Photoshop Tools for creating pixel art

Photoshop tools for creating pixel art
Renier Delport
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Pixel Art

Although Adobe Photoshop is has been developed as a photo editing and manipulation suite, it has more than enough features to get started with pixel art.

This post will show some of the important Photoshop tools for creating pixel art.

Introduction

Photoshop is not considered the best software to be used for creating pixel art. Better options include Pyxel Edit, Aseprite, Piksel and probably many more. Although this is true, Photoshop does offer strong tools and abilities to be more than capable of creating and editing pixel art — if they are used in the correct way.

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The Zoom Tool

The first Photoshop tool one probably needs to know about after creating a canvas is the Zoom Tool. As the name implies, this tool will zoom in and out of the active image.

For pixel art, this is an important tool as it helps to focus on the areas that are being edited and by zooming out the image can be seen in its entirety.

Photoshop Zoom Tool
Photoshop Zoom Tool for pixel art.

The Zoom Tool can either be selected from the Tools menu bar or by pressing the Z key on the keyboard. While the tool is active, by scrubbing left and right with the mouse, the image will get larger or smaller.

Another way to use Photoshop’s zoom function is by using Ctrl + + (Ctrl and the plus key) and Ctrl + - (Ctrl and the minus key). This will allow the current active tool (e.g. the Pen Tool) to still be active while zooming. Similarly, by pressing Ctrl + 0 the image will be zoomed in to fit the entire screen and Ctrl + 1 will zoom the image out to a 1:1 pixel ratio.

The Pencil Tool

The Photoshop Pencil Tool (aka the Pen Tool) is probably the most common tool one will use while creating pixel art. The Pen Tool is similar to the Brush Tool, but with hard edges (i.e. a hardness setting of 100%). As with a real pencil or pen, the Pen Tool is used to place coloured pixels on the canvas.

Photoshop Pencil Tool
Photoshop Pencil Tool for pixel art.

The Pencil Tool can either be selected from the tools menu bar or by pressing the B key on the keyboard.

By looking closer at the tools menu where the Brush Tool is situated, you will see a little triangle, meaning that multiple tool versions are available at that location. By left-click and holding that location, a separate menu will open, exposing the Pencil Tool (and other tools).

When using the shortcut key (B) Photoshop will select the last-used tool in this selection — which will, in most cases be the Brush Tool. By pressing the B key while holding down the Shift key, Photoshop will rotate the tools in this selection.

The Pencil Tool will most often be used at a 1:1, or sometimes 2:2, pixel ratio. The size of the Pencil Tool can be adjusted using the size dropdown menu situated on the left of the Options menu. Alternatively, the size of the Pencil Tool can be, more quickly adjusted using the [ and ] keys on the keyboard.

For pixel art, the hardness and opacity need to be set to 100% in the Options menu situated above the canvas area.

In Photoshop, the Pencil Tool will either be displayed as a Brush/Pencil tip (i.e. displays the cursor as an outline that is the precise shape) or as a crosshair. To toggle between the tip and the crosshair, Caps Lock can be used.

Eraser Tool

As with the Pencil Tool, the Eraser Tool is also a popular tool used for pixel art. It works similar to the Brush/Pencil Tool, but instead of adding pixels, it removes them.

Photoshop Eraser Tool
Photoshop Eraser Tool for pixel art.

The Eraser Tool can either be selected from the tools menu bar or by pressing the E key on the keyboard.

As with other tools mentioned in this post, the Eraser Tool also has different variations (selectable by left-clicking and holding, or holding down the Shift key while pressing E.

In Photoshop, the Eraser Tool can either be used as a Pencil Eraser with hard edges (desired for pixel art) or a Brush Eraser (with soft edges). To make the Eraser tool more appropriate for pixel art, Pencil must be selected from the Mode: drop-down menu in the Options menu. As with the Pen Tool, the hardness and opacity need to be set to 100%.

The Eyedropper Tool

The Eyedropper Tool (aka the Ink Tool or Inkdropper Tool) acts by selecting the colour over which it hovers. The sample colour can either be clicked on, or drag-clicked to make use of the round colour swatch.

Photoshop Eyedropper Tool
Photoshop Eyedropper Tool for pixel art.

The Eyedropper Tool can either be selected from the tools menu bar or by pressing the I key on the keyboard.

As with the Brush/Pencil Tool, the Eyedropper Tool slot has various versions available. Unlike the Brush/Pencil Tool the other tools are less used for pixel art. When using the shortcut key (I) Photoshop will select the last-used tool in this selection.

Selection Tools

As the name implies, selection tools are used to select certain parts of the canvas. Selected parts can be further manipulated by moving their contents (e.g. on the canvas or to a different layer) and/or applying directional changes.

Selections are useful in limiting other tools, such as the Brush and Eraser Tools, to only affect the selected parts and can be used to make layer masks and brush tips.

Although Photoshop has a nice collection of Selection Tools, only some will be useful to create/edit pixel art. The Selection Tools that are commonly used include the Marquee Tools, Lasso Tools and the Quick Selection Tool.

Photoshop Selection Tools
Photoshop Selection Tools for pixel art.

For pixel art, the Anti-alias checkbox needs to be unchecked when using the selection tools. This will keep the selection edges smooth and crisp. More on Anti-alias later.

The Marquee Selection Tools

The first set of Selections Tools are the Marquee (selection) Tools. The Marquee Tools that are most often used are the Rectangular Marquee Tool and the Circular Marquee Tool.

These tool variations can either be selected from the tools menu bar or by pressing the M key on the keyboard. Variations of the Marque Tools can be selected by left-clicking and holding or holding down the Shift key while pressing the M key.

In its simplest form, the Marquee Selection Tools are used by left-clicking and holding on one side of the selection and then dragging to the opposite side. The selection will be finalised by letting go of the left mouse button.

By holding down the Shift key before finalising the selection, the selection will turn into a perfect circle (in the case of the Circular Marquee Tool) or a square (in the case of the Rectangle Marquee Tool). By holding down the Spacebar key before finalising the selection, the selection can be moved around the canvas. Both the Shift key and Spacebar key can be used simultaneously while using the Marquee Tools.

The Lasso Selection Tools

The second set of Photoshop Selection Tools that can be useful to pixel art creators are the Lasso (selection) Tools. The Lasso Tools, of which the freehand Lasso Tool and the Polygonal Lasso Tool are the most commonly used, is used for tracing the selection to be made.

These tool variations can either be selected from the tools menu bar or by pressing the L key on the keyboard. Variations of the Lasso Tools can be selected by left-clicking and holding or holding down the Shift key while pressing the L key.

With the freehand Lasso Tool, a selection is made by click and holding the left mouse button while tracing the selection. The outline of the selection will automatically complete when the mouse button is not active anymore.

The Polygonal Lasso Tool works by clicking on the location where the selection starts and then clicking on multiple areas to surround the selected area. The selection will be completed by double-clicking the last point or if the last and first selection points are very close to each other.

The Quick Selection Tool

The third and last handy selection tool is the Quick Selection Tool. In its simple form, for pixel art, the Quick Selection Tool is used to select pixels with the same colour.

The Quick Selection Tool can either be selected from the tools menu bar or by pressing the W key on the keyboard. As with other tools mentioned, the Quick Selection Tool also has different variations (selectable by left-clicking and holding, or holding down the Shift key while pressing W.

After selecting the Quick Selection Tool, there will be a couple of settings available in the Options menu. Important settings include the sample size (Point Sample works most of the time), the tolerance, anti-alias, contiguous and sample all layers.

The tolerance is used to broaden the selection slightly by also selecting pixel colours that are slightly darker and slightly brighter than the selected pixel. For photo editing, the Quick Selection Tool’s tolerance setting is usually set to 42, but for PNG pixel art it needs to be reduced to 0. This means that only the exact colours will be chosen.

Contiguous refers to only selecting neighbouring pixels. This means that all the pixels will be selected up to where there is a different coloured pixel. In other words, only the pixels within a different coloured border will be selected. By turning contiguous off (i.e. unticking it), all the pixels with the selected colour will be selected, whether they are surrounded by a border or not.

By toggling between sampling all layers or not, the colour selection can be limited to the current layer or all the layers above and below.

Shared functions of the Selection Tools

All the Selection Tools share common properties between them.

After a first selection has been made, additional selections (using any desired selection tool) can be made by holding down the Shift key. Similarly, parts of a selection can be removed from a current selection by holding down the Alt key. Ctrl + D is the shortcut to deselect the entire current selection and Ctrl + J is a quick way to move the current selection into its own layer.

An important setting that will almost always be deselected (i.e. un-ticked) when working with pixel art is anti-aliasing. Anti-aliasing allows for smooth edge transitions, which is something the artists should rather add. Photoshop generated anti-aliasing is never indicated when working with pixel art.

The Move Tool

Next up is the Move Tool. The Move Tool, situated first on the tools menu bar, can be selected by pressing the V key on the keyboard.

As the name implies, the move tool is used to move things around — mainly intended for selections and layer items.

The Move Tool can be used in one of two ways. The first way is to enable Auto-Select in the Options menu. This is very handy for selecting sections without having to be on their appropriate layer. Although not always perfectly accurate, this does speed up the workflow significantly.

The second way to use the Move Tool in Photoshop is by disabling Auto-Select and by selecting the layer of the section before selecting the section. Although, overall, a bit slower than using Auto-Select, this helps to select and move those trickly overlapping sections.

The Paint Bucket Tool

The Paint Bucket Tool is used to change the colour of consecutive, similar coloured pixels to a different colour. Technically it is a combination of the Quick Selection Tool and the Pencil Tool.

The Paint Bucket Tool can either be selected from the tools menu bar or by pressing the G key on the keyboard. It shares its tool slot with the Gradient Tool, so by using the shortcut key (G) Photoshop will select the last-used tool in this group.

Photoshop Paint Bucket Tool
Photoshop Paint Bucket Tool for pixel art.

As with the Quick Selection Tool, the Paint Bucket Tool has various important settings. They include the mode (best left to Normal), opacity (to be 100%), the tolerance, anti-alias, contiguous and all layers.

The tolerance is used to broaden the paint effect slightly by also selecting pixel colours that are slightly darker and slightly brighter than the selected pixel. For photo editing, this setting is usually set to 32, but for pixel art, it needs to be reduced to 0. This means that only the exact colours will be chosen (assumed when working with PNG files).

Contiguous refers to only selecting neighbouring pixels. This means that all the pixels will be selected up to where there is a different coloured pixel. In other words, only the pixels within a different coloured border will be selected to be painted. By turning contiguous off (i.e. unticking it), all the pixels with the selected colour will be painted, whether they are surrounded by a border or not.

By toggling between all layers or not, the colour selection can be limited to the current layer or all the layers above and below.

As with the Selection Tools, it is important to untick the Anti-alias setting before using the Paint Bucket Tool.

The Type Tool

The Type Tool allows for text to be typed on the canvas. It can either be selected from the tools menu bar or by pressing the T key on the keyboard.

Photoshop Type Tool
Photoshop Type Tool for pixel art.

The Horizontal Type Tool shares its tool slot with the Vertical Type Tool, so by using the shortcut key (T) Photoshop will select the last-used tool in this group.

By default, Photoshop will try to soften the text edges to create a smoother-looking effect by using one of the anti-aliasing settings (aa). For pixel art, None must be active under the aa in the Options menu.

The shape tools

Photoshop has a couple of shape tools that are handy to draw lines and simple shapes.

The shape tools can either be selected from the tools menu bar or by pressing the U key on the keyboard. This tool slot is shared between the Rectangle Tool, Rounded Rectangle Tool, Ellipse Tool, Polygon Tool, Line Tool and Custom Shape Tool, so by using its shortcut key Photoshop will select the last-used tool in this group.

Photoshop shape tools
Photoshop shape tools for pixel art.

When using any of the shape tools, important settings in the Options menu that should be noted include the technique (to be set from Shape or Path to Pixels), mode (best left to Normal), opacity (to be 100%), and anti-alias (to be off).

The Transform Tools

The Transform Tools (of which the Free Transform Tool is the most popular) allows objects on a layer to be scaled, skewed, warped, flipped, and rotated.

Unlike most of the other tools discussed here, the Transform Tools are selected from the Edit drop-down menu situated on the Main Menu Bar — the one right at the top of Photoshop. After the desired layer is active, go to Edit -> Transform. The Free Transform Tool can also be selected by pressing the Ctrl + T keys on the keyboard.

Photoshop Transform Tools
Photoshop Transform Tools for pixel art.

While any of the Transform Tools are active, it is important that Interpolation: is set to Nearest Neighbor.

Photoshop transform tools interpolation
Note that when Photoshop’s Transform Tools are used for pixel art, Interpolation needs to be set to Nearest neighbor.

Conclusion

Although Photoshop is aimed at editing photo images, a lot of its tools can be used very efficiently to create beautiful looking pixel art. In most cases, by deactivating anti-alias, nice clean pixels can be created.

About the author
Renier busies himself with improving his English writing, creative web design and his websites, photoshopping, micro-electronics, multiple genres of music, superhero movies and badass series.
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