Here’s the problem: you’ve mostly got the spriting process down. Like me, you prefer to draw your character as line art first and then shrink it down to pixels using the grayscale index method. And it works out pretty okay. The drawing translates well and the cleanup goes quickly. You’re almost done fixing up the pixels but oh nuts, that head just doesn’t work – the angle of the mouth doesn’t fit well in the pixel grid, you can’t find a way to make the curve of the jaw look right, and the nose is too high up but it looks too long if it’s nudged down a pixel. The whole face needs redoing at a more pixel-friendly angle. The pixel grid decided to not cooperate today because you didn’t plan your drawing on graph paper like the old masters. So you go back to your full size drawing, make some changes, and really *really* hope this time it’ll work as you go through that resizing and recoloring process all over again.
I don’t know about you, but if I want to keep the pixeling process enjoyable and relaxing, I need to be kept in the flow as much as possible. It’s draining to have to redo something I already put a bunch of work into. What I need is a way to see what my pixels are going to be *while* I’m drawing my lines, so I can make adjustments on the fly. Is the answer a Photoshop plugin? A standalone app? A custom script? Probably, but here’s something easier and cheaper.
COLOR: Restricting the art to 4 gray tones
Open up Photoshop and start your drawing like normal. I typically sketch at 400% the final sprite size so it’s easy to shrink. For this process I’ll want to make my lines the 4 tones of gray that I’ll be using for the sprite. (Keeping the sprite’s pixels only 4 grays makes cleanup and coloring as simple as possible). To do this, I’ll use the Dan Fessler method of adding a “Gradient Map” layer style, set to only use the grays I want. You’ll want to spend some time getting the gradient’s sliders to match the darkness of your lines as closely as possible, and making the gradient stops as sharp as you can so you don’t get stray colors. You can download the gradient file I’m using here. That’ll take care of the color count, so that I’m only drawing in those 4 tones while still keeping the freedom of drawing at my usual 20-50% opacity, erasing at 80%, and smudging everything as needed.
Now the real trick,
RESIZING: drawing in pixels
Open a new window for your current document, typically under WINDOW > ARRANGE > NEW WINDOW FOR [document name].PSD. I use this a lot because the changes you make in one window show up in the other in real time. Using a second window lets you see your document in a different view as you work on it — and one of the different views you can have is a zoomed in/out view. So now move this new window off to the side and zoom it out to 25% (the final pixel size of a 400% drawing, and, importantly, one of the magnifications that Photoshop renders crisply). That’s the image you want. It’s the crisp, 4 color pixel version of your art, and it’s the sprite you’ll screencapture once you’re done. When you draw on your big art, it’ll update those pixels. But obviously you can’t see those pixels easily since they’re so small. So what do you do? Windows Magnifier Tool, of course.
And there you have it. It’s a dirt simple trick, and all you need is a dirt simple magnifying program.
Okay I’m kidding, Windows Magnifier is a pain. In fact you might consider an easier magnifier program like the open source Virtual Magnifying Glass. To use that instead, download it from portableapps.com and open it up. It’ll ask you what mode you want. Choose ‘dynamic’. It’ll open a magnification window, but you can’t drag it with your mouse – being a handicap accessible program, you move it with the keyboard: CTRL + ALT and an arrow key will move it around, and you pick the magnification level and size of the window from the taskbar icon. Position it over your zoomed-out art and you’re set.
ADJUSTING YOUR BRAIN
Now when you draw on your full size art, the zoomed-out copy will give you the pixel version of your art, and when you’re done, you can turn off the magnifier and capture it with a Print Screen command. Huzzah, your awkward angles and uncooperative details will now be caught before you commit to them.
This trick is particularly useful for those of you who prefer drawing with low opacity brushes to build up details, or just if you spent your life training your wrist to draw what’s on your mind and can’t easily develop ideas by working in pixels. But I will say drawing through the Gradient Map filter does feel like learning a completely new Photoshop brush. It’s an unusual way to draw, and it might not click for everybody.
It doesn’t take much to get used to though, especially if you only use it for part of your workflow: if you make your drawing first, you can start using this method once you’re happy with your initial lines. Or you can just use it as an occasional check to make sure your details are cooperating with the pixel grid (you hide the adjustment layer while you work and switch it on whenever you want to check). Also, I’d recommend this technique for doing just line art and saving the shading for afterwards, but if it you do get a feel for it, you can put your lines and shading on separate Photoshop layers like you normally might.
Another idea if you have a hard time adjusting the finer details is to try working at 200% size instead of 400%, and zooming out to 50% instead of 25%.
Some of you out there can build figures with natural looking poses right from pixels, which I greatly admire. But for those of you who need to think with a pencil, feel the lines with your fingers and add the energy with your wrists, give this trick a try and see if the hours don’t melt away like they do with your other artwork.