photoshop creative

Pixel a portrait in fifteen steps!

Posted in:
Tips & Tutorials, by Mark White
September 9, 2015

Learn how to make a pixel-art portrait straight out of a 16-bit video game


1. Change the resolution


Originally being used on-screen, pixel art should always be created at 72ppi, so open up your reference image, go to Image>Image Size (Cmd/Ctrl+Opt/Alt+I) and change the Resolution to 72.

2. Resize the image


You need to resize the image to make it smaller before pixelling over the top. Open Image Size, and change the largest measurement (Width or Length) to 100px. Save this as a new file so we still have the original size for reference.

3. View the image


It’s helpful to zoom in and view your image at the same time when creating pixel art. To do this, go to Window>Arrange and select a new window from the drop-down. This will give another window with 100% size version of your image.

4. Set up


Create a new background layer by selecting New Layer from the Layers palette and move this new layer to the bottom. Fill it with a colour of your choice. Now select the layer above (with the portrait photo) and set the Opacity to 25%.

5. Zoom in


If you zoom in to your image, it will become a collection of large pixels. Usually this is to be avoided but in this case, you can use these as a guide to draw over. Select New Layer from the Layers palette and call it Head.

6. Select the Pencil tool


We will use the Pencil tool to create the pixel art because it has a hard, non anti-aliased edge. Select the Pencil and open the Brushes palette (Window>Brushes) and make sure the Pencil is set to smallest pixel brush.

7. Start on the head


On the Head layer, draw pixel by pixel around the edge of the head. It works well to do the first stages in magenta, so that you can concentrate on the shapes rather than the final colours. Once you’re done, use the Fill tool and fill in your shape.

8. Add the features


Create another new layer on top of your head shape and name it Features. Change the Opacity of your head layer to 50% and then start to pick out the features with the Pencil tool on the Features layer, picking relevant colours.

9. Pick out the shadows


Create another layer and call it Shadows. Set the Opacity of the Head layer back to 100% and start to pick out the shadows with the Pencil tool using a arker magenta colour

10. Lighten it up


Create another layer and it a similar way to the Shadows layer, add highlights to the face using a lighter magenta colour. Picking out squares of colour can be very effective. Remember pixel art is about hinting at detail rather than cramming too much in.

11. Work on the hair


Create another layer, call it Hair and block out the shape and shadows for the hair. Use what you learned when making the face, but don’t worry about drawing every strand. It’s better to block and hint at detail rather than try to draw everything.

12. Start colouring


Let’s create a colour palette layer and start colouring in our pixel-art creation. Create a new layer, call it Colours, and each time you use a new colour, place a small square of this colour in this space. Try to order the colours from lighting to dark.

13. Magic Wand


Select all your layers in the Layers palette, apart from the background and Colours layers, and Merge Layers. Then with the Magic Wand tool, click on the main skin area. Go to Select>Similar. This will grab all instances of that skin colour. Fill this with your chosen skin colour.

14. Add shading


After you have filled in all your basic colours (using step 13 for each one), zoom in to your image and add darker and lighter shades. Don’t go too crazy and try to keep the amount of colours you are using to under 16.

15. Resize and finish


Don’t be afraid to delete sections and re-colour to create an image that you’re happy with. We can scale pixel art up size. Go to Image>Image Size>Nearest Neighbour, and then change the dimensions to 500%. This will give chunky pixels.