Imperfect Palettes to create more personal pixel art.


When doing figurative art, we tend to follow some basic codes to define nature- leaves are green, soil is brown, sand is yellow, water is blue etc. Most people will recognize a blue patch as a water body, a brownish stub with a green cloud as a tree and so forth. This quick recognition is used in pixel art to express a lot with little.

In these examples, we can see how different artists were using their palettes in the 16 bits era to represent similar environments. The hues and saturation might vary a little, but the expression of these various objects remained mostly the same from one game to the other.

I’ve been playing around limited color palettes for the last few years. I found my most interesting results came from using ‘defective’ ones. Usually, limited color palette seek to give the artist the opportunity to express most natural elements that would be used in a game, allowing smooth ramps for rendering lighting and volume and recognizable objects.

What I am proposing is using ‘defective’ palettes that are generated by converting a picture or group of pictures to a lower-count color table. The pictures used would be illustrating a similar theme. So as an example, let’s say I want to make a platformer, about a character trying to escape a castle with traps. I want the game to represent old 1950’s horror movies. So first, I start collecting movie posters from this era and collage them together in a big window (I am using photoshop for this). I try to get a good sampling of what these posters generally looked like colorwise.

Then I change image mode to indexed color (image->mode->indexed color). Using these settings, I go down to 16 colors. Looking at the color table, I’m satisfied that this palette is kind of broken, with little to no ramping opportunity, no greens, and two very brightly saturated indexes. This will be perfect.

Using Pyxel Edit (which is the best pixel editing software out there in my opinion), I load the palette from the photoshop image and I start working. It works fairly well for castle bricks and having some depth to the background, so I test it for outside level tiles. For the outside portion, since I have no greens I have to resort to using the greenish blue to make my trees, but if I want an impression of distance in my tileset, I need the blues to make foggy distant objects. My solution is to use the darker gray I used on the castle bricks, mixed with some brown patches. Overlaying the paler blue, it gives the impression of a dark green, while inside the dungeon it becomes dark grey. I resort to outlining the player, even though it makes it flatter, for better readability on any tile, using the brightest colors for the traps.

Let’s try the same game, a platformer about escaping a castle with traps. But this time, let’s use some cyberpunkish posters/book covers from the 1980’s as a color base. This time, the color table is horrible, no smooth ramp, a lot of extremes (again no green).

I have no choice but to paint in large flat zones. The main character can no longer be a shiny blond girl, this time the skin tones are really limited and I choose to use the yellowish beige with an orange jumpsuit.Cold blues are used to give some depth to the first part of the background as I imagine it being some kind of sinister assembly line. Then a brightly lit office type tileset with shiny boxes to climb on. Then a window on the outside, this time using the darker red and bright yellow to make buildings. Then I use the closest thing to a ramp with the desaturated violets to make a sky that could potentially scroll slowly.

The trick here is to use colors to define depth instead of material. Lighter colors are brought to the front with a dark background and dark colors are brought forward by light backgrounds. You can juggle between the two to create a lot of depth, even with limited color palettes. If you don’t have ramping colors, better to have a lot of very flat surfaces. Avoid the single floating pixel, especially with a lot of contrast.

Working with restrictions forces you to be more creative, whether it’s a limited color palette, limited colors by sprites, sprite size, tile maximum per tileset, etc. Using limited color palettes and a small tile size will also have the added benefit of speeding up your work a lot since there is little point in over-rendering everything, getting better results in using an impressionistic approach.

Now you try and experiment with awful palettes, maybe find some universes you didn’t know you had in you.