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.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT GRAPHICS PROGRAM
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.
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.