[Note: This guide will teach you how to convert photos into something which might, to the untrained eye, vaguely resemble something similar to pixel art. It will not teach you how to make proper pixel art.
Anything you create using this method will, almost certainly, be unusable in any sprite-based games that you plan to make. The images you make using this technique will probably only be useful for novelty value only. You have been warned.]
Well, a couple of weeks ago, I felt like making some retro pixel art. “How difficult could it be?” I thought.
Still, I thought that I should probably do some research before trying to make this type of art in case there were any major mistakes that I had to avoid. So, I looked on Google and quickly found two excellent guides to making pixel art (which can be found here and here).
Pretty great, right?
Wrong. It quickly became obvious to me that pixel art is actually one of the most difficult art forms to work in. You have to have a very good understanding of colour theory, you have to manually add a whole host of visual effects to your picture (eg: anti-aliasing, dithering etc…) and you need to be a good enough artist to draw a clearly-recognisable character in a 16 x 16 pixel square.
Making real pixel art is a skill and it is a skill which requires a lot of knowledge and probably years of practice in order to get right. Drawing pictures and making watercolour paintings seems like child’s play by comparison.
Still, not wanting to go away from this experience completely empty-handed, I was able to work out a way to turn photos into vaguely realistic-looking fake pixel art using MS Paint (I’m using version 5.1 of MS Paint – because I’m behind the times). And, well, I thought that I’d share it with you.
For this guide, I will be using a photo called “Immaterialization” by Marendo Müller, which was released onto Wikimedia Commons under a
Creative Commons- Public Domain licence (and is therefore free for anyone to use without copyright issues) [Edit (11th May 2020): The image now seems to be released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence].
First of all, you need to make a backup copy of the photo you want to convert into fake “pixel art”, in case the conversion doesn’t work very well. After you’ve made your backup copy, you need to resize your picture in order to make it smaller.
For the purposes of this tutorial, I have shrunk “Immaterialization” to 300×200 pixels – but you should probably make your image smaller than this.
You can either shrink your image in MS Paint by using the “Select” tool and then moving the corners of the selected area or, if you want more precision, you can use another image editing program to resize the image. I resized the image in this tutorial using my (ancient) copy of Paint Shop Pro 6, but most other image editing programs probably have a “resize” feature too.
Once you have a smaller version of your image, you then need to click “Save As” and, when MS Paint asks you which format you wish to save it in, select “256 Color Bitmap” (I’m not sure if this format is supported in modern versions of MS Paint, but it’s certainly there in version 5.1 at least). Once you’ve selected this, a dialogue box which looks like this will appear:
Once you’ve done this, you will be left with a version of your photo which only contains 256 colours. This is important because most old games consoles from the early-mid 1990s and many old arcade cabinets from the same decade could only display 256 colours.
Yes, real pixel art often uses fewer colours than this, but reducing your image to 256 colours will instantly make it look at least slightly retro (although we need to do more than just this to make vaguely convincing fake pixel art). Anyway, your 256 colour photo should look something like this:
Sometimes converting a photo to this format can mess up the colours or make them look surreal.
For example, when I’ve converted some of my own art to this format for animations (to keep the file size down and to allow easy editing between saves), I’ve noticed that pale skin tones can sometimes become a strange shade of pale green (this shade of green can be seen on the front of the woman’s vest in the 256 colour version of “Immaterialization” in this tutorial).
But, if any surreal colours appear in your photo, all you need to do is to use the “Pick Color” tool in MS Paint (the one that looks like a dropper and will change the paintbrush colour to the colour of the pixel that you click on) to click on areas that are the right colour and then use the other drawing/painting tools to smooth out any strangely-coloured areas.
Anyway, now that you’ve got your small 256 colour version of your photo, you need to change the brush colour to black (from the colour menu at the bottom or side of the screen) and select the “pencil” tool or the “line” tool.
Once you’ve done this, you need to zoom in and start drawing thin black outlines around all of the significant parts of the photo [eg: people, buildings, animals, cars, trees etc…]. These lines should only be one pixel wide.
Once you’ve done this, you should end up with something that looks at bit like this:
Now all you have to do is to use MS Paint or, preferably, another image editing program to resize the image again. This time, we’re making the image larger (I increased the size by 300%, but you should probably see what works best for your photo).
After you’ve done this, you will need to save the image as a “.PNG” file (and NOT as a a JPEG, because this will blur your image slightly and ruin the “pixel art” effect.)
You should end up with something that looks like this:
Congratulations! You’ve just made some fake pixel art 🙂
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂