If you follow this series of pixel art tutorials, you may already have in your possession a very nice car for your pixel art character in its pixel art world. Let's add another vehicle to your collection by making a helicopter—or if you're looking for a quicker way to add elements to your isometric city, you can purchase many isometric elements from Envato Market.
1. Define the Height and Width
Let's base the height of the helicopter on the pixel art character, as usual.
The helicopter should be about twice the height of the character. The proportions don't need to be strictly realistic; in the end it's usually better to have smaller than accurate vehicles and buildings, so that characters remain visible and important on larger, more complex illustrations.
If you already have a pixel art car then congratulations! We can use it to define the helicopter's length. Let's make a square with the previously defined height and the length of the car.
If you don't have the car, then go make it! Or just imagine a length that is about 1.5 times the length of the character lying down.
Now we take that square and copy it side by side to have three squares in a line. That'll be the length of our helicopter.
Clean up the breaks in the middle and we'll sort of carve the helicopter out of this rectangle.
2. Design the Helicopter
The way we'll put together our helicopter will be by making a sort of blueprint of it; a flat drawing of one its sides.
If you think of a helicopter, its shape is not very complex from the top or from the front. We'll be making the drawing of the side view because that's where the bulk of the complexities are. It's pretty easy to find helicopter designs with the top, front and side views on image searches, so feel free to do that, or just follow this design along.
Going from the top down, let's add a parallel line, as close as possible to the top (1 px between both lines). This will define the helicopter's blades.
Under the blades you'll need to add a few vertical lines for the rotors. Place them at about 1/3 of the length and as tall as, say, the head of the character, or however you might like it best.
Underneath that I added a couple more parallel lines. They're setting the size of the engine: one line for the top of it and the other for the bottom, which is at the same time the roof of the helicopter's cabin.
We'll give the helicopter a tail attached to the last line we added and reaching the top line. The lines going up are 2:1 (meaning 2 pixels going up for ever 1 pixel going across) and 3:1. That way we get a wedge kind of shape and join them at the top with a 1:1 line to give it a cool fin shape.
And give the engine a point at the back where it ends.
Some of these lines we won't need anymore, so let's clean up.
I added a point on the blade where it will eventually widen and have a different material. And then I copied the blade, flipped it and positioned it on the opposite side, extending past the bounding rectangle.
Now let's "carve" a step into the engine, to give it more complexity and because that comes closer to the reference helicopter I used.
We'll need to define more lines from the bottom up. The very first ones will be for the landing skids, then a bit higher above those we'll have the bottom of the helicopter's cabin, and higher yet above that a line that should more or less define where windows and windshield will start going from the bottom to the top.
From just above that last top line we added, a new diagonal will go up until it reaches the top engine line. This diagonal is 2:1 and it will be the helicopter's windshield.
Clean up, s'il vous plait. We won't be needing the last horizontal line and anything beyond the windshield.
The engine should start a bit farther behind, so move its diagonal back to almost the midpoint between the windshield and the top step of the engine.
And give the top of the windshield a softer corner.
Let's now continue work on the helicopter's tail.
There's a boom between the tail and the cabin, and it shouldn't be too thin.
And there should be a bottom fin.
Add a 1:1 line from the same point as the top fin starts coming out of the bottom of the boom and pointing down and back.
And finish the fin. It doesn't need to exactly mirror the top fin, but it should have a slight wedge shape as well.
Here it's a bit wider and less tall.
You can now clean up the lines below the boom.
A small detail: let's add a line just above the boom, connecting the engine to the tail.
And to close off the cabin, let's add a diagonal from the boom to the bottom. This one is very steep and a little bit jagged, which is usually best avoided, but at least if we keep the line regular at 4:1 then it won't be too jagged.
Finish the cabin by rounding out the corners and cleaning up the lines around it.
On to the landing gear. The skids are shorter than the cabin and curve up on the front end.
Connect the skid to the cabin with two pairs of vertical lines…
… and the profile view of our helicopter is pretty much done.
3. Give the Helicopter Depth/Volume
Of course, the helicopter won't be paper thin, so let's start making it wider.
Fill the whole helicopter drawing with any random color.
One easy way to do this is to make a selection that encompasses the drawing completely, and then with the Paint Bucket Tool and with its contiguous setting unchecked, click on any blank area.
And then to remove all the unwanted color, use the Magic Wand Tool with its Contiguous setting checked. Then simply select and delete the two areas that have the unwanted color (the whole area surrounding the helicopter and the rectangle in the middle of the landing gear).
It's possible to add to a selection with the Magic Wand Tool and any other selection tool by holding down Shift while using the tool. So in this case you could have held down Shift, clicked on the two areas, and then only have to press Delete once… not that that would save you more than one second, but it can become useful at other times.
It's also possible to subtract from a selection by pressing Alt, as well as intersect with a selection by pressing both Alt and Shift.
Make a copy of the previous state of the helicopter's drawing, and we'll reuse it next.
Remove the landing gear on the original version. This will be the middle layer in the chopper sandwich we're about to make.
Take the copy of the original drawing and, optionally, give it another color. And remove the engine and the whole top.
We'll also get rid of the boom—I'll make the cut where I drew this vertical line, just inside of the landing gear.
Remove the back section and round out the corners.
This will make the right and left layers of the "sandwich".
Make the sandwich!
Space the layers evenly…
… the whole thing should be about as wide as a car…
I like the helicopter to look a bit chubby, so I made it just a bit wider than the car. But really a car width is accurate enough for many helicopter models.
Let's spread the skids a little bit. Simply Select the front one and move it 2 px across and 1 px vertically.
Repeat the process with the rear skid, in the opposite direction.
… and why not get the landing gear looking right already.
If you want you can merge the whole "sandwich" into one layer. Those were simply guidelines, and now we can get to work on the helicopter's real/final lines.
Let's start with the engine; it might be the most complex shape we have to cover.
In a New Layer, draw one line marking the axis of the engine and two more lines that will be its edges. Draw this right on the roof to get the width correct; it should be almost as wide as the cabin but not as wide.
Now move the lines to the top of the engine and give them the right length.
We'll give this surface a sort of teardrop shape. We can start it by trimming the corners with straight horizontal and vertical lines.
Round off the corners slightly, except for the one in the rear, and remove the middle line.
Now Select this new shape, and Alt-nudge it down some 4 pixels, or whatever is enough to meet the little step in the engine part of the guideline.
Clean up (remove the back lines) and you should have the same shape but now with a bit of thickness.
Take the front half of the teardrop surface and apply it on the remaining front corners that the guidelines for the engine marked.
You now pretty much have two slightly different shapes.
You can clean up the unnecessary lines (these two shapes form one surface, in the part at the back where they meet) and correct the line going up from the bottom curve to the top one, on the newer shape.
This line should maintain the same 2:1 slope that we drew on the guidelines.
Now we'll add some roof lines. A lot of this is retracing the same lines as in the guidelines but, of course, that's no problem if you remember the Shift trick with the Pencil Tool.
Another row of lines gets added here. To give the helicopter a bit more width than the guideline sandwich suggested, we want to be able to round out the corners of the cabin as well, and the guidelines didn't account for that.
Don't know the Shift trick with the Pencil Tool? Simply click on one point with the Pencil Tool, hold down Shift, click on another point and a straight line will connect the dots.
Continuing work on the roof, go ahead and finish the roof, and connect the lines as you see fit.
Some more connecting right over here.
Notice the wedge shape where the two lower cabin corner lines connect very near the back of the engine.
Covering more of the cabin, some lines are drawn right over the guideline sandwich. But going across, the lines skip between sandwich layers, forming a straight line.
And finally we give the cabin a back side. We're not keeping the jagged diagonal from the guidelines, so we can be slightly creative with this area, as you've got curving shapes connecting with other curving shapes. So basically, you can be a bit less accurate as long as you're doing something you think looks good.
Redraw the whole tail boom; no changes to that.
Don't want to redraw? You can also go to the guidelines layer, select the outlines with the Magic Wand Tool, and then with the Polygonal Lasso Tool (Anti-alias checked off and Feather at 0 px) intersect only the boom (with the Alt-Shift trick mentioned before)… copy that, and paste in place (Edit > Paste Special > Paste in Place) and merge with the outlines layer.
That probably sounds more complicated than redrawing, but when all these tips become second nature, and you give all your frequent actions keyboard shortcuts, their usage takes very little time.
Now you can start redrawing the rotor. We can add a bit of extra volume at the base.
Let's make the blades on a New Layer.
We can add a bit of a cap thing where the two blades meet.
The blades should become a bit wider after the point we drew on the guideline.
Once you've drawn one blade the way you like it, you can copy it and rotate it 180˚ (Edit > Transform > Rotate 180˚) and place it on the other side.
To break our helicopter a bit more out of the same plane, we can have the blades in a flipped position (Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal).
We didn't include stabilizers on the guidelines, but they're very easy to add. Just add a rectangle quite close to the tail boom...
… and another on the opposite side of the tail boom.
And another thing we didn't draw on the guidelines; helicopters need tail rotors to control their direction.
Start with a thin rod pointing perpendicularly out of the tail.
And give it a nice, small pair of blades.
And finally, we've got the shapes down!
4. Add Details & Color
Now on to the details and color. Let's start by adding some windows.
The lower of the roof lines can make the top of our windows. We just need to add a bottom line.
We already have a line right in the middle of the cabin, thanks to the guideline sandwich. So just put a pair of lines on both sides of that line and you've got the split on the middle of the windshield.
And then add the remaining breaks for the rest of the windows.
And the guideline sandwich's job here is done.
Delete it… or make the layer invisible if you are of a sentimental disposition. In fact, you might want to keep in-progress elements or failed attempts somewhere, because eventually a bunch of things can become useful again.
You can now fill the helicopter with the color of your choice.
And now we start adding the proper lighting—at first with some areas that we can expect to shine a bit more brightly.
And then covering more areas, like peak corners. We'll also add another, brighter shade for areas we want to pop out a bit more.
We'll get to the window colors in a minute.
Now add darker shades on one of the sides, on the areas that curve and point down and away from the usual, top, light source.
And then add yet another, darker shade for some select areas.
Now that the basic shading is done, get to softening the valley corners to help convey the way the elements connect/merge.
Now choose some window color you might like. I made mine quite dark; I liked the look.
Apply the glass effect of your choice. Typically, I like to show these lighter lines parallel to the glass borders as, in my opinion, they can be read either as a reflection of the outside of the window frames or as a peek into the inside of the window frames, which is fine either way.
Now one extra bit of glass effect: we'll make the glass just slightly see-through by showing some light through the windows on the unseen side of the helicopter.
Start by getting the shape of the windows right.
And then place them where they should go—on the opposite wall of the helicopter's cabin—and give them one of the lighter window colors.
Here I also made the line parallel to the front of the windshield thicker. I think it makes it look as if we get a peek of the cockpit's controls.
Helicopters usually have more than one color, applied as stripes or many other shapes, but I'll simply make mine have very light grey at the bottom.
This is the area that will have the new color. It's done in a New Layer.
Then I just lower the Layer Opacity and Merge the layer down to where the red coloring is.
And then recolor all sections with a shade I like.
If you like you can also apply the new coloring to the landing gear. Either way, the landing gear should get a bit of shading as well.
Give a dark grey to the rotors.
… and to the area in between the blades.
And give the blades their final shades. I chose a lighter grey and gave the tips of the blades a bit of yellow.
5. Land or Fly the Helicopter
Let's finish by giving our helicopter two states; it can either be on the ground (in which case it should project a shadow directly underneath it) or it can be in the air, in which case we should show the blades in motion.
Starting with the grounded state.
In a New Layer we'll draw black flat shapes for each major sections of the helicopter.
Here's the cabin's.
Here's the tail's.
And here's the shadow of the top blades.
Then you put them together. They should be centered on the axis of the helicopter.
And to apply the shadow, move this layer down below the helicopter and lower its opacity. This is 15% opacity.
And that is the grounded helicopter, ready to be placed on any flat surface.
For the flying state of the helicopter, make circles to replace the blades in a New Layer for each rotor.
They should match the blades in width. The top blades' circle will have to be twice as wide as it is tall to be in keeping with the isometric view, while the tail rotor should be a circle skewed at 26.5˚… or a bit like this:
This is applied with black color but giving the layer a lower opacity.
Let's keep only a 1 px outline of these circles. That's easily done by selecting each circle with the Magic Wand Tool, then contracting the selection by 1 px (Select > Modify > Contract) and deleting the resulting selection.
Then add a couple of yellow circles, standing for the yellow tips of the blades.
And fill the inside with more black, with lower opacity than the black outlines.
For the last bit of motion effect, you can lower the opacity of the spinning blades in a couple of wedge shapes.
You can do this by drawing these mirrored, 1/4, wedge shapes on a New Layer, all in 50% opacity because we won't remove the whole wedges, but just lower their opacity.
Once the wedges are drawn, select them by Command-clicking the layer. Doing this makes a selection with the same shape and opacity as the layer clicked.
Then, on the spinning blades layer, hit Delete and you'll remove 50% opacity on that layer, to get this:
You can almost hear this helicopter flying!
Glad you made it! Now your character can fly and move faster than by car, and your isometric pixel art library of reusable items continues to grow!
The sky is the limit!