There are a variety of programs that can be used to create pixel art. Whether you are a novice or rooky, here are the popular programs for creating pixel art.
Table of contents
Introduction to pixel art programs
Aspiring pixel artists have a lot to learn. It is said that about 90% of mastering pixel art is to master the pixel art tools — the program for creating pixel art.
For the purpose of this post, a pixel art program is an image editor that can be used to create/edit pixel art images. Pixel art programs can, for example, be more suited for characters and items, backgrounds, animations and/or tilesets. Most pixel artists have one or two favourite programs they use.
The aim of this post is to make the reader aware of popular options — free and paid for — and will focus on functionality such as drawing pixel art and creating pixel art animations. Other focus areas will include:
- Ease of use
- Variety of drawing tools
- Saving and export functions
- Working with layers and blending modes
- Working with colour palettes
- Online support, documentation and tutorials
The pixel art programs mentioned in this post are for PCs only and are sorted alphabetically.
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The first pixel art program on the list is probably also one of the most popular programs for creating pixel art out there. Aseprite is a specialised pixel art sprite editor and animation tool that is available on Windows, Mac and Linux. Aseprite is developed independently (Indie) and can either be downloaded and installed separately, or installed with Steam.
With its pixel art look, Aseprite is quite extensive when it comes to Tools, layering and creating frames, making it great for creating items and characters, backgrounds and animations. Although there are options with better-suited tools for creating and editing tilesets, Aseprite can still be used.
Nice-to-have drawing features include the freehand pixel-perfect option, mirroring, text, pixel-friendly deforming tools and create a brush from selection option. While the pixel-perfect option is enabled, regular fonts are turned into pixelated fonts (sort of).
Layers can be blended, and the entire colour palette, or single colours, can be shifted by brightness/contrast, hue/saturation and/or colour curve. For animations, onion skinning settings are available.
Aseprite saves files as
.aseprite files (which are both the same). Sprite sheets can also be saved or exported to various other file formats including PNG, JPG, SVG, GIF, ICO and BMP. When it comes to integration, Aseprite files can be imported into Unity (without converting to traditional image files). Upscaling is a breeze with Aseprite.
Aseprite is a wonderful program for creating pixel art. Steam users award Aseprite with a ~99% Positive rating. The default layout of Aseprite makes sense and feels good, making it easy to get started with and fun. Aseprite is extensively covered in various online tutorials and is almost always the used program in pixel art tutorials.
Unfortunately, Aseprite is not free. It needs to be purchased (usually U$19.99) from their website or from Steam. On Steam the purchase price of Aseprite is more in line with regional differences and special offers are available from time to time.
An Aseprite trial version is available. The trial version does not allow files to be saved.
Second on the list of popular programs for creating pixel art is GraphicsGale — an “easy to use, animation graphic editor” that is a “powerful tool for spriting and pixel art”. The GraphicsGale download page offers an Install Version and a Portable Version, both for Windows computers only.
As of 18 June 2017, Graphics Gale is freeware.
At first glance, the layout of GraphicsGale is reminiscent of Windows Paint. The editor offers all the traditional drawing tools for creating pixel art. A nice-to-have tool is the Spline Curve tool (similar to the Pen tool in Photoshop), which is not featured in many of the other pixel art editors on this list. The history list of commands window is also a nice touch.
On the downside, the workflow was hindered because of the lack of keyboard shortcuts, and it took me some time to start drawing.
GraphicsGale offers Layering and Framing, each with a decent set of options. There seem to be no blending options, but colour-shifting options (brightness, contrast, gamma correction and RGB) are available. Onion skinning can also be added when using frames.
GraphicsGale files are saved as
.gal files. Another nice feature is that, on top of the traditional image formats, icon files, cursor files, animated cursor files and AVI files can also be created with GraphicsGale. A workflow for upscaling is possible.
An interesting feature of GraphicsGale is that it has a Portable Version. This version can be installed on a flash drive (USB stick) and used on multiple computers with the same settings. Perfect for those that are on the go.
When it comes to support, documentation and training resources, GraphicsGale is somewhat limited (at least for English speakers). Judging from the ads on the official website, one must be conscious of the possibility that GraphicsGale might have spyware incorporated into their software. There are no visible ads when using the software itself.
Krita is a free, open-source, flexible digital painting/drawing software application that can be configured to draw pixel art. The layout is very similar to Adobe Photoshop, which makes this free alternative worth considering. From the official Krita website, Krita is donationware that is available for Windows (64-bit), macOS and Linux (64-bit).
Being raster-based, Krita does not come with a lot of pixel art-friendly tools by default. Fortunately, the software does support workspaces, layers and animations (including onion skinning). Its work area rotation ability is somewhat unique when compared with the other pixel art programs on this list. On the downside, pixel art brushes (without anti-aliasing) need to be created manually, but dithering brushes can also be created. A workflow for deforming (to keep it pixel-perfect) can also be followed — but might be cumbersome.
Some of Krita’s default tools can be used to create pixel art. The Drawing tools can be used in combination with created pixel art brushes. With these brushes, the Bezier Curve Tool and the Freehand Path tool actually become pretty useful. The Symmetry tools also work well for pixel art and the Fill Tool (with Fast mode enabled) can be used. The pixel grid can also be activated and deactivated and extensive colour palette options are available.
Krita’s selection tools that can be reliably used in pixel art are limited to the Rectangular selection tool and the Color selection tool. The other selection tools automatically used anti-aliasing and can not be used to make clean selections.
Krita’s native file format is
.kra. Created images can be exported to various other formats such as PNG (including the alpha-channel). Layered Adobe Photoshop files (
.PSD) can be opened with Krita. A workflow for upscaling by percentage is possible.
From a support point of view, Krita is fairly well supported by its community. Some extensive professional tutorials are available on platforms such as YouTube and art-specific websites.
Although Krita is somewhat limited with its pixel art-specific tools, it is perfectly capable of creating pixel art characters, backgrounds and animations. Even for Adobe Photoshop users, there might be a bit of a learning curve when using Krita for pixel art. Therefore, Krita is probably more practical to use for pixel art for those that already have it installed, to those who are familiar with its workflow or to those who are looking for a free Adobe Photoshop alternative.
Although Krita is donationware they also have a paid “Store” version available on the Windows Store (only for Windows 10), Epic Store and Steam. With the Store version of Krita you will get automatic updates when new versions of Krita come out and all profits will support Krita development.
Adobe’s Photoshop is well-known to many digital artists. Being more of a photo-realistic/raster image editor, it has many tools, layer functionality, and add-ons. Photoshop is also great for creating 2D animations. Photoshop is available for Windows and MacOS users and has many, many professional tutorials available on the internet — including tutorials for creating pixel art.
Photoshop specialist tools and functionality that are very useful for creating pixel art include blend modes, text tools, selection tools, layers, workspaces, work area rotation and custom brush tips to mention but a few. Remember that anti-aliasing is your enemy when it comes to pixel art, so make sure to deactivate it where applicable.
Photoshop’s native file format is
.PSD. Images can be saved to various other image formats such as PNG (including the alpha-channel), BMP and GIF. A workflow for upscaling images is possible.
The downside of Photoshop for pixel art is that it has a steep learning curve and many tools that will soon get in the way of regular pixel artists. It has no specific workflow for tilesets and mounting tilemaps. Unfortunately, the price tag of Photoshop (at least relative to the other pixel art programs on this list) is also quite steep. They do have a 30-day free trial.
With the right settings, workspace layout, and willingness to learn, Photoshop can be great for pixel artists, especially if you already have it activated on a computer. Many artists consider Photoshop easy to draw with, especially concept sketches and background images. Not the number one choice for pixel art, but certainly worth giving a try if it is available.
Pyxel Edit (beta)
Pyxel Edit is a powerful pixel art-specific tool for creating pixel art and is available for Windows and Mac. With its intuitive interface and wide range of features, it is an excellent choice for artists who want to create high-quality pixel art. One of the best things about Pyxel Edit is its layer-based system. which can also be used with blending modes.
Pyxel Edit also has a range of drawing tools, including a pencil, brush, eraser, and line tool, which allow you to create different types of lines and shapes with ease. You can also adjust the opacity and size of these tools, giving you full control over the look of your art.
In addition to its drawing tools, Pyxel Edit has a range of features that help you to create complex artwork quickly and easily. These include tools for creating tilesets and animations, as well as a colour picker and palette editor that make it easy to choose and manage your colours.
Pyxel Edit’s native file format is
.pyxel. Images can be exported to various other image formats such as PNG (including the alpha-channel), GIF and BMP.
On the downside, Pyxel Edit has no text tools and their documentation website seems to be offline. Although so, it is popular enough to be covered extensively by the Pyxel Edit community in the form of videos and written tutorials.
Pyxel Edit is currently in Beta, so you can grab it for cheaper at around $9 on their website.
Overall, Pyxel Edit is an excellent tool for creating pixel art. Its intuitive interface and range of features make it easy to use, and its ability to export in a variety of formats makes it a versatile tool for artists of all skill levels. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pixel artist, Pyxel Edit is definitely worth checking out.
Piskel App is a popular web-based application specifically made for creating pixel art. It is a simple and user-friendly tool that allows you to create pixel art quickly and easily. One of the best things about Piskel App is that it is free to use, and it can be accessed from any device with an internet connection. Although it is an online App, a downloadable version is also available for Windows, OSX and Linux. The most recent version at the time of writing this post was version 0.14.0.
Piskel App provides a range of drawing tools for creating pixel art, including a pencil, brush, and eraser tool. You can also choose from a variety of shapes and lines, such as rectangles, circles, and straight lines. These tools allow you to create detailed and intricate pixel art, with full control over the size and opacity of each tool.
Piskel App also has a range of features that make it easy to work with your artwork. It has a layer-based system, which allows you to work on different elements of your artwork separately and easily make changes without affecting the rest of the image. Additionally, Piskel App has a range of colour palettes and a colour picker, which make it easy to choose and manage your colours.
Another great feature of Piskel App is its ability to create animations. You can easily create and edit animated pixel art by using its frame-based animation system. This feature allows you to create complex animations with ease, which is perfect for creating game sprites and other animated graphics.
Piskel’s native file format is
.piskel, but Images can also be exported as PNG (including the alpha-channel), BMP and GIF. Files can be saved online with a Piskel account.
Overall, Piskel App is an excellent tool for creating pixel art. Its range of drawing tools, layer-based system, and animation features make it an excellent choice for artists of all skill levels. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pixel artist, Piskel App is definitely worth checking out.
ShoeBox is an Adobe Air based App for Windows and Mac OSX with game and UI-related tools. Each tool uses a drag-and-drop — or clipboard interaction for a quick workflow. Shoebox is a lightweight, free software that allows you to create pixel art. It is a simple and straightforward tool that is perfect for beginners who want to create pixel art quickly and easily.
ShoeBox provides a range of drawing tools for creating pixel art, including a pencil, brush, and eraser tool. You can also choose from a variety of shapes and lines, such as rectangles, circles, and straight lines. These tools allow you to create detailed and intricate pixel art, with full control over the size and opacity of each tool.
ShoeBox also has a range of features that make it easy to work with your artwork. It has a layer-based system, which allows you to work on different elements of your artwork separately and easily make changes without affecting the rest of the image. Additionally, Shoebox has a range of colour palettes and a colour picker, which make it easy to choose and manage colours. Other than its drawing tools, ShoeBox is also popularly used to extract sprites from tilesets and animations.
Another feature of Shoebox is its ability to export your artwork in a variety of formats, including PNG, GIF, and BMP.
Overall, Shoebox is an excellent tool for creating pixel art. Its range of drawing tools, layer-based system, and export features make it an excellent choice for artists of all skill levels. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pixel artist, Shoebox is definitely worth checking out.
Although not the mainstream pixel art editors out there, surely have the tools to put some pixels on a canvas in a way that makes pixel-perfect sense. The honourable mentions for creating pixel art are not something most would consider spending money on, but they are readily available.
Libresprite is fairly identical to Aseprite, but is an open-source project. Aspetire was open source at some time, and, at some point, libresprite branched from it, and remained open source. Libresprite is only for Windows.
Microsoft Paint is a basic image editing software that comes pre-installed on Windows computers, and it can be used for creating pixel art. Despite not being designed specifically for pixel art, Microsoft Paint provides a range of basic drawing tools, including a pencil, brush, and eraser tool, as well as a zoom function, colour picker, and various colour palettes, which are essential for creating pixel art.
Its user-friendly interface and accessibility make it a great option for beginners who want to start creating pixel art without investing in expensive software.
Paint.net is a free, open-source image editing software that can be used for creating pixel art. It provides a range of advanced drawing tools, including a pencil, brush, eraser, and shape tools, as well as a range of layer-based features, which allow you to work on different elements of your artwork separately. Additionally, Paint.net provides a range of colour palettes and a colour picker, which make it easy to choose and manage your colours.
Its advanced features and flexibility make it a great option for both beginners and more experienced pixel artists who want to create intricate and detailed pixel art.
This post listed the programs for creating pixel art on personal computers. The popular ones include Aseprite, GraphicsGale, Krita, Pyxel Edit, Piskel App and ShoeBox. Honourable mentions were also listed.
Use the comment section to add your favourite program for creating pixel art if it is not already mentioned here.