Pixel Art & Dithering

For the pixel art illustration, I use a very limited pallet made up of three 'colors'; light gray, dark gray, and black.
By using a limited palette, I am forced to make use of dithering.

Dithering is used to create the illusion of color depth in images with a limited amount of colors.
By using the available colors and mixing them, in-between colors are mimicked. Depending on the lack of available colors, dithering becomes visible as grain.
Dithering takes advantage of the human eye's tendency to mix colors in close proximity to one another.

detail of pixel art dithering example
Detail of pixel art dithering example

If you want to save a picture of a photograph as a GIF, you would probably need to use dithering.
A picture of a photograph has a lot of different colors and gradations, whereas the GIF file format only supports a limited amount of colors, 256 at most. The computer will use the 256 most frequent colors; the remaining colors will be approximated by combining the same 256 colors.


Dither Types

You can choose between several types of dithering, each type having it own specific characteristics.
In general, two types of dithering are used: dithering with a pattern that is repeated, and dithering which tends to avoid repetitive patterns.

Adobe Photoshop offers three options for dithering; diffusion, pattern, and noise (see image).
Select the file format GIF (JPG and PNG don't have a limited palette so dithering is not relevant). Choose 'File' > 'Save for Web & Devices...' (or ALT + F > ALT + SHIFT + CTRL + S) in Adobe Photoshop (see image).

dithering types; diffusion, pattern, noise
Dithering types; diffusion, pattern, noise

'Noise' is the most preferable choice because this type of dithering results in the least amount of regular, i.e. visually annoying, patterns.

The next example shows the workflow of a simple pixel art illustration with the help of the dithering option in Adobe Photoshop. Most of the time dithering is done by hand, since most areas that have to be dithered are irregularly shaped.


lady liberty pixel art illustration
Lady Liberty

In Adobe Photoshop, a grayscale gradient is drawn and exported as a four color GIF image. The result is an image with four gray colors; black, dark gray, light gray, and white.

The background of the pixel art illustration is a repeating cross-shape pattern. The pattern is drawn separately in one color. The pixel pattern is used as a mask; the black pixels are cut out and the white pixels remain white. The dithered gradient is positioned underneath the mask, so that the dithered gradient becomes visible at the places where the black pixels are cut out.
The dithered background is finished.

The Lady Liberty illustration is drawn. Once the illustration is finished a two-pixels thick, red outline is drawn around the illustration.
The red outline is removed in the pixel art illustration. By using an outline, the contrast between foreground and background in the final illustration is increased, giving the illustration a more vivid look.

After drawing a small label with the text 'www.drububu.com', all separate illustrations can be combined.
The illustration with Lady Liberty is carefully positioned over the dithered background. Once Lady Liberty is positioned right, the label is positioned on top of Lady Liberty.
The last thing that has to be done is the removal of the red outline. If you choose to preserve the layers in Adobe Photoshop, the red pixels have to be colored white, or the red pixels can be removed if you choose to flatten the illustration.

Symmetry and Chaos

For dithering, choose either patterns which repeat, or completely chaotic positioned pixels.
Your brain is very capable of detecting small differences in a chaotic or repeating pattern; your eyes will be attracted to these areas (see image).

dither patterns
Dither patterns
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