Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My First Pixel Art Painting

Here is the final result. See below for a walkthrough of making this painting.


  • Measures 22"x28"

  • All colors are mixed except Mars Black and Titanium White

  • Completed off and on throughout the month of September and in the first week of October.

  • Each "pixel" is 0.5" square

  • Painted with acrylics

On an occasional basis I run across someone making some piece of art, reminiscent of classic 8 or 16-bit gaming. I always love seeing them, whether they're made out of paper scraps, colored magnets, or paints. But one day it clicked: why the hell haven't you done one of these?

Inspiration struck. I had a big canvas sitting at home, waiting to be painted on. I had purchased it 5+ years ago at a BigLots for few bucks. I originally drew a design to paint, and never got off my butt to do it. I no longer liked the design, and couldn't think of a better thing to paint. But what should be the subject?

Seeing as how Super Mario World is my favorite game of all time, I opted for a scene from it. With the canvas measuring about 22x28 inches, I didn't want to paint the "pixels" smaller than a half inch each, and after some soul searching I found my subject and arrangement. It was a perfect fit.

Prepping the canvas

First thing to do was clear out all the pencil drawing which was already there. I layed down a few layers of gesso until I couldn't see the original pencil marks very well.

Then came the meticulous task of drawing a grid across the whole canvas. There were a lot of crooked lines, and there are a number of non-square pixels in the painting, but they are hidden better after painting.

After creating the grid, I did another thin layer of gesso to be sure the pencil wouldn't smudge. I then drew out the basic outline of the character, with a focus on which pixels would then be black.

Attacking the Background

After that it was on to the background. You can see I took up most of the butcher pan to mix the background green.

For those who don't paint, the pan is a simple metal pan for mixing with a palette knife, with all the sample colors sitting on a damp paper towel to help them dry slower. Simple stuff.

The Right Tools

At this point I am a few days/sessions in. I had done a lot of the earlier work during the daytime with plenty of daylight, but later moved a nice lamp from the living room. My lovely wife took notice of this and went and bought me a new desk lamp.

I used to have a 2 lamp setup back in the college days, which is VERY useful for both painting and sculpture, but have given the lamps away since then. It was so nice of her to get the lamp for me, and it made my life so much easier. Plus it is very flexible and doesn't get hot to the touch. Good deal. Viva Ikea.

Only bad thing was the light showed me all of my mistakes I had missed in the simpler light. I then had to re-mix the right shade of green and do touch-ups to a large number of areas. This had a huge impact on me, and I made sure to mix plenty of paint and do it right for every color I was to lay down from here on out.

If you look close you can see a splotch of brown at the base of Yoshi's foot. I hadn't realized until after I started painting that I had no Mars Black. I tried mixing some colors to see if I could get something dark enough to pass as a base, but quickly opted against it. I went and bought some new paints the next day.

Going Black

The black pixels seemed like a great anchor to be able to count and measure all the other pixels from. Knowing this I painted in all of the black pixels

Going for Yoshi

Yoshi seemed like the next best thing to hit. I purchased a lime green tube of paint to require less unique mixing with my phthalo and hooker's green. A touch of raw sienna and a hint of titanium white and he was good to go.

I got through Yoshi faster than I had originally anticipated. I figured I would start some other night, but then I dove in and was done with it fairly swiftly. I was also surprised to not see much aliasing in his colors, and how orange the cinch of his saddle is.

Here you can get a pretty good sense that this is an acrylic painting. I didn't mix any kind of matte medium so the paint is thick and fairly glossy. Personally I love seeing the brushstrokes and thicker sections of the piece from up close, it gives it a lot of character.

Wait, that's not Yoshi's Saddle?

I was shocked to learn, after completing the painting, that the big orange object in the dead center of Yoshi IS HIS ARM! I have no idea why his arm is orange, but nonetheless, it is orange. A small part of me feels like my childhood has been ripped to shreds. I was tempted to take a blade to the thing and destroy it, but I held back the urge... for now.

Process Discovery

On occasion my unsteady hands were creating sloppy results. I tried my hardest to be careful, not wanting to re-mix paint, but then decided to allow myself to bleed the brush into the areas with black or white. Because I wasn't mixing those colors, I didn't need to be as meticulous, and could go back over the sections later. This allowed me to work a little faster and ease my brain a bit.

Looking back it seems like a no brainer.

Full Setup

Here you can see the arrangement I have been working with. I always had the laptop off to the side to match colors and count pixels. I almost knocked my water cup into the laptop only ONCE.

You can also see the outline of Mario, which I was surprised to find was a very dark red, and his glove.

The Cape and Nose

Another shocking thing I learned while making this, most of the cape has the same color pink as the bottom of Mario's nose. The whole time I was painting the pink on the cape, I thought it looked odd and I was doing it wrong. But I kept going, and after taking a step back noticed that it finally felt right.

And upon further inspection, the pink I had used was far too saturated. So when I mixed the pink for the cape, I went back over the nose, hence the sloppy bleed into the mustache.


Saving the red for last was a choice, and a somewhat stupid one.

A little background: I am always the biggest proponent for proofing colors when making art which is either going to get printed or put onto a TV.

Here is an example of proofing. On the left is the Mario image pulled straight from the game rom snapshot on a pc. Running it through the proof feature of Photoshop (ctrl y) displays the colors as they would appear in their final medium, in this case NTSC TV.

I first noticed when I was mixing the red, and it wasn't very red, but more pink. I opted to fake the colors a bit and pump the red a touch. In the end I think the red I ended up with was a great result.

Final Touches

And finally I went back over the sloppy overlap with the mars black paint. I tried using a bit of drafting tape at first, but it wasn't keeping the paint out very well, so I went back with a steady hand to finish the job.

It's a me

Everyone I was showing pictures to thought the painting was quite small. So I had someone take a picture of me next to the piece to show the scale. I was quite happy to have a picture taken of me.

The End

Thanks for reading. I hope it wasn't too wordy. And if you have any questions about the process, or anything else, please feel free to contact me.

Up next... either Super Metroid, or chibi Ken from Puzzle Fighter.

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