I use Photoshop for pixel art. When I have a reference photo, I'd like to be able to use that image as the background and start drawing my pixel art on a layer on top of it.

The thing is, the best way I found to do pixel art in Photoshop is to work with actual pixels and zoom in to ~2000%. That means that I have to reduce the size and resolution of my reference photo to fit my final art. This way, I lose a lot of detail in the reference, which makes some decisions in the art harder than they should be with a full-resolution reference.

Is there a way to have layers with different resolution in the same document? For example, I have pixel layers of 160 x 120 to work on, and a reference image behind those of 800 x 600? That way, I could still use a 1px pencil brush to draw my pixels but still have a high-res image as a reference in the same document.

I'm working in CS6 if that is of any importance.

This is a bit of a mockup of what I'd like to achieve as a document to work in:

EDIT for clarity: this image is not the ultimate effect I want to achieve, it is what I want my working file to look like. A high resolution image in the background and a low-res pixel art in the foreground which I can live edit with a 1px pencil brush.

enter image description here

  • 1
    Please note that, although you will need some filler characters, 'No' would be a perfectly fine answer to this question--but then I'd like to be sure that it's absolutely true :)
    – Vincent
    Jul 31, 2017 at 13:16
  • 1
    Similar question for GIMP: Scaled layer in background for 8 bit art
    – Cai
    Jul 31, 2017 at 14:23
  • This is the primary difference between a image editor and a page description language like illustrator, indesign, pdf, htm and svg
    – joojaa
    Aug 2, 2017 at 11:50
  • As all the answers say, this isn't possible in Photoshop. Aseprite has this feature. Check out this answer.
    – Wolff
    May 9, 2021 at 9:03

6 Answers 6


Not exactly, but...

... there is a way to achieve the effect you describe.

Apparently you can change the scaling mode for smart objects, but it's a global setting that takes effect for newly created Smart Objects: Preferences > General > Image Interpolation.

So the procedure is like this:

  • Open your background image
  • Set Preferences > General > Image Interpolation to Nearest Neighbor
  • Choose File > Place and select the PSD of the pixel man
  • Scale him as desired
  • (Optional:) Set Image Interpolation back to Bicubic

You can now edit the pixel man PSD and whenever you save, the scaled version is updated.



I'd approach it one of these two ways:

Use a multiplier for your pixel brush size, and just use nearest neighbour interpolation to resize your image to the correct size without deforming it. (let's say you had to blow up your pixel art 10x, just use a 10px square brush). You can always have a second view zoommed out to simulate the final size. Although you'd have to do it without a nice automatic pixel grid.

Or do as you said, reduce your reference artwork to the final size but open a second window with a copy of it in the original size; this way you might be able to pick some of the details.


No this is not possible. To be entirely sure I went through every option that the layer has.

A workaround might be setting up guides with the size you want the pixels to be and then using the Pencil tool to fill them.


I don't think you can set different resolutions for different layers, however if you build your low res piece in it's own document and then place that object over a high res photo, you would get the intended effect.

  • Thanks for the idea, but I'd like to be working in the resulting document. It's not the pixels-in-photo effect I'm after, I want to use the hi-res pic as reference for a low-res pixel art.
    – Vincent
    Jul 31, 2017 at 13:17

You can use smart objects to place hi res imagery in a lower res PSD file (or the opposite, but I'm not sure why you'd want to do that). But the image will never be a higher resolution than the PSD file.

Hi res smart objects can be useful if you want to:

  • Save the high res image in a low res PSD file (if you don't save it separately)
  • Start with a lower res PSD file, but be able to go higher res without issue
  • Resize the layer up and down without worrying about it degrading the image
  • Thanks for the input, but it's the resolution difference within the same document that I'm explicitly after. I already tried using SOs this way, but to no avail.
    – Vincent
    Jul 31, 2017 at 15:20
  • Then you want to use Illustrator or Indesign to place the various images with different resolutions.
    – Jeremy S.
    Jul 31, 2017 at 15:22
  • That is unfortunately not an option. I am trying to make pixel art, and InDesign nor Illustrator are fit for that task.
    – Vincent
    Jul 31, 2017 at 15:24
  • You can export pixel art - jpegs, pngs, even PSDs from Illustrator & Indesign. You can also place your pixel art into Illustrator/Indesign and edit with Photoshop - I do that almost every day.
    – Jeremy S.
    Jul 31, 2017 at 15:48
  • I'm afraid we are both fundamentally misunderstanding what the other is trying to say. I want to use Photoshop to make the pixel art, not import or export it. Therefore, I need a reference as a background image, and I want that reference to be higher res than my actual pixel art.
    – Vincent
    Jul 31, 2017 at 15:56

One workaround is to download LayerX if you're on Mac http://yuhua-chen.github.io/LayerX/ This will allow you to create a transparent image and put it over photoshop if you open LayerX and click on "window" then "lock" to make it always on top.

Now you can trace your image in photoshop with pixel art

  • Sorry Why? You can merely place a layer above all other layers to trace all within Photoshop. There's no need for some random third party application.
    – Scott
    May 9, 2021 at 4:58
  • LayerX won't pan and zoom along with your Photoshop document, so I would expect it to be extremely annoying to work with.
    – Wolff
    May 9, 2021 at 9:11
  • @Scott, the question is about finding a way to work with pixel art 1:1, but with a highres reference image, so it's not a totally weird suggestion. I just think it will be a pain working like this..
    – Wolff
    May 9, 2021 at 9:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.