Vector Pixel Art Tutorial

Ever wondered how to use illustrator to create spot on pixel art? Here are the basics you need to know. pixel-art

I’m always a little surprised when I meet people who create pixel art in Photoshop. Why struggle with the pencil tool, or limitations of painting one painstaking pixel at a time when you can create vector? Maybe I’m the one that’s crazy since I only discovered the wonders of pixel art about a year ago. Personally I find Vector more flexible for changing size (if I should desire to), faster to create, and easier to edit. I move it into Photoshop later to create a sprite (if it’s for a game), but all of the work is done in Illustrator.

Preparing Your Work Space

Open up a new Illustrator file, 500 X 500 pixels should be enough. Then navigate the menu at the top of the page; Edit > Preferences > Guides & Grid.

I set my grid guidelines to what I plan my pixel size to be. You really can do whatever size of pixel blocks you want, but I’ve been advised by a programmer to stick to using even number increments, so 2 x 2 pixels is the smallest I go. But for this example lets use 10 x 10 pixels. So set grid lines for every 10 pixels. Subdivisions can be wherever you fancy. I like having it as a nice round number,  preferably a multiple of the grid lines spacing.


Next back to preferences, choose general, and check the keyboard increment. It should be set to 1 pixel. This means that when you have an item selected and move it with the arrow keys, it will move by exactly one pixel (much easier and more exact than trying to move things with your mouse).



Next navigate to View > Show Grid. It will look a little overwhelming with all the grid lines, but don’t panic. You can still see the artboard we’re working on. :)



Navigate to View > Pixel Preview. Make sure it is selected. When it is you will also see that snap to pixel is selected as well. This is the really important part that I couldn’t get a screen shot of, so please forgive me. >_<


Start Making Pixels

Zoom in to the grid so that you can see a 10 x 10 square clearly. Then select the rectangle marquee tool (M). click once (left mouse button on Windows computer). A dialog box will open and you can enter the exact dimensions of what you want. (much more precise than trying to drag your mouse to the proper dimensions.



If you have the default settings, your new pixel will probably look like this…



To make it more visible we’re going to remove the outline stroke, and select a color. I can never resist blue :) but any highly visible color will work.



Now take the selection tool (V) and move the pixel onto the grid. It will fit nicely into the space there as you can see. Also because you have pixel preview selected the lines are especially crisp, and the pixels will snap together nicely.


Now, keeping our square selected, we’re going to start using the keyboard. You can nudge it by a pixel using the arrow keys, but you can multiply that movement by 10 when you hold down (Shift). Give it a try. See how it moves around on the grid? Okay, now make sure it’s lined up properly. Hold down (Shift) and (Alt) while pressing one of the arrow keys. Bam! you just duplicated your pixel. Don’t you feel awesome. You can also break out the selection tool again to select more than one of our vector pixels. You can then use the same trick to duplicate whole rows. Just be careful that if you select more than one row that you hit (Shift) + (Arrow key) as much as you need to so that layers of pixels do not overlap. Multiple layers of the same pixels can become problematic later on, so try your best to avoid it now.

Once you’re lined up on the grid and just using your keyboard you can turn off the grid. But be sure to flip it back on periodically to check something hasn’t gotten off center.


Making Shapes

So now you now a fast way to create pixels. But how to create pictures? Well, that will depend partially on your style and what you want to make. But I’d say that once you figure out how to make some basic shapes you’ll be all right breaking things down from there.


Squares are easy. Just keep lining up pixels right :) But if you want to have a square with a little visual interest you can round the edges a little. Convex or concave, whatever suits what you’re trying to create.



These can throw some people for a loop (ha ha, get it? Loop. Never mind). I find it is simplest to start with a big square and round off the corners. If it’s small it’ll look kinda blocky. But it’s pixel art so blocky is really the look you’re going for. The only concern here is to take it a little too far and make the circle look more like a diamond… But if you do take it too far I’m sure you’ll be able to tell.



Depending on the size of the triangle in relation to the pixel size you can have a simple zig zag ladder and two straight lines, or more of a pyramid where some steps are higher than others. Keep in mind that your building blocks are limiting, but that is also part of the style. Have fun exploring what you can do with the new medium.



Recap of Important Things to Remember

Just a little recap of things that you will really really want to remember.

  • Turn on the grid to selected pixel size.
  • Try to keep pixel size consistent, but at the very least consistently use even numbers.
  • Never stray from the grid.
  • Do not overlap (there can be exceptions, but a good rule of thumb is that it should be intentional and serve a purpose for the design).
  • Turn on Pixel Preview.

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