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Pixel Art Character Tutorial in Adobe Photoshop

Tapping into the 16-bit world through the Photoshop portal.

Pixel Art Character Tutorial in Adobe Photoshop

Learning how to draw pixel art in Adobe Photoshop is a fun process as it challenges the artist to focus on a minimalistic way of thinking. It can be quite the process, but the rewards are worth it!

In this tutorial we will be using Adobe Photoshop CS6. There are other programs (paid and free) that have similar options. This tutorial works with many of them. Photoshop has a lot of readily available features for pixel art, and utilizing these features makes the creation process highly suitable for the art process.

Sections in this Tutorial

Click a title to jump to that section.

  1. Setting Up the Document for Pixel Art
  2. Configuring Tools
  3. Pixel Art Character Style
  4. Shaping the Pixel Art Character
  5. Creating Swatches for Our Pixel Art
  6. Creating the Pixel Art Color Scheme
  7. Improve the Coloring Workflow
  8. Coloring Our Pixel Art Character
  9. Adding the Highlights and Shadows
  10. Exporting Our Pixel Art Character in HD


Setting Up the Document for Pixel Art

First we will set up our canvas to improve the drawing efficiency of our workflow. Open a new document from the file menu by clicking File > New and note the settings in the dialogue box.

Setting Up the Document for Pixel Art

The default preset in Adobe Photoshop has our current document’s units measured in inches and pixels. We’re already halfway there!

Pixel Art canvas dimensions.
click to enlarge

Let’s change the Inches to Pixels by selecting it from the drop-down menus where you see Width and Height. Set the Width to (128px) and the Height to (72px). This set of dimensions will allow for a more crisp image later on. Confirm your settings, then click OK.

Our document is now prepared for the next step which is setting up the tools. At this point you can save your file to your computer by pressing Ctrl+S on your keyboard. I recommend creating a new folder in your “Pictures” library and naming it “Pixel Art.”

Configuring Tools

Configure the Pencil Tool for Our Pixel Art Character

We want to draw with those little tiny boxes called Pixels and Adobe Photoshop has the perfect tool for the job —the Pencil Tool. Navigate your cursor to the left side of your screen and locate the Toolbar. By default the pencil should be hidden behind the Paintbrush Tool. To select it, left click + hold on the Paintbrush Tool, then navigate to the pencil icon, and release to select.

Enable the Pixel GridAnother thing we should do to help us out visually is enable the Pixel Grid. This will allow us to see each pixel individually which also makes it easier to count the pixels as we draw them. To do this, navigate to the menu bar at the top of the page and select View > Show > Pixel Grid. Now we’re all set to draw —it’s time to get into that minimalist way of thinking.

Pixel art images can be very complex in design. They all have the same few basic elements, however. The Base Color is what we will start with up until we have a general idea of how our pixel art character will look. After that will be the Highlights and Shadows.

Pixel Art Character Style

We will be using the Digital Guru 16-bit character logo in this example which stands in a 3/4 position. Check out the YouTube Channel and other Tutorials by Digital Guru. Create a new layer by pressing Ctrl+Shift+N on your keyboard. Name it, “Base Color.” We will start out with black as the initial base color creating a rough silhouette of the character in the center of the canvas. You can even use a stick figure as a starting base! Just draw simple lines and add more pixels as you go.

Make the Eraser Pixel Friendly

Let’s adapt the erasing to fit our workflow. Press E on your keyboard to select the Eraser Tool or select it from the Toolbar three spaces below the Pencil/Paintbrush Tool. Navigate to the Options Bar located under the Menu Bar at the top of the window. Change the size to 1 and the Mode to Pencil. To quickly switch between our tools we will use Photoshop’s default keyboard shortcuts. Use B for the Pencil Tool and E for the Eraser Tool. Use these techniques wisely, grasshopper.

Shaping the Pixel Art Character

Shape Out the Character SilhouetteContinue shaping the silhouette of the character until it makes the most sense to you. Draw simple lines building them up as the pixel art builds. This is the part that you should spend most of your time on. Remember to use the keyboard shortcuts E and B to switch between tools more swiftly. If you are having trouble with this part, consider using Google Image Search for reference images like retro gaming characters. Mega-Man and Super Mario are some good images to use to spark some ideas.

Lock the Base Layer of the Pixel Art CharacterMaking different sets of silhouettes and placing them on multiple layers can help by providing you with multiple options for a base. Simply create new layers using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Shift+N and label them accordingly e.g. (V1, V2, V3, etc.) Try not to focus too much on any details —we will do that when we apply the color to our pixel art character. Once you’re satisfied with the base silhouette, lock the layer from the Layers Panel so that we don’t accidentally make any changes to our base during the next process.

Creating Swatches for Our Pixel Art

Time to set up the color process for our pixel art character. We’re gonna get fancy and make some swatches for our awesome creation! Let’s start with making a new layer by pressing Ctrl+Shift+N and naming it Creating Swatches for Our Pixel ArtSwatches. We should also keep our document organized. With the Swatches layer selected, press Ctrl+G to place it into a Layer Group. Double click the group folder text in the Layers Panel and name it Color.

Using swatches can make creating art in Adobe Photoshop much easier, it also improves the overall workflow. Swatches can also be created many different ways in Photoshop and similar programs.

Photoshop also has a built-in function that allows you to create custom swatch libraries. Consider using Google Search for free Swatch Library Downloads for Adobe Photoshop. Custom libraries can jump start a lot of color based projects. You can make an endless combination of color sets to suit your various art types. For this tutorial we’re gonna keep things simple.

Creating the Pixel Art Color Scheme

Creating the Pixel Art Color SchemeNavigate to the Toolbar and click the active color to open the Color Picker. Pick a color that will best represent the skin of your pixel art character and click OK.

Select the Pencil Tool by pressing B on your keyboard. Make sure the Swatches Layer is selected then draw one pixel of that color in the top-right corner of the canvas (or 4px-8px-12px etc.).

Go back to the Color Picker, select the color for the shirt and give it it’s own set of pixels. Repeat this process for the pants, shoes, and any other items you may wish to draw on your pixel art character. Now we’re ready to add some life to our creation. This would be a good time to save our work (Ctrl+S to save).

Improve the Coloring Workflow

Select the Eyedropper Tool, click the color from the swatches you chose for the skin tone, then proceed to draw the head. A more fluid way of selecting color can be done while the Pencil Tool is active. With the Pencil Tool selected, hold I on your keyboard, click on the color you wish to use, then release the I key to switch back to the previous tool. Use this technique to switch between colors and tools more efficiently. The quicker you can get your idea from your head to the canvas —the better. Continue drawing the shirt, pants, and any other fancy pixel art character wardrobe items.

Coloring Our Pixel Art Character

Coloring Our Pixel Art CharacterWe can finally see a general representation of our characters layout! At this stage we can draw in additional details, clothing items, and/or accessories to our pixel art character.

Here we will add hair to the head, a belt to the jeans, and finally the face in all it’s pixelated glory. Experiment with different placements of the eyes, mouth, and hair styles. Some ideas are crazy enough to work, so just go with it. Save your file at this point (Ctrl+S). If you need to —take a break from this project and refresh your mind. This will give you a set of rested eyes to spot any changes you’d like to make to your pixel art character.

We are just about done…

Adding the Highlights and Shadows

Let’s further define the detail by adding the Highlights and Shadows. If you’d like to add even more detail, consider adding more layers such as Mid-tones and Ambient Occlusion. In this tutorial we will keep it simple using just three color variations per object on our pixel art character.

Adjust Existing Colors to Make New Ones

Adjust Existing Colors to Make New OnesSelect the skin tone from the Swatches Layer with the Eyedropper Tool. Now click the Foreground Color to open the Color Picker (color box in Toolbar). Select a slightly lighter shade relative to the skin tone color, finally click OK. It would be a good idea to add this color to the Swatches Layer we created earlier for easy pickings. Do the same for the shirt, pants, shoes, etc.

Using the same methods with the highlights in reverse, we can apply the shadows to our pixel art character. Be sure to take advantage of those keyboard shortcuts as they are valuable skills to any Photoshop project. Navigate between layers to make any changes to specific parts if you need to —these are the last few steps, so clean it up!

Exporting Our Pixel Art Character in HD

First off, let’s hide the Swatches Layer by clicking the eye just left of the layer. Making sure we have our file saved as a PSD would also be a good idea. We want to keep all layers and info in their modular forms in case we choose to edit the pixel art character later. Now enter the following keyboard shortcut —get your fingers ready, Ctrl+Shift+Alt+S.

The Save for Web dialogue box should appear.Export the Pixel Art Character as a PNG File

Select PNG-24 as the file type from the right panel. Navigate to the bottom right of the window and locate the Image Size settings. For the Width (labeled W), type in 1920 —you should see the Height (labeled H) change to 1080. Most important, change the quality to Nearest Neighbor. This will ensure each of our lovely pixels maintains a fixed ratio. Click save and put your finished work in a spot you’ll remember.

Pixel Art Character Export DimensionsThis is a 16:9 ratio fit for most HD displays. If you need to adjust to a different display ratio, use the Canvas Size keyboard shortcut, Ctrl+Alt+C after completing the initial exporting steps. Just open the PNG file that we exported here in Adobe Photoshop and use layers to modify.

We’re all done! Congrats on making it through this tutorial. We’ve learned how to take advantage of some valuable keyboard shortcuts all while creating an awesome pixel art character.

Show off your work to your friends on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Make sure to practice making different characters and other pixel art to perfect your techniques.

Our Pixel Art Character is Complete!

Final Result of Pixel Art Character Tutorial

There will be more tutorials like this, here on Cool-Webs.com so be sure to bookmark this site! Don’t forget to subscribe to Digital Guru’s YouTube Channel and share this post. I’ll see you in the next tutorial!

Table of Contents

Click a title to jump to that section.

  1. Setting Up the Document for Pixel Art
  2. Configuring Tools
  3. Pixel Art Character Style
  4. Shaping the Pixel Art Character
  5. Creating Swatches for Our Pixel Art
  6. Creating the Pixel Art Color Scheme
  7. Improve the Coloring Workflow
  8. Coloring Our Pixel Art Character
  9. Adding the Highlights and Shadows
  10. Exporting Our Pixel Art Character in HD


Learning Curve
86 %
Completion Time
94 %
90 %
Knowledge Base
78 %
VIADigital Guru
Digital Guru
I create step-by-step, written and video tutorials on Photoshop CS6, Illustrator CS6, WordPress, Windows 10, Kodi and many other programs. — Cool Webs is the official site of YouTube Partner Digital Guru.



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