Well, although I’ve already written a (slightly old) guide to painting realistic landscapes in MS Paint 5.1, I found myself experimenting with it again.
If you’ve had a bit of art practice, you can produce some absolutely amazing artwork with this simple program, and it isn’t anywhere near as difficult as it might look. However, I should warn you, it is much more time-consuming than it looks (eg: expect to spend at least 1-2 hours on a small 400 x 500 pixel drawing).
So, if you’ve still got an old Windows XP machine lying around (and you really should, they’re awesome), then take a look at it’s “Paint” program. Yes, it is more primitive than the later versions of MS Paint that have appeared in Windows 7 and 10, but this is one of it’s strengths! It is a simple no-nonsense image editor that – with practice – can be used to produce better art than you might think. Here’s a detail from of one of my recent MS Paint 5.1 creations:
Anyway, I thought that I’d offer a few random tips and new techniques that I’ve learnt during my brief return to this artform again. Apologies about the slightly rambling nature of the list, I’m a little exhausted after spending the past two hours or so in MS Paint.
1) Keep it small!: MS Paint 5.1 is not built for large, sweeping landscape paintings. If you want to make a painting in any reasonable amount of time, then keep it small!
Not only will this allow you to use a few time-saving impressionist tricks to keep the time spent on distant detail down to a sensible amount but, more critically, it also allows you to keep a small copy of the reference photograph that you’re copying in sight at all times (and, yes, your MS Paint artwork should be the exact same size as this small copy. It makes working out proportions a lot easier).
Another good thing about keeping your MS Paint 5.1 artwork small is that it also makes it look more realistic too. Since individual pixels tend to be more visible in older versions of MS Paint, keeping the image small means that the audience is already “looking at it from a distance” and can take in the whole picture at once, making any individual pixels a little less noticeable.
2) Save it as a bitmap: I cannot emphasise this enough! Remember to save the picture as a 24-bit Bitmap (.bmp) whilst you are actually working on it! Do not save it as a JPEG! Yes, bitmap images guzzle up a lot of hard drive space, but MS Paint 5.1 is primarily designed for working with bitmaps.
If you save your only “work in progress” copy of your picture as a JPEG, then the program’s extremely aggressive compression algorithms (which are great for reducing the file sizes of digital photos, by the way) not only distort or dull the colours in a few specific circumstances – but will also leave lots of annoying barely-visible compression artefacts that can make using the program’s “fill” tool an absolute hassle. Seriously, if you’re used to the more generous/forgiving fill tools in other image editors, then the one in MS Paint 5.1 will seem very annoying if you’re working with a JPEG image.
So, when you’re actually making your MS Paint artwork, always save it as a bitmap! If you want to post it on the internet or send it to other people, then make a separate JPEG copy (using “save as”) after you have finished making your painting.
3) Background first: This one isn’t essential and it is something I’ve only really started doing recently (and I used a completely different approach in the guide I posted here three years ago), but it makes things a lot easier/quicker.
Unlike traditional drawings (where it is best to sketch and fill in the foreground detail before focusing on the background), it will save you so much time if you start your MS Paint artwork from the background and then work forwards.
Since MS Paint includes things like fill tools and airbrushes, it is actually a lot quicker to add the broad, sweeping background details first and then focus on the more detailed foreground elements afterwards.
4) Useful features: When painting a realistic landscape in MS Paint 5.1, there are two features you need to be aware of – since you’ll be using them a lot.
The first is the “pick color” tool – the icon for this looks like a pipette/dropper and, when used, it will change the brush colour to the exact same colour as the pixel you have clicked on. One of the most important parts of making a digital landscape painting look realistic is getting the colours right and, if you keep a small copy of your reference image next to your painting, then you’ll easily be able to sample the correct colours from it with this tool.
Another useful feature is actually an undocumented one. If you need to fill in large areas with the airbrush tool, then it will actually go larger than the three pre-set options available. All you have to do is to select the airbrush tool (the icon looks like a spray can), hold down the “Ctrl” key and then keep tapping the ” + ” key until the airbrush is the correct size. You’ll know that this is working when the highlighting disappears from the size menu at the side of the screen.
Interestingly, there are also several settings between the three pre-set sizes (eg: If you highlight the smallest one and then hold “Ctrl” and start tapping the “plus” key, then the highlighting will disappear for the first couple of button presses, but then briefly re-appear on the “medium” setting on the next one). This is well worth playing around with, since it also makes the airbrush a bit softer and more diffuse at larger settings, which can be really useful when painting skies, especially since it can also be used for…
5) Dithering: This is a really old pixel art technique that turns up in a lot of retro videogames. It is used to create smooth gradients and transitions between colours (and realistic-looking shadows).
When you have two areas of different colours meeting each other, then select the “pencil” tool and add a few random dots of one colour to the area just behind the edge of the other one (and use the “zoom” tool to do this precisely). These dots break up the stark line between the two areas and, from a distance, give the impression of a smooth transition or gradient between the two areas.
It looks a bit like this:
Even doing fairly basic dithering can really add a lot of smoothness to your MS Paint 5.1 artwork and help to avoid the slightly angular, abrupt and “pixellated” look that is often associated with MS Paint artwork.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂