I’ve been scouting for pixel art software that would hold my hand and make everything ok. I’m one of those people who know what they want from a piece of art when they see it, but have little talent in creating. It all goes back to 1987 when my art teacher accused me of spreading rumors about her having some statutory lesbian crush on me. I was 12 years old. (What the f*ck was that all about?! My adult self is still mind blown.) So I got lower grades than I actually deserved, and I stopped drawing altogether because no amount of effort made a difference in her class. I was stupid. Visual art is essential. The earlier a young creative learns to draw, the better. I was completely unaware of this, which resulted in a ginormous waste of potential. I twiddled my thumbs for the remainder of that year, underperformed as best as I could, and steered clear of anything art. Fast forward to 2017, the year I resolved to roll up my sleeves and kickstart my point-and-click adventure game. Anyone familiar with the genre knows that it is heavily art-based. I need a miracle.
Enter Hexels 2 ($38) from Marmoset LLC. Five minutes into the demo I was crying tears of joy. Could it be true?! Is it really possible to finally make isometric and regular pixel art despite my obvious limitations? FYI, pixel art looks easy, but it’s not. I’ve tried a bunch of apps on the iPad Pro, with an Apple Pencil to boot. But keyboard shortcuts are life. In game dev, one would typically make hundreds of art pieces that end up being thrown together in Photoshop or straight into your game dev software of choice. This is why I had to abandon Pixaki, Procreate, and Assembly on iOS, despite some success in drawing basic 8-bitish characters. The pencil’s travel from pixel to tool panel made the process too tedious. Sans pencil, the experience felt clumsy.
Other than that, I’m unnaturally intimidated by perspective, light, and the human form. Good thing I’m pretty good at reverse engineering. I could take a finished piece of art, break it down to its core components, and painstakingly imitate. That’s how I learn to do most things.
Back to Hexels. It wasn’t exactly JUST a pixel art app when I downloaded the demo 14 days ago. From the Marmoset website, Hexels is described as “an intuitive 2D, grid-based painting tool enabling you to effortlessly create brilliant works of art.” If I’m not mistaken, it’s actually a vector drawing app that lets you fill in trixels on a grid.
This app brought joy to my heart. Except that it kept crashing on my 2015 Macbook Pro every time I zoomed in too fast. I’d normally just throw in the towel and look for something that worked, but I fell in love with it pretty fast. Updating OSX from 10.12.4 to 10.12.5 fixed my problem. Nevertheless, the developer sent me a beta version of Hexels 2.59 to test. Wow. This version had a slew of killer new features, starting with the awesome, awesome pixel mode.
Keyboard shortcuts were very easy to pick up: B for brush, L for line, I for eye dropper, S for select, G for paint bucket, and so on. I felt like a power user in no time. Then there are Hexels works out there that are so inspiring you’d start to think you could actually conquer this thing… this one thing that’s always stood between you and world domination. If you’re feeling a little hopeless, go spend your day watching Mark Knight’s Hexels speed painting videos at 25%. Do it. Do it now. You’re welcome.
Despite a lack of instructional videos on Hexels, Mark Knight’s videos are a boon when you’re trying to learn both pixel art technique, and Hexels hacks. I also pored over Deniella Zeman’s beautifully shaded art, and Mira Karouta’s fascinating pieces. Just a word of warning. These artists make it look easy, so don’t bite off more than you can chew or you’ll end up frustrated like I did. Start with a cube. Yes, a cube. Shade that mother to kingdom come. Combine cubes. Walk before you run.
Animation, which can be done from within Hexles, is a whole new can of worms I choose not to open just yet. So far so good. I’ve been able to translate imagined characters and scenes into actual pixel art on this app. This does not come easy for me. What a talented artist can do in a few minutes, I struggle with from morning, till the wee hours of the next day, often with nothing to show for it. But I’m getting there, a tiny step at a time. I love that I can adjust my project dimensions and grid subdivisions as I work. Sure, there are prescribed standard dimensions for characters and backgrounds, but being able to subdivide grids after the fact allows for richer images, and lots of wiggle room — something that we, beginners, could use. I’ve only scratched the surface here, obviously. I got what I asked for. Hexels 2 is my pixel art hygge.