t let you save as .GIF though, only PNG, so if you do use it, animations have to be exported frame-by-frame.)

My personal preference today though is Photoshop (or its free and equally capable alternative, GIMP), one reason being that working with it for pixel art helps you learn it for when you want to use the program later on for other forms of art. But more importantly, it opens up the option of building your pixel art the fast way: by first drawing your illustration at full size, then shrinking it down to sprite size and cleaning it into exact pixels. Available shortcuts like these and many others makes it a tool with numerous helpful uses and options you might not have thought about trying.

So hopefully those of you artists who need it can be saved from the frustrating handcuffs of MS Paint, while some of you crazies who believe Paint to be the purist’s way of making pixel art have persuasive reasons to get practical and move to a platform that lets you express yourself better and trade the hours spent being a purist for actual production of more art.

*There are pixel art purists who will preach that the most simple and basic programs are the only way to make true pixel art, because by using the shortcuts of modern image editors, you’re cheating. I like to call them the Pixel Amish.

» Starting with the Basics: Tools

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  1. Evilagram says:

    I’d like to suggest Kolourpaint, on KDE (usable in Windows with KDE Windows) as a good program. It’s like a less clunky version of paint with a better color picker, hotkeys, and generally the same interface. I personally think paint flows a lot more naturally for pixel art than programs like photoshop or graphicsgale, which I find to be a bit too uptight (too much wading around in menus and the interface to get things done and the tools just don’t work as well I think).

    Photoshop’s pixel brush I find to just be a pain to work with, and I can’t right click to get my alternate color which fucks with my work flow. I do use a lot of photoshop to fix up my palettes though (and generally for graphical work that isn’t pixel art).

  2. Auld says:

    Hey, didn’t know where else to link this so you might see it. I’ve recently come across a really awesome sprite animation program. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Photoshop, but I like it more than Graphics Gale. It’s called ASESprite. Here’s a link: http: //www.aseprite.org/
    Hope this helps you or anyone else browsing this page. You’ve helped me loads already on my quest to learn pixel art, so thanks for that! :)

    • Auld says:

      Scratch that, didn’t see the links page. I’m retarded. Just delete this and the previous comment…

    • Kiwi says:

      I saw that one not too long ago and it does look like it’s a good option for people who want something simple but nicer than MSPaint. It’s worth leaving good info like that here since it gives people more options in one place.

  3. Sam says:

    Pretty much told me what I already know. What I was hoping to read was maybe how to get started using basic spriting tools in some of those programs. I downloaded GIMP a long time ago so that I could use it for one specific thing only to find out that it was extremely complicated, not the least bit intuitive to learn, and the documentation was extremely long. I had a hard time finding anything in the manual that told me how to do the one thing I was trying to do. Maybe things have changed since then, but I never gained back any interest in trying to learn it again. So I’d like to see a guide about transitioning from MS Paint to GIMP or other free programs just for pixeling.

    • Kiwi says:

      True, if you’re looking for simplicity, stay away from GIMP. If you want Photoshop-like options with an easy to understand interface, go for Paint.NET. If you want a program dedicated to just sprite making, go for Graphics Gale or plunk down for ProMotion

  4. jack says:

    i am interested in animating sprites for mugen whats the first step

    • Kiwi says:

      The most important thing is to find a pixel program that you like. It has to be able to animate in a way that you feel comfortable using. The best way to find a good program is to ask other spriters which ones they like and then narrow down your choices from there. Go to a Mugen forum, post the question and see what people say.