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What is 2D game art and how is it done

Do you want to know what 2D art is and how is it used in games? It will take you about seven minutes to learn!

What is 2D art?

2D game art is a complex field that requires a combination of skill, vision, and a creative approach to details. Two dimensions dictates its own rules to creators, so they must go the extra mile to make the most of it. Every step of 2D art production, starting from early concept art sketches, must be carefully adapted for use in actual games that have their requirements for visuals. Join Argentics today to learn more about two-dimensional art, 2D artists, and 2D games with the most distinctive flat graphics.

2D art in a nutshell

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear these words — two-dimensional game art? Something old-school, probably pixelated, and original. Such moments can make you feel like a gaming connoisseur that has unraveled the truth unknown to others. However, this feeling has another side, with loads of nuances hidden behind simple but heart-warming graphics.

In 2D games, developers use a flat graphic design based on sprites with zero 3D geometry. Sprites are visualized on the screen as flat images, and the camera lacks perspective (orthogonal projection). Let us better talk with some examples instead of convoluted terms. Take a look at Hollow Knight, Children of Morta, or Tiny Bubbles to understand what we are talking about.
Exploring the world in Children of Morta
Not all games with 2D art stick to the limits of two dimensions. Some titles successfully combine 3D environments and characters with two-dimensional gameplay. For instance, in some games, the camera can show you the world from the side, cruising from left to right, while your character moves only in two dimensions. This combination creates a cool 3D effect that adds points to the visual style, albeit with no real practical functionality.

In addition, there are games with 3D geometry and depth, where the camera shows everything in orthogonal projection instead of relying on perspective. It is a popular game solution with a bird-eye camera combined with an isometric view (Disco Elysium, Path of Exile, etc.).

2D art animation

Working with animation in 2D and 3D projects may be surprisingly different. Most 3D games use skeletal animation: each model has its own rig with different sections, and by moving their parts, artists animate the entire model.

With 2D art, you have to build animation frame by frame and then combine those frames into a sequence or sprite sheet. The creators of the critically-acclaimed Cuphead used this technique to animate characters in their game. And as we see, this method can be pretty effective in the right hands.

The job of 2D artists

It is a popular career choice for many artists because 2D art is often used in various marketing promos, cartoons, and presentations, not just games. It can be very demanding, though, as it requires experience with academic drawing, understanding the rules of composition, having experience with staging light and shadow, and knowing color mixing basics.
2D artist at work
Furthermore, creators that work on characters and models must be more than familiar with human and animal anatomy (even if they do simple visual art). It can be more difficult to convey motion with two-dimensional art, so artists must be creative with effects, poses, and animation sequences. An experienced artist must be equally skilled with hand drawing and digital, armed with an analytical mind, and ready to learn from others.

Specializations of 2D Artists

“Game artist” in big studios is a broad collective term that unites multiple specialties under one umbrella. It includes concept art creators, illustrators, character designers, environment artists, UI/UX designers, and other creative positions. Let us explain what they do.

Concept artists
These are specialists that visualize the idea of future art. They draw crude sketches to explain how a character, object, or particular location might look in general. This kind of job requires an open mind and unbounded vision to search for relevant materials from games, movies, cartoons, or just real-world photos to use as references.
Raw character concepts often look like this
Concept art creation is about variability and searching for multiple options instead of producing complete pieces. Sketches are just the foundation, the very first step of visualization. Others will take approved images and finalize them without the help of concept artists. So if you have ever seen concept art and wondered why it looks unfinished, now you have an answer.

Artists of this kind work on static images — for example, those that can be seen on loading screens, covers, and promotional materials. Posters with the main characters of the game included in various deluxe editions or virtual postcards for the community are also the products of their creative minds.

UX/UI designers
Every game needs a user interface that usually consists of numerous screens, menus, panels, pop-ups, and so on. UI designers take care of all these seemingly less important visual elements. They know where to place buttons and how those should look to catch the gamers’ eye without interfering with gameplay. They understand how to make the interface consistent and synchronized with the game’s setting. To be honest, it is much harder than you think because artists must understand the gamers’ logic and needs.

Environment artists
The action in games takes place somewhere, right? So you need to draw a digital world where everything happens. Call in a team of professional environment designers, and they will create realistic landscapes, futuristic cities, medieval buildings blended with hi-tech, and literally anything you can imagine. In order to do that, environment artists must have a deep knowledge of architecture and masterfully work with perspective and lighting.
A flat environment can be mesmerizing as well
Character designers
Humans and humanoids, animals and aliens, cyborgs and robots, mutants and other god-forsaken creatures — whatever characters you need, these artists will provide. Obviously, no character designer can draw even a basic figure without solid anatomy knowledge of different species. Character artists enliven half-baked concepts, emphasizing the special features and traits of personages (for example, adding clothing and weapons according to the fighting style) and adding a special unique flavor to them.

Jacks of all trades and masters of some. These are well-rounded professionals with tremendous drawing experience that allows them to fill the gaps in every department, from concept art creation and illustrations to the character and environment design. Usually, such pros are needed on small projects (or limited teams), where one artist creates 2D art, makes textures, does modeling, and even does basic rigging.

Popular 2D art styles

2D art comes in various forms and shapes that form different styles. Some call them visualization concepts, but we prefer to say “visual art styles.” Here are a few popular examples you probably have seen in games.

Pixel art
At the dawn of game development, the hardware didn’t have enough power to process complex graphics. So, developers only could use pixel art objects in their games. And they have achieved perfection in this regard. Classic pixel art games had incredibly detailed and well-thought-out worlds. As for today, this style is mostly used in indie projects and has a variety of modern visual effects to boost its uniqueness: blur, occlusion, and so on.

Cutout art
You draw an object or character on paper, then cut it out to place it into another environment. It won’t look natural in the new habitat, but that’s the gist. Characters drawn with this technique can barely be animated. To make them move, developers just move the entire model horizontally and vertically. Visualization of different states requires drawing multiple unique cutouts.

Monochromatic art
Experienced artists can create masterpieces even with limited color palettes. Black-and-white imagery may seem depressive, but it adds so much to the atmosphere that you begin to like it more and more with each new session. Monochromatic art is truly memorable but requires a super creative approach to lighting, shadows, and effects.

Low-poly art
Instead of making highly-detailed realistic models, this technique goes the opposite way trying to use as low polygons as possible. For example, give you characters made from triangles or trees made of prisms.

Original artist's style
Literally, everything else an artist can come up with that does not fit into other popular categories. Used in a huge number of games, especially in indie projects. It can be rewarding because it helps the game stand out from the rest. On the other hand, when developers use the original visual art style, the audience may not understand what to expect from it.

Best tools for making 2D Art

For decades Photoshop has remained the tool of choice for many professional artists. Other solutions cannot compete with the flexibility of this product, which has so many features for making digital art. Photoshop even is no stranger to pixel art animation, although we would not recommend it for the job. Most studios praise Adobe’s software for the ability to do various routine tasks in one click with scripts.

Despite being the golden standard, Photoshop is not the one and only tool for creating 2D art. Here are a few popular alternatives to consider.
  • Affinity Designer — a graphics editor by Serif, which was originally developed exclusively for macOS but eventually got both iOS and Windows versions. Positioned by the creators as "the fastest graphics editing software," it supports many image formats and comes with a large set of settings and features.
  • Autodesk SketchBook Pro — a raster graphics editor software that allows you to work with animation and supports import/export to PSD files. It is available for free for personal use.
  • Pixelmator — this software is available only for macOS and iOS and, therefore, fully integrated into the Apple ecosystem. What's interesting about it is that it uses machine learning to work with images in the most efficient way.
  • GIMP — a free graphics editor that can be a good alternative to Photoshop. Rather flexible as it supports third-party plugins.
  • Krita — is an open source drawing tool. Has a huge and active community that constantly works on improvements and adds new features to the program.

Most memorable 2D games

In a world of high-resolution graphics, 3D, and realism, there is still enough room for original 2D projects made with a passion for the craft. They don’t need ultra-realistic designs and complex visual effects to immerse you in the process. Let us suggest a few fantastic titles we played and thoroughly enjoyed.

Dragon’s Crown

The developers from Vanillaware have created a side-scroller RPG with incredibly beautiful animations. They have intertwined traditional fantasy motives with loveable heroes and stunning imagery. All that together gave us an epic action-packed adventure, where every cutscene is nothing short of a Hollywood masterpiece. Characters, monsters, locations, and even simple objects in Dragon’s Crown are made with respect to classic games and books (e.g., Conan the Barbarian).


Pixel art is what you expect to see in classic 2D platformers and old isometric games from the SNES era. But today, developers can use this art style in other genres as well. Meet Prodeus, a first-person shooter with pixel graphics right from the ‘90s. If you love old-school shooters, you will be delighted to meet the same gunplay and level design in this game. Not many FPSs bring back that distilled nostalgia today. The devs from Bounding Box Software made a smart choice and included a wide range of graphic settings to let everyone tune the game’s visuals according to their taste.


This game draws a lot of inspiration from Minecraft but throws in many other good features from well-known games. As a result, you get an action-adventure game with open-world, sandbox, and platformer features. So if you love platformers, you are in for a treat. To succeed in Terraria, you must be efficient with many movement tools and learn how to avoid enemy attacks. It is going to be hard but mainly due to constantly being distracted by gorgeous 2D art in each and every zone.


The surrounding world in Braid pleases the eye with colorful imagery that shimmers with different shades and tones. The melodic music harmoniously complements the juicy picture. Braid does not spell primitivism as many other platformers do. Two-dimensional art here works perfectly, and with any added depth, the game would lose a hefty chunk of its magic.

Braid is yet another indisputable proof that indie games play the most important role in today's electronic entertainment industry. While established studios and publishers are chasing after realistic graphics and special effects to make games more like movies, talented creators demonstrate that there is an alternative approach to digital art.

How to find a partner for 2D art production?

If you are making your first game, you may want to start with 2D. It may be easier for you, especially if you decide to outsource the most labor-intensive aspects of development. The creation of 2D art is one of them, as it requires particular expertise, experience, and knowledge. Passionate game designers at Argentics work profusely on building original worlds and inventing unique characters that set the mood and attract the audience. We are fully dedicated to the game development craft and ready to take on any project you have in mind. Reach out to us and have a nice chat!
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