How to create pixelated graphics for video games

The focus of this tutorial is on the technique of coloring based on grayscale tones, on which non-destructive editing techniques are applied to achieve both adding color and adjusting the brightness and contrast of each layer or group of layers. The video covers up to this part. Subsequently, I proceeded with similar principles for the background, using collage and photomontage techniques that I will cover in other tutorials. Additionally, the use of pixelated and blur filters were used to achieve the final effects.
The materials used were the same as for the tutorial of How to draw cartoons in Photoshop (I) .


For the style I wanted to achieve, I blatantly drew on Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, a video game that represented good childhood moments for countless people around the world. This game, when using photographs in large part of the graphics, has a realistic style although the dress and the scenes add a very particular surrealism to the identity of the game. Although the characters represented in the tutorial are from my imagination, I took into account previously mentioned details when choosing skin tones, lighting and stage.

1. Selection of the color range

I started by applying a Black and White Adjustment Layer to the reference image, to obtain a maximum shade of dark and light, from which to color the character on the right (Syrups).
I also added a neutral colored background to have an environment with the right contrast when coloring.

How to create pixelated graphics for video games in Photoshop - Color range

2. Limit the areas of coloring

To limit the area where the color should appear, the simplest is:

  1. Use the magic wand tool (W key)  How to create pixelated graphics for video games in Photoshop - Magic wand, select all layers
  2. Mark the option to select all layers
  3. Click on an area around the figure we want to select.
  4. With this selection active, we invert the selection (Ctrl + Shift + I).
  5. Choosing the loop tool (L) and holding down the Alt + Shift keys, we select around our character to only preserve the new selected portion.
  6. How to create Pixelated graphics for video games in Photoshop - Group mask Finally, with the active selection, we create a layer mask using the corresponding icon at the bottom of the layer panel. </ li>

How to create pixelated graphics for video games in Photoshop -Select colored area

3. Layer separation by tones

To avoid mixing dark and light tones, I used an individual layer for each tone according to its brightness. The three layers created were: one for the shadows, one for the middle tones and one for the highlights. Likewise, I grouped all these layers for each character so that I could work on each one more easily and turn them into an Intelligent Object later.
Some simple ways to create layers and groups:

  • Using the icons in the lower right of the layers panel (see image below)
  • Create layers by pressing Ctrl + Shift + N.
  • Create groups by selecting multiple layers (holding down the Ctrl or Shift key) and pressing Ctrl + G.

How create pixelated graphics for video games in Photoshop - New layer and group

4. Alternative coloring technique with overexposure and underexposure tools

For the second character (Old Bear) I used another technique, not as accurate as for the first, but that is faster and somewhat more natural. It involves the use of overexposure and underexposure tools (O key). The first will clarify the tones in the same way as the layer blending mode that bears the same name. For the opposite action of darkening, the complementary tool is that of underexposing color. The exposure percentage, visible on the top tool panel, controls the intensity of the action. An additional tool that allows to easily obtain intermediate tones, is the one of blurred (adjacent to the one of overexposure) and is useful so much for this technique as for the previous one.

How to create pixelated graphics for video games in Photoshop - Overexposure tool

5. Final Details

Once the characters were colored, I created the background image from a collage of images, which I edited and adapted to the context of this video game. This step is completely optional and it may be enough to obtain a ready-made background image. The pixelated effect, characteristic of these videogames of the last century, I achieved by applying the Pixelated filter & gt; Mosaic and choosing a cell size of 4 pixels. Et voila!


How to create pixelated graphics for video games in Photoshop - Final

In this tutorial we have approached a somewhat advanced process of colouring and non-destructive editing, applying techniques and principles of the professional illustration process. And we’ve gone back a few years in the past to give new life to a deadly fun classic video game.


If you wish, you can practice from the base of the original available .psd here .

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