How to Pixel With Photoshop Tutorial

This tutorial demonstrates the settings and steps you have to take to configure Photoshop for pixeling. I originally published it on my website, however I think it’s better suited here for the blog. I also updated it a little and added a small bit about the crude animation capabilities of Image Ready. Feel free to post any questions here concerning the tutorial or pixeling in general.

There are some things you have to set up first before you can start pixeling with Photoshop. Of course there are a couple of things which are easier with pure pixel programs like Pro Motion. Still, I believe Photoshop has its advantages (like using layers, or a superior colour chooser), that’s why I use it 95% of the time.

If you want to work efficiently with Photoshop, I strongly recommend learning all the keyboard shortcuts by heart. It really helps speeding up your workflow. Also, use the program’s settings to choose the precise cursors rather than the standard ones. I usually work with Photoshop in fullscreen mode. To enter this mode, press F twice and TAB to hide all the windows.

Pencil tool Drawing
The basic tool you will be working with when pixeling in Photoshop is the pencil. You can access it by pressing SHIFT + B to cycle through the brush tool until it is selected. The pencil tool doesn’t use alpha, so it’s just what we need for pixeling. Select the very first brush in the pop-up list, it’s the 1 pixel brush. Now you can already start with putting your first pixels on the canvas. Pressing SHIFT while drawing will lock the cursor either horizontally or vertically, this comes in handy very often. If you click somewhere and press SHIFT, a straight line is being draw between this point and the last one where you used the tool. Press ALT and keep it pressed to temporarily activate the colour picker, this is a very important function which makes working in Photoshop really easy.

Paint bucket Filling areas
If you want to flood-fill an area, press SHIFT + G to cycle through the fill options until you’ve got the paint bucket selected (once it’s highlighted, G alone will activate the tool). To make this tool work properly for pixeling, make sure that tolerance is set to 0, anti-alias is disabled and contiguous is checked in the tool’s settings.

Eraser Erasing pixels
The eraser can be accessed with E (or SHIFT + E, if you have to cycle through the list again) and has to be set to pencil mode.

Line tool Straight lines
Now there’s one major disadvantage when it comes to pixeling with Photoshop: the line tool is really hard to work with. I personally hardly ever use it anyway though. Still, here’s how to set it up: press SHIFT + U to cycle through the list until you reach the line tool. Activate the third icon from the right (“Fill pixels”) and disable anti-alias. To get a perfect line without any “stray” pixels, you have to directly hit the center of the target pixel while dragging the line.

Rectangular and circular selection Circles and rectangles
To create circles or rectangles, you can either use the circle/rectangle tools which you can access via SHIFT + U, or select the circular or rectangular marquee tool respectively (SHIFT + M), which is the method I prefer. Make sure that anti-alias is disabled once again, then click and drag on the canvas to create the shape you want. You can keep SHIFT pressed to create a circle/square rather than a ellipse/rectangle. If you keep ALT pressed, the selection will have its root at the coordinate you had your cursor positioned when starting. When you’re satisfied with the selection, right click in it and select Stroke. Enter the thickness of the outline in pixels and you’re done. Alternatively, you can fill the selection with ALT or CTRL + BACKSPACE. Press CTRL + D to deselect.

Magic wand Palette manipulation
There are various ways of manipulating the palette in Photoshop. I personally use the following method: activate the magic wand by pressing W. Make sure tolerance is set to 0 and contiguous is *off*. Now when you click on any colour on your image, all the identical RGB values on the current layer become the active selection (you can hide/unhide the selection by pressing CTRL + H). To easily alter the colour now, press CTRL + U. This brings up the Hue/Saturation dialog, where you can change the colour’s hue, saturation and brightness until you’ve got the value you want. You can also use the regular foreground/background colour chooser to pick a colour, and the press either ALT or CTRL + BACKSPACE to fill the selection with the fore- or backgroundcolour respectively. Press CTRL + D to disable the current selection. This is the way to work with if you’re in RGB mode (which I always use). You can manipulate the palette in a more classical way as well, by choosing Image -> Mode -> Indexed Color to convert your picture to 8bit. Now if you select Image -> Mode -> Color Table you’ve got a classic palette of all the colours used in your image. If you click on any of them, the standard Photoshop colour manipulator pops up, and you can change the colour to something else.

Pixel aspect ratio

One more useful thing about Photoshop is that you can pixel using widepixels like on the C64 for example. Go to Image -> Pixel Aspect Ratio -> Anamorphic 2:1 (2) to activate 2×1 pixels. Mind you that when saving the picture, it will be stored with 1×1 pixels, so you have to double the width before exporting the image. Of course you can also enter a custom pixel aspect ratio.

Animating in Photoshop

Photoshop is not really very useful for animation. However, there’s a very basic way you can do animations, in conjunction with Image Ready. When drawing an animation, make sure you create each frame on a different layer, stacked on top of each other. To test the animation, click the Edit in Image Ready-button on the very bottom of the tool bar. This transfers the image to Image Ready. In here, go to the Window -> Animation menu entry, and an animation window pops up. You can create new frames by clicking the Duplicate Frame button on the bottom of the window. In each new frame, make sure the layer with the corresponding picture is visible. Once you are done, click on the Play button to view the animation. You can change the speed of the animation by clicking the small arrow below each frame and choosing a different delay. When you’re satisfied with your animation, you can save it as an animated GIF. In case you can not find the GIF format in the Save Optimized As-dialog, there’s another step you have to take first. You have to go back to Photoshop, click on File -> Save for Web, choose the GIF format, click on Done and then return to Image Ready to be able to save the GIF format.

Tags: ,

5 Responses to “How to Pixel With Photoshop Tutorial”

  1. Phil Says:

    thanks! this tutorial might come in handy!

    oh and photoshop cs3 (the extended version) already *has* a timeline for animations an even some kind of very basic onion-skinning. but i am sure you won’t be able to export them as old skool sprite-sheets :D

  2. Peelz Says:

    This is the most complete tutorial on the subject that I could find on the web. It helped me out a lot, especially the tips on the fill tool and alt-clicking to color pick.

    Thanks for the tutorial!

  3. Charlieton Says:

    Great information, that will definately come in handy. Thanks a lot!

  4. OziJuggalo Says:

    This is a great start i can do basic drawings of watev i want but cant make a smaller version of it very good(mainly for ICONS) any tips…nearest neighbour shrinking dont work right

  5. robotriot Says:

    Nothing beats creating an icon at its intended resolution. If you’ve got only one target size for an icon, it’s a no-brainer to create the icon in that size. If you have multiple target sizes, create the icon in the largest required resolution and resize the smaller icons with nearest neighbor. You will need to do a bit of clean up on the resized icons and if it’s very small, you might have to get rid of some design elements to make it work. The alternative would be to create the icon as a vector graphic. This makes scaling a lot less painful, however you will have to make sure that your icon is not too cluttered design-wise and easily readable even when you’re far away from your monitor. I hope this helps a little.

Leave a Reply

Enter this code