Pixel art has been around since the first computers. It continues to grow ever more advanced, but it still comes down to the same thing that made those first graphics possible: pixels. Since all digital graphics are composed of pixels, what makes pixel art different than your standard graphic? Simple – the pixels are the first consideration.
What makes these kind of graphics so everlasting is that they look just as good at 10% of their original size as they did at their original size. Since pixels are focused on, creating each single piece of the graphic using nothing but that focus, it’s possible to get the crispest, sharpest look with a minimum of colors.
In this guide, we’re going to create a fantasy sword in Photoshop using the pixel art style. This is the same style used in most video games, a lot of icons, and thousands of pieces of digital art. The great thing about it is that it’s very, very easy to do.
What will you need? A copy of Photoshop in order to follow this tutorial word-for-word … but pixel art can be done in absolutely any graphic editor, including Microsoft Paint. So you don’t absolutely need anything special other than some patience and the desire to produce something cool for no reason other than it looks cool.
Pixel Fantasy Sword: How to Make It
One: The first thing you’ll need is something to draw on. So hit “File”, choose “New” and create a new canvas that is sized about 300 x 300 pixels, in RGB mode, with a white background.
The second thing you’ll need … well, you don’t absolutely “need”. If you’ve got a good imagination and a love of blades, you can probably brainstorm thousands of ideas for fantasy swords in the space it would take the rest of us to locate a reference picture. However, if you need one, grab a reference picture that you can work with. The design I’m going to create is based on the sword of a friend but greatly embellished with my own imagination.
Two: You can “draw” outlines in a number of ways, including using a paintbrush to go pixel-by-pixel making the shape you require. Technically, I’m sure, this is the “correct” way to create pixel art. It’s also the long, hair-pulling, teeth-gritting way.
I recommend the pen tool. Before you select the pen tool, hit your paintbrush tool and select a one-pixel square brush. Then, select your pen tool and choose the 3rd icon from the left under your toolbar – “Paths”. Now, you can go along making the outline of your sword using clicks. When you complete a line, right-click the path and choose “Stroke Path”. Make sure it is set to use your paintbrush, it does NOT simulate pressure, and click OK. Right-click the path again, choose “Delete Path”, and you have a crisp 1-pixel line made!
Go along creating just the basic outline of your fantasy sword using black. We’re not worried about color, shading, or anything else right now – think of it as if you’re drawing a page for a coloring book. You just want the outlines there. Can’t seem to get each side matching? Do just one side of your sword, then, and duplicate the layer. Choose “Edit”, “Transform”, “Flip Horizontal” and move it into place for perfectly symmetrical sides.
See Illustration 01 for my example.
Three: Since we’re focused on pixels, even our shadows and highlights will focus on pixels. To get a good feel for where shadows and highlights need to go, though, it’s easier to start out by laying down base colors.
When you color, use a square brush and zoom in to 200 or 300% so you can get right up to the lines without going outside them. Do your colors on a new layer, and pull that layer behind your outlines – this keeps everything looking crisp. Finally, try to keep different colors on separate layers so you can edit them easier later on by doing nothing more than hitting Color Overlay.
See Illustration 02 for my example. In this example, you can also see how I’ve arranged my layers.
Four: It’s time for us to add some shadows. We’ll do this before we add highlights because, quite simply, there’s a lot more shadow than highlight. Shadows also tell us right where to put the highlights.
Stick to 1-pixel brushes for your shadows. Zoom in enough that you can see where your outlines are very clearly, pixel-by-pixel, and start adding shadow in “natural” spots – down the center of your sword, at the sides, rounded on the handle, etc. Your shadows should be added gradually so that you keep a sharp, pixel edge.
The colors you use for your shadows need to be the same hue as your base color, only darker. To get this color most easily, just select the color you’ve used as a base and then double-click your color box. Notice the “H”, “S”, and “B” slots? Click the “B” slot to make the hue darker or brighter, and the “S” slot to make the color more saturated. Don’t mess with the “H” slot – that one is hue, which we’ve already decided needs to stay the same.
Five: Now it’s time for highlights. Honestly, there should be very few highlights – spots where light is brightly reflected off your sword. Use the same method for choosing a color off your base that you did for the shadows, just use a much brighter color. Again, add highlight in slowly to keep crisp, sharp edges.
My progress is shown in Illustration 03, which has the shadow and highlight swords side-by-side.
All that’s left is to add finishing touches like decoration to the blade, handle, or anything else you like. Make sure to keep these nice and crisp, too. And wa-la! A really cool pixel sword, created by your imaginative hand.