All aboard the nostalgia train as we play with Adobe Illustrator's Rectangular Grid Tool and the Live Paint Bucket (K) to quickly make some scalable pixel art, inspired by Nintendo's best known plumber, Mario.
1. Prepare the Grid
Firstly we're starting with a quick sketch of the character done with the Paintbrush Tool (B) in Illustrator. I used a Bristle Brush so it kept the look of a pencil or marker sketch and remained loose and lively. Group (Control-G) up your sketch components (or use this one), and lock the group in the Layers panel.
You'll find the Rectangular Grid Tool under the Line Segment Tool (\) in the Toolbar. Double-click it and check out the options below: 600px in size with 50 dividers going both ways. Hit OK and use the tool to drag a grid over your artboard.
Place this grid over the sketch (you'll notice I used a quick low-res sketch while making this tutorial) and adjust the sketch (unlock in the Layers panel while adjusting) beneath the grid to make sure everything fits nicely within it.
The final step of preparation for this quick tip tutorial is our basic palette, seen below. While variations on these hues will eventually be used, these are the general colors I've chosen for Mario's hat, hair, skin, and eyes.
2. Add the Pixel Base Colors
Select the grid and using the Live Paint Bucket (K) and start filling in Mario's hat. As you go along, you'll notice some portions of the sketch don't cover a full square in the grid. I'm leaving most of those for now since I'll come back to reshape the hat once the base colors are filled in. This is the main technique for the tutorial. Filling in squares.
Going box by box can be rather tedious. The Live Paint Bucket can be dragged across (and up and down and all around) several boxes (whole groups) and you can fill them in with one click (or rather, hold it down while dragging and take your finger off your mouse or stylus away from your tablet to fill it in). For the "M" logo on Mario's hat, I filled in a rounded shape with white and then drew a simple "M" with red. I made sure the shape was symmetrical, unlike my original sketch. you'll also notice the brim of his hat is filled in with dark red.
Moving on to his facial features, I've filled in his pupils and eyebrows with the darkest color in my palette.
The eyes have both light and dark blue in them, so I've carefully filled in some of the pupil area with blue and outlined it in light blue. Mario looks like he should be cross-eyed with this much symmetry in his face, but comes out looking straight ahead instead. For the face, I'm using the middle skin tone with the darker color to outline his giant nose, jaw line, and ears.
I outlined the hat in dark red, filled in the mustache with the same colors as the pupils and eyebrows, and extended his hat into a festive Santa-style cap. the star on the end (or blob at this point) looks too much like a nightcap, so it'll be changed, shortly something more snowball-like.
3. Render and Details
I wanted the nose and cheeks to be shiny, so a light cream serves as the highlight with a darker peachy cream surrounding it. The mustache is filled in with a darker brown, keeping lighter brown as highlights. The edges of the hat's emblem get a couple shades of blue to transition from white to partly shaded. This keeps it from looking as stark against the bright red.
For the ball on the hat, delete any other shape drawn with the Live Paint Selection Tool (Shift-L). This goes for any other major changes you want to make when simply recoloring a section won't do. Once deleted, use dark blue and draw an ellipse (seen below). Use various shades of blue to shade and fill in the ball, concentrating darker colors at the bottom of the ball and light whites nearer to the top.
Additional highlights were added to the hat, hat, and shadows added to the face to create a sense of depth on the character. It helps to open a New Window so you can preview the pixel-art style image at a smaller size without having to stop repeatedly and zoom way out to make sure Mario is looking right.
4. Delete the Grid and Finish Up
Once you're satisfied with your pixel art Mario, Select the entire grid and set the stroke to Null. Then, go to Object > Expand and deselect Stroke. You should be left the pixel art as a series of squares rather than a filled in grid. Make sure your character is Grouped together and we'll hurry on to the final step.
If your character's grid extended well beyond it (in my case it did not), you can easily draw an outline. If not (like in this case), simply Copy (Control-C) and Paste (Control-V) your pixeled Mario head, Unite in Pathfinder, and Align behind the original pixeled Mario and apply a thick stroke (keep the corners and edges sharp, rather than rounded). If you notice some holes in your pixeled Mario, fill in those shapes with additional square shapes or delete with the Direct Selection Tool (A).
Enjoy Your Scalable Pixels!
It's at this point that your pixeled ornament design is done and ready to be printed out, mounted into cardboard (possibly), cut out, and hung on a tree, door knob, car mirror, present, etc. You can also give bead sprites a go with the help of this Space Invaders ornaments tutorial by Cintia or try your hand at making this pixeled Mario into a cross-stitch piece, similar to this cute hamburger I designed that was made into a craft tutorial by Claire Brown (it'd go wonderfully in a small embroidery hoop, hung on a tree or given as a gift. Happy Holidays and have fun with the applications of vector pixel art.