Drawing a Retro Sci Fi Pixel Art Scene in Hexels

By Mark Knight

Hexels gives you the flexibility to create awesome pixel art using dedicated pixel modes, shape tools and a host of other fantastic features. In this article, we’ll go over some of the primary features that made this piece possible.

A Basic Breakdown

The Pixel Trixels 256p template is a good preset to demonstrate differences between the vector and pixel document modes.

The Document tab is located on the right (circled). It contains settings for the canvas and can be changed to suit. Let’s take a closer look at the current template settings.

The Canvas is set to Pixel Mode and the Size is 256×256 pixels.

Below the Document tab is the Layers tab. There are two types of layers: a Vector Layer (indicated with a triangle symbol on its thumbnail) and a Pixel Layer (indicated with a pixel symbol on its thumbnail).

When drawing on a vector layer, notice what happens when switching from Vector Mode to Pixel Mode. The trixel is converted to pixels with stair-step edges.

The change in pixel resolution can be adjusted by raising and lowering the Hexel Resolution value. Notice the change in pixel count for Hexel Size and Final Image.

It is important to note that adjustable pixel resolutions, like the examples above, only apply to vector layers.

Complex Shapes Made Easy

Let’s create the astronaut scene using the same template. The image is comprised entirely of pixel layers and the Super Shape tool (L) was used to create other-worldly rock formations.

The scene is made up of several pentagon shapes. The addition of the Super Shape tool (L) to Hexels 3.1 can be accessed via the shape tools rollout.

The Super Shape tool can be used to draw different types of shapes in isometric view. The top toolbar allows you to choose your shape, change the number of sides and change the width of the outline. For the pentagon shape, the numerical input is set to 5. Select two points on the canvas and drag the shape out to draw pentagon.

If a shape is already drawn, settings on the toolbar can be changed and the drawn shape will be updated on the fly. The example above displays a live update of an increase in the shape sides from 5 to 19 sides. There are blue draggable control points that can be used to resize and reposition the shape. Pressing Enter commits the final shape.

Finishing touches were added to the pentagon shape using the Line (L) and Fill (G) tools.

The pentagonal columns were created with the ‘filled’ box checked on the top toolbar. This created a solid shape instead of an outline. The shape was copied/pasted below the original shape and the Line (L) and Fill (G) tools were used to finish the shape.

Putting Things Into Motion

The icosahedron shape was created by dragging a .gif onto the canvas which automatically added 34 frames to the Timeline. I then rotoscoped the imported sequence using the Line tool (L).

To create the animated shadow, I duplicated the icosahedron layer and darkened the image using Layer Properties>Hue Saturation. I repositioned the layer ordering so that the shadow appeared behind the icosahedron and reduced the opacity of the layer. Because the icosahedron layer was duplicated, it retained all of the animation frames, resulting in a fully animated shadow.

A hovering motion was animated using the Layer Transform (T) tool on the icosahedron layer. The image above shows 3 transform positions at key positions along the Timeline. The first and last transform positions are identical to ensure the animation will loop correctly. The red lines are for positional reference only.

The icosahedron is radiating light and illuminating the surrounding pentagonal columns. This was achieved by keyframing the opacity at various points along the track. I created a Subloop for the orb glow layer to loop a smaller section of the track for the entire duration of the animation.

The bubble animations were drawn across 7 frames with a cel left empty between every other cel. Leaving cels empty can help slow down the animation and gives the motion a retro feel. This same technique was used for the astronaut characters and the pool water.

To Recap

Using versatile shape tools with full control over resolution means that complex scenes and objects can be fully realised within Hexels. The potential for isometric art is especially exciting when combined with the elliptical shapes and grid snapping.

Try out these amazing additions to Hexels 3.1 with the 14 day free trial.

Animate Dancing Fellows Using Sub-loops in Hexels

By Mark Knight

Sub-loops are a powerful addition to the Timeline in Hexels 3.1. Each animation track can have its own short sequence of frames repeating throughout an animation sequence.

For this dance-o-rama, I wanted to show an assortment of quirky characters strutting their stuff on the dance floor. The animation would be colourful, lively and have loopable animations of various lengths, also known as sub-looping.

I began with the Pixel Trixels 1080p template, as I’d be primarily working with pixel layers and would only need a single vector layer for the dance floor.

Blocking Things Out

My character animations were blocked out with crisp black outlines and filled in using the Fill Tool (G). I used the Pixel Round Brush found under the brush preset menu.

Switching to Timeline mode, I drew each of the frames with the Onion Skinning icon enabled (circled). Onion skinning displays a ghost image of the previous and next two frames, helping with judging alignment and flow.

Internal linework used the same brush with a size of 5. The final frame count for the character was 36 frames.

Importing a Color Palette

I wanted my scene to have a limited color palette, so I downloaded a 29 color .gpl file. Palette files can be dragged directly onto the Palette tab (Ctrl+3) or imported via the cog (settings) icon at the bottom of the Palette window. Multiple palette types are compatible with Hexels including .hxp and .aco. I simply used the Fill tool (G) to color each of the 36 animation frames.

Planning Animation Length

While creating the shorter character animations, I made sure that loops were divisible by the total frame count. This was only needed if the whole animation is designed to loop seamlessly. In this instance, the total animation length is 36 frames. 36 is divisible by 12, so the 12 frame animation will loop 3 times to match the total runtime.

Creating a Sub-loop

The final frame count for the yellow character track is 12 frames while the boots character track contains 36 frames. The yellow character’s 12 frames need to be sub-looped to remain animated for the entire duration of the animation.

To create a sub-loop, I selected frames 1 through 12 of the yellow layer, right-clicked within the defined area and selected Make Sub-Loop. This added a white outline to the selected frames and now we have a sub-looped animation.

During playback, the animation of the yellow character can be seen to extend beyond its 12 frame limit and loop for the duration of the entire animation.

Creating the Dance Floor

The dance floor was created on a vector layer below the character layers. The black linework was drawn using the Outline tool (O) and the dancefloor squares were colored in using the Fill tool (G).

To animate the dance floor, a second cel was added on the same layer at frame 18. This meant that the dance floor would alternate images at the midpoint of the final animation. By holding Alt while the Fill tool (G) was selected, colors could be sampled and relocated to alternate squares.

The character layers were reintroduced and the opacity value for the dance floor layer was lowered to 0.80 (circled) to help distinguish the dancers from the background.

Framing The Final Piece

The next step was to create a frame to define the area visible in the final exported animation. With the Frame tool (F) selected, I set the Framing option to Fixed Ratio and Pixel Size to 16×9 at the top toolbar. Dragging the corner of the frame bounding box maintains the fixed aspect ratio while positioning.

Export Time!

To export the final animation as a .gif, I went to File > Export Animation. The Animation Options window appears and I’ve set the First Frame value to 1 and Last Frame value to 36. I chose Animated GIF and hit OK. The Export window is displayed, which allows for a custom export size. I changed the Width value to 1020 and the Height value changed automatically to maintain the current aspect ratio. Clicking OK begins the rendering process and the export is complete.

To Conclude

Hexels’ sub-looping feature is an efficient way to loop individual animation tracks within a larger animation. Create your own multi-layered dance battle animations using the 14-day trial of Hexels.

Toolbag Artist Highlight | Ep. 178

Check out a curated selection of 3D renders by the Toolbag community.

  1. ArtVostok Studio created a fantastic real-time character entitled Jagre the Headhunter.
  2. Hans Kristian Andersen forged a character inspired by the inhabitants of the Dishonored universe.
  3. Orlando Jones crafted a render of a Pentax K1000.
  4. Jonfer Maia developed a stylized character based on Joe Madureira’s work and inspired by the Darksiders franchise.

Thanks for checking out the latest featured artwork rendered in Toolbag. Stay tuned for more next week.

Drawing Rounded Isometric Shapes using Hexels

By Mark Knight

With Hexels 3.1 comes the addition of the Super Shape tool. Developed with full control and isometric drawing in mind, this incredible tool can be used with grid snapping and opens up possibilities that were previously a real Hexels head-scratcher.

Let’s take a quick look at how the Super Shape tool was used to create some of the objects in this isometric breakfast scene.

Setting Up

I painted various tabletop objects using pixel layers and the tablecloth on a vector layer. I was aiming for a high resolution with pixelated edges, so the Pixel Trixels 1080p template was ideal.

Let’s start with the striped mug. I created a new pixel layer and changed my background and grid colors in the Document tab for clarity. I changed the Brush Size and selected the Pixel Square brush from the drop-down brush preset menu.

The Super Shape Tool

The Super Shape tool (L) can be found under the shape tools sub-menu on the left toolbar.

Holding Shift while drawing an Ellipse snaps the cursor to the grid. I clicked once and moved the cursor 5 trixels along the Z axis. This initial trixel line is the ellipse diameter. Before my second mouse click, I held down the Alt key to change the diameter line into the radius, doubling the diameter length. I performed the second mouse click and expanded the visible ellipse 5 trixels along the X axis before clicked again. The ellipse has blue control points that allow you to resize, move or scale the shape before committing. Pressing Enter confirms the shape.

Snapping Things into Place

Using the Marquee Select tool (S), I copied and pasted the lower half of the ellipse seven times while holding shift to align each selection vertically. I positioned each curve at 2 trixel intervals.

I switched to the Line tool (L) and added edges to the mug. Holding down Shift snaps the lines to the grid.

Returning to the Super Shape tool (L), I dragged a diameter horizontally and held down Alt to expand the ellipse vertically from the diameter center.

Creating the Coffee Mug

Using the Line tool (L) and Shift key grid snap, I created reference points for the mug handle ellipses. Clicking each of the two corresponding reference points, I dragged out the ellipse and deleted any unwanted areas with Marquee Select (S) and Backspace. I capped off the ends of the shape with the Line tool (L) and used the Fill tool (G) to fill the shape.

I used the Fill tool (G) to color the stripes around the mug.

To create the coffee, I duplicated the ‘mug’ layer and deleted all but the mug interior from the new layer. I used the Fill tool (F) to color the interior brown and re-positioned the selection slightly lower on the canvas. Reverting to the ‘mug’ layer, I re-selected the mug interior with the Magic Wand tool (S) and inverted the selection (Ctrl+Shift+I). I switched back to the new layer and used the Backspace key to delete the negative selection.

I drew a thick black line on a new layer and reduced the opacity for the shadow of the handle. The next step was to round off the handle ends. Using the Poly Select tool (S), I clicked multiple position points to create the curved edge of the handle. I closed my selection by double-clicking and pressed the Backspace key to delete.

The next step was to round off the handle ends. Using the Poly Select tool (S), I clicked multiple position points to create the curved edge of the handle. Once again, I closed my selection by double-clicking and pressed the Backspace key to delete.

Super Simple Torus

The techniques used to create the mug were utilized to create the other curved items in the scene. The following section is a brief overview of some of the other shapes found in the Super Shape tool (L).

The cereal hoops required a torus looking shape. I used the Super Shape tool (L) to draw circles and increased the Line width to 12 while holding down Shift for grid snapping to create even 2×2 hoops on a pixel layer.

The half apple seen here can be broken down into three elliptical elements. The unwanted apple circumference and the interior ellipse overlap areas were erased. The Fill tool (G) was used to color the apple and the remaining details were drawn freehand on a pixel layer.

The Grand Finale

The shape tools introduced in Hexels 3.1 make drawing in isometric perspective very easy and incredibly fun. The flexibility of changing shapes and sizes on the fly allows for fearless creation and experimentation. Build your own geometric breakfast using the free 14-day trial of Hexels.

Toolbag Artist Highlight | Ep. 177

Start off your week with a top-notch set of 3D art rendered in Toolbag.

  1. William Paré-Jobin assembled a fantastic render of his real-time character based on The Witcher.
  2. Peter Boehme forged a terrifying tooth fairy.
  3. John Teodoro created a lovely stylized house.
  4. Helga Sergunina crafted an energetic octopus for Artstation’s Beneath The Waves challenge.

Thanks for checking out the latest featured artwork rendered in Toolbag. Stay tuned for more next week.

Marmoset Toolbag | GDC 2018 Showcase

We’re proud to present the latest edition of our GDC Showcase series. We’ve collaborated with some of the industry’s best artists to bring you a selection of sublime scenes rendered in Toolbag.

We would like to extend a very special thank you to the exceptionally talented artists who contributed to this video.

Artist Credits

Miscellaneous scene setup, lighting, and video production by Joe Wilson and Mira Karouta.


  • Retro Wave – TheStockBoy