How to Make Pixel Art in GIMP

If you’ve ever played any old video games, you’re probably already familiar with pixel art. But even in more modern times, games like Stardew Valley and Terraria have shown that the 8-bit art style still maintains a certain charm. 

In this context, 8-bit refers to the color depth of the images. The more bits you use for storing color information, the more complex your colors can be, although pixel art is no longer automatically limited to an extremely basic color palette the way it was on old gaming consoles.

Even though GIMP is typically used for photo editing, it’s also flexible enough to be used for making pixel art. 

In order to save yourself a lot of time and frustration, I’ve compiled a few essential tips on which tools are best to use, how to configure your workspace to save time, and how to save and export your files when your pixelated masterpiece is complete. 

Creating Files For Pixel Art In GIMP

I’m assuming you want to create some new pixel art from scratch, so the first thing to do is open GIMP and create a new file to work in by opening the File menu and choosing New

I’ve chosen 32 x 32, but you can set it to anything you want

Most pixel art pieces tend to be fairly small and square, although you can choose any size you want. As you can see above, I’ve set mine to a 32-pixel square. It’s probably best to keep things simple for your first pixel art project in GIMP, but it’s up to you. 

My previously-used PPI setting was 72, but you can adjust this later without negatively impacting your image in any way, so don’t worry about it for now. 

Click OK, and let’s move on to the next tip.

Setting Up Your Workspace For Pixel Art

GIMP will create your image, but you’ll see immediately that there’s a bit of an issue – everything is too small to work on!

Uhh, GIMP? I know this is what I asked for, but…

You’ll need to zoom in dramatically to be able to draw your pixel art, probably to an extremely high level such as 800% or even 1600% in some cases. 

Yet even when you’re zoomed in very far, you’re still working on a blank white canvas. To make things easier, GIMP provides an overlay grid option that can be totally customized. First, turn the grid on by opening the Edit menu and enabling the Show Grid option. 

The default settings create a 10-pixel grid, and that’s not quite detailed enough for what we need.

To customize the grid, open the Image menu and choose Configure Grid.

I don’t know why the Show Grid and Configure Grid options should be in different menus…

In the Spacing section, change both the Horizontal and Vertical pixel settings to 1.00. The second row allows you to define using a different unit of measure, but we only care about pixels at the moment. 

You can also customize the color and the line style of the grid pattern if you want to make it a bit less noticeable but still visible. 

This grid is matched to the size of each pixel, displaying at 2300% zoom

Once you’re happy, click OK and the grid will update. You’re ready to start drawing!

The Best Tools for Pixel Art in GIMP

GIMP has impressive brush-based tools, but they look so good because they use a number of techniques such as antialiasing and interpolation over large pixel areas to create the illusion of smooth curves and fuzzy edges – but we can’t use any of those techniques in pixel art! 

Well, I mean, we could, but it sort of defeats the purpose of the pixel art style – and it might not wind up technically compatible if you’re creating your pixel art for use in games or other projects that demand specific image formatting. 

Time to break out the digital pencil

Instead of using fancy tools, we’re going to go old-school with the Pencil tool. It’s nested under the Paintbrush tool in the toolbox, or you can use the keyboard shortcut N. The Pencil tool is useful because it doesn’t have any antialiasing or other brush dynamics that could interfere with your pixel grid.

This chicken is absolutely from Stardew Valley, and not my original work!

To start drawing, change your brush size to 1 pixel and choose your color. As you start drawing, you’ll see that the Pencil tool’s strokes match your overlay grid perfectly. 

If they don’t, something’s gone wrong and you should revisit the previous section on setting up your workspace. 

It can be hard to get a sense of how your pixel art will look when finished if you’re zoomed in too far. Be sure to master your zoom keyboard shortcuts so that you can quickly change between zoom levels:

  • Hold the Ctrl key and spin your mouse wheel to zoom in and out (use the Command key on a Mac)
  • Use the + and keys on your keyboard to zoom in and out
  • Use the number keys 1-5 to rapidly jump between zoom levels
Zoomed back out to 400% and it looks ready to go

When zoomed out a bit and with the grid, overlay turned off, I can finally tell if the chicken is fully cooked or not. 

How to Export Your GIMP Pixel Art Properly

JPEG is the most popular image format at the moment, but it’s a lossy format, and saving your pixel art in the JPEG format will change its colors and quite possibly ruin it. In order to keep your pixel art looking as crisp as the second you finished it, it’s important to export your image file in a lossless format.

Use the PNG format or the GIF format for proper indexing of your color palette. Both of these are lossless formats that also support transparency, which makes them the perfect choice. 

Before exporting, let’s save a copy of your work (although you already should have been saving along the way!). Open the File menu and choose Save As, and save your file using the default XCF format that GIMP uses. 

Now that it’s safe, it’s time to export it as a final image in your chosen format. Open the File menu again, but choose Export As this time. 

Make sure the As animation setting is disabled!

Finalize your settings, and you’re done!

A Final Word

Pixel art can be a real artistic challenge, even for artists who are experts in more traditional media, and even those who already know GIMP well. Selecting what areas of your image to simplify and how to represent them properly using only a few colored squares can give you a whole new perspective on drawing.

Happy pixelating!

About Thomas Boldt
I’ve been working with digital images since the year 2000 or so, when I got my first digital camera. I've tried many image editing programs. GIMP is a free and powerful software, but not exactly user-friendly until you get comfortable with it, and I wanted to make the learning process easier for you here.

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  • Cody Green

    Thank you for this article, it is very helpful!
    I would love to see more tutorials on pixel art, I am particularly interested in developing images and sprites for PC games.
    Again, thank you and please be well friend!
    Reagrds,
    Cody

    Reply
    • Thomas Boldt

      Hi Cody, I’m glad you found the article helpful! I’ll talk to the other members of the team about creating more pixel art content =)

      Reply