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.

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.

Creating Isometric Art with Hexels

By Mark Knight

Isometric drawing is a great way to present a 2D design in three dimensions. This short guide will help you to ‘think isometric’ and use Hexels’ dedicated iso tools with confidence.


Perspective vs isometric

Perspective drawing is a way of presenting a three dimensional look by replicating how our eyes judge depth. Objects appear smaller the further away they are and lines tend to converge in the distance. An isometric viewpoint ignores perspective with parallel lines that are of equal distance apart at any point.

Isometric viewpoints have become increasingly popular in video games, illustration, and design. Hexels has simplified the process of creating isometric art by allowing artists to paint on a series of multi-directional grids.

Hexels provides tools and a set of canvas grids specifically for working on isometric art. These tools and grids enable artists to paint lines, shapes, and volumes that all align to the same isometric angle.

Getting started

When launching Hexels, start with Trixels template. This uses vector mode and is designed for isometric art.

The document will load with the default ‘Trixel’ grid (circled top left). Over on the right side of the screen is the ‘Shape’ tab (Ctrl+6). This tab presents an array of isometric grid presets.

The presets change the grid aspect ratio as shown above. There is also a ‘custom’ option which allows the user to define their own aspect ratio. The following demonstrations use preset Isometric (1:1).

Think 3D!

Before drawing, take a moment to think differently about the grid. Although the grid is made up of triangles, consider it as squares rotated in a 3D space.

Imagine extruding a square up or down. Having a single colour can make it hard to visualize the square as three dimensional, so let’s add some shading.

Adding two shades of colour to the extrude gives the illusion of lighting and tricks the brain into thinking it’s seeing a three dimensional object. Also note that in our 3D space, the red square is nearer to the viewer and the blue square is farther away. Covering the blue square, completes the illusion of depth.

Lighting isn’t always necessary. By only applying outlines to the edges that would be visible in a 3D space, and hiding the distant square, the same illusion of depth is achieved.

When lighting an isometric shape, consider this isometric lighting rule.

Simplify with Primitives

An isometric vintage radio

When tackling an object such as a radio, it can help to break it down into primitive objects first. For the radio, I created a cuboid with dimensions measured in squares rather than in grid triangles. I used the ‘isometric lighting rule’ by adjusting the Value (v) slider in the Color tab.

Using the Line tool (L) and the Color picker (alt), I painted areas as if they were being cut away.

Re-applying any of the initial face colours, elsewhere in the primitive, gives the illusion of removing or adding areas of the solid object.

Sub Grids

For the angled corners of the radio, I switched to the ‘Ramp Right’ grid (alt+2) from the top toolbar. Notice the change in the grid to accommodate different grid slices.

The other sub-grids achieve different angles and shapes that aren’t possible with the standard Trixel grid. Other grids, such as Sideways Trixels and X-els, are available from this toolbar too.


Let’s consider the metal faceplate and glass in the radio image. The actual shape can be seen as complex when thought of as a component (red circle). However, as part of an object, only the visible areas need be drawn. By breaking the shape down into primitives and ignoring the buttons, the shape is simplified into two cuboids.

An easy way to create a glass effect is to use layers at different opacities. Create the solid glass primitive on a new layer and simply lower the opacity to make the image transparent. To change the color directly behind the glass, add a new layer below the glass layer and color it white.

Markings and highlights, such as the analogue tuning display and shiny surfaces, are created using the Outline tool (O) on a new layer.

Creating Text

The isometric text logo was created on a new layer using the standard ‘Trixel’ grid and the ‘Ramp Left’ (alt+3) grid. Again, using the isometric lighting rule, I added depth to the text.

The text Layer can be re-scaled and positioned by using the Transform tool (T).

Adding Detail With Pixel Layers

A wood grain effect was created by selecting the side of the radio with the Magic Wand (S), adding a new pixel layer, and using the Line tool (L) to draw black lines. Notice that the selection made on a trixel layer constrains brush strokes painted on a pixel layer. The wood grain effect was faded out with layer opacity, and the whole process repeated for each surface of the radio.

Using the same methods and techniques, I continued building components and details using vector layers. I added highlights to edges using the Outline tool (O) with opacity reduced and I used pixel layers to paint the aerial, dial, and handle.


Finally, glow was ‘Enabled’ via the Glow tab. This brightened the scene and softened edges.

Simplifying Complex Objects

This exploded view of the radio may initially appear more complex to create than its solid counterpart. Ignoring color and shadows, the image is made up of primitive shapes that can be drawn using vector layers with edges defined by the Line (L) tool. Details such as transistors, speakers, and the aerial are created on pixel layers, again with the Line tool (L).

Whether static or animated, projecting image components outwards, along isometric planes, greatly increases a three dimensional effect.


From engineering plans, presentations, video games and concept art, the use of Isometric views are prevalent. Hexels grid based drawing makes creating isometric designs intuitive and fun.

Try the Hexels 14 day free trial and share your isometric creations with the Hexels User Group on Facebook.

Hexels Making of: Behemoth Reveal

I’m Mark Knight from Marmoset and I’ve always been fascinated with rotoscope animation. From classics like Bakshi’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ to modern anime production, rotoscope can be used in many interesting ways.

Being told Hexels was getting Pixel Mode, with the ability to combine Pixel Layers and Trixel Layers in the same document I saw this as a real game-changer for the software. With the new Pixel Layers allowing me to draw curves and lines in any direction, I wanted to see if it was possible to Rotoscope over imported images using the new mode.

I started by creating a short 180° turn amination with a 3d model of the Hexels monkey head Logo in a 3D package. I exported the frames of the animation and then imported the entire sequence of images into Hexels, all at once, by simply dragging it onto my hexels canvas. This gives the option to add each image on its own layer of the entire sequence as a single layer animation.

Choosing the latter meant I could see the full animation like a flip book and I now had my rotoscoping reference.

I lowered the opacity of the reference animation to make painting above, on a new pixel layer, more visible. I used the line tool to trace the outline around each colour ignoring shade altogether. Next, I used the paint bucket to fill each outlined area. I carried on using this technique for every frame, and once finished extended the cube down to the bottom of the canvas to give the creature a body.

This is how my animation looked once I was happy the blocking of some of the main shapes.

The next step was to animate glowing yellow eyes. This effect was created by creating a new pixel layer for the eyes. I filled each new selection with a strong yellow colour then added a directional motion blur effect to each cell. This allowed me to animate the intensity and direction of the blur without impacting upon any other scene elements. Effects like this can be found in the dedicated ‘Effects’ drop down menu or from the layer properties window.

I wanted to add more shape to the creature so the next logical step was tentacles, because I love all things Lovecraftian. To give the illusion of the tentacles rotating along with the creature reveal I required two pixel layers. Layer ordering is important here. One tentacle layer is below the creature Layer, the other is above it. By having each of the two layers transform across the length of my timeline, and having the intersection point at the midpoint of the creatures rotation, I could simplify a potentially complex sequence.

The tentacle layer behind the creature has a reduced opacity to help convey distance.
From this point I added a white gradient layer rising from the bottom of the canvas. I lowered the opacity to give a hazy look and create distance between the creature and the foreground. For the top edge of the image I added a black gradient to give the impression of darkness above the scene. I also added a pixel layer with a few vertical freehand lines with an animated distortion and blob effect to smooth away the pixel edges. This gives a look of rising smoke like wisps. It’s worthwhile experimenting with effects. They can really add a level of polish to an element or scene. It’s good practice to create each element, of your scene, on a new layer to allow for more creative control when applying transforms and effects.

The final element in the scene is a small silhouette foreground character with some environmental detail. I added a little movement using traditional keyframe animation, on a new pixel layer, and added some architectural ruins to put it all together.

To create the effect of a smooth panning camera movement, I applied a Transform to the whole document. This essentially means I can move and scale all layers at once. I created a frame with a 16×9 aspect ratio so that anything inside the frame will be included in the final export. Using the Transform tool (T), I reduced the scale of the whole document towards the end of my timeline. Hexels automates the change in scale to create a camera pan away from the scene. For any camera like movement the frame tool (F on keyboard) is essential. You can still export your images full size with the options available in the export window.

With the introduction of Pixel Layers the possibilities for animation are substantially increased. It’ll be really exciting to see what the community comes up with now that Hexels 3 is released.