The limited palette for painters and gamers

Rules, rules rules. Even though it’s supposed to be all about creativity, art sure has a lot of rules. Use the rule of thirds. Color inside the lines. Stop eating your paste. But as you get more experience and practice, you start to see how these supposed constraints are actually effective guidelines to directing your creativity into what is universally accepted as “good art”.

One such guideline deals with achieving artistic harmony. The idea of using a limited number of colors in a painting is almost as old as paint itself, but for every new artist that learns this old rule, a whole new way of looking at color opens up.

If you make a picture out of only a few colors, the resulting mixtures are more likely to be unified and harmonious, and thus more visually interesting. Every color you mix becomes automatically related. For you graphic designers, it’s like designing a brochure on a defined grid structure instead of just throwing text and images onto a canvas.

One is a genius, the other's insane

As an example of the power of the right palette, compare these two redheads wearing blue and green: Death from Time Killers and Marrow from Marvel vs Capcom 2. One of these sprites uses a limited palette with carefully chosen hues, values and intensities for mixing greens and blues together, and subtly using skintones to outline red hair, yellow piping and white bone. The other is so bright and saturated that your eyes start to bleed by round 2.

Now it just so happens, coincidentally, that videogames from the 8-bit and 16-bit era had certain memory restrictions that required this very technique. Backgrounds, character sprites, UI controls — all had to stay within a certain number of pixel colors, and even those available colors were limited to specific RGB values.

You could probably imagine the artists pulling their hair out over it, but the end result was actually a unique and unmistakeable look to each era of games. The good art directors were able to put together flashy and colorful games that weren’t eyesores. Limited palettes also made sure that tiny characters were as easy to read as possible, with simple colors making simple shapes that a player could focus on in even the most chaotic levels.

The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.”
–Orson Welles

Even today, with millions of colors available for 3D graphics, you can see the restrained use of colors in the well-designed games that keep things from becoming a visual mess. It’s just that with pixel art, you can actually put a number to things. (Even though it’s supposed to be all about creativity, art sure has a lot of math, too.)

So take a lesson from the early days of gaming art, as well as the early days of art itself. Give your art that extra edge of professional restraint. Keep your 16-bit fighter sprites at 16 colors (15 colors for the sprite, one transparent color for the background), and imitate the restrictions for the other styles of pixel art you like to work with. You’ll thank yourself once you take up animation.

Are you a bad enough dude to comment?

  1. I’m designing a few pixel art characters for my university project and was having trouble deciding on whether to limit my palette options or not. Thanks to this, I’m going to limit my colours to prevent accidental overkill. Thanks mate.

  2. xdhoomy12x

    pic at the left make my eye hurt me real!

  3. Ernie Tank

    The principles behind low bit graphics are unmistakably harmonious with many many different mediums including but not limited to screenprinting, embroidery, graphic design, and as The Dude says, painting.

  4. Ernie Tank

    Cannot second this enough. I use 8/16 bit programs to generate a lot of my artwork even outside of spriting to represent the imagery at it’s most basic level. Sometimes I move on and use a different illustration technique from there but often they become screenprints or more recently, woodblock prints.