The Mosaic Portrait of My Mother-In-Law

I had been thinking about creating mosaic portraits for a long time; several years in fact. I started with a portrait of Solange a few years back. She and I had visited Tom Miecz for a weekend down in Norfolk. I'd taken some photos of her sitting at Tom's keyboard, and when they were developed (this woulda been before digital cameras took over the world, say around '95 or so), I was struck by how nice her expression was. I scanned it, brought it into Photoshop, reduced it to about 15 by 20 pixels, enlarged that, and started painted little two inch squares (which I'd made using poster board and a paper cutter from work)

These squares I painted one at a time, using acrylic paint I'd acquired at various yard sales. For several nights, I was sitting at a computer staring at the mosaic onscreen, trying to match the color of a paint for a single tile by starting at a single pixel. Each tile therefore, was a slightly different color, even if the computer screen suggested that they were the same color. It took a long time just to get several rows completed.

I never finished it. It took a really long time to do it that way. I'd zoom in on twelve at a time and paint those. Then the next twelve, and so on…

Sooooo a couple years ago, I started again, this time for a portrait of Solange's mom! We were headed to Chile, and I wanted to make a nice Christmas present for the mother-in-law.

I found a photo of her (her name is Iris) that I thought would look good. Brought it into Photoshop, tweaked the colors a bit, and applied the mosaic filter. Eventually by fiddling around a lot I got the image I would use. It was bigger than Solange's - I think it was 18 by 22 pixels (or tiles)

This time, instead of doing each tile one by one, I decided to count the tiles onscreen by hand. In other words, I held my mouse over each "tile" and write down the hexadecimal color in the info box. If I found another one with the same color, I'd put a vertical line beside the color. This was also very slow. Not as slow but slow. A big pain. Got about two rows done and I thought, "Bag this". So I started working on a program to count "tiles" for me. Wrote it in Delphi (Object Pascal) and designed it pretty much on the fly (after a couple of tries). I got it working just good enough to suit my need and then pretty much stopped.

a bunch tiles in the middle of gesso application.

Solange gessoing another bunch of tiles

The program labeled rows with letters and columns with numbers:

  • A1 A2 A3 …
  • B1 B2 B3 …
  • C1 C2 C3 …

… and so forth. The software would look at an already mosaic'd image (since Photoshop did it so well, I didn't bother making my software do it). It would create an inventory of tiles in the image: what colors were used, and how many of each, etc. The software created a couple of valuable reports. The most important one however, was a list of each color and the tiles that were to be painted that color. It looked something like this:

  • FFFFFF: A4, B2, B3, C20, C21, D11
  • FFCCA9: A5, A9, A10, B2, C19, E11, E12, E20
  • 20CA1B: A1, A2, A3, B4, F20, G1, G2, G7

The first items in the list (the letters and numbers before the colon) were the hexadecimal representation of the color. The rest of the items in each row are the names of the tiles that are to be painted that color.

I made sure to sort the list so I'd know roughly HOW MANY tiles I'd need to paint a given color. That way I could gauge how much paint to mix of a particular color.

I went to the local Home Depot to check out what kind of materials would make good tiles. I quickly settled on 'hardboard' - very thin, very smooth, pretty durable. It took paint easily, but since it was brown - I knew that I'd have to paint each tile WHITE first. More on that in a minute…

The program also calculated how many boards I'd have to buy. I could set the size of a tile, and the software would tell me how large the final image would be, and how many boards would be needed… I settled on two inch tiles, which made the resulting portrait roughly about 3 feet by 4 feet.

More photos of tiles being gesso'ed...

and yet another photos of white tiles. You'd think this step was important to us or something.

Next, I went to the Reston Woodshop - my community maintains a nice workshop for residents. I took an obligatory lesson or two, answered a lot of questions about my need for tiles (the supervisory folk thought the idea was pretty cool), and started cutting tiles. Worked for about 4 hours, and left with two plastic bags full of freshly cut mason board.

There was an amazing amount of mason board dust to deal with when I got home. Fortunately, much of it had settled in the bottom of the plastic bags, but I still found it necessary to brush off each tile. Although the tiles were cut nicely and cleanly, many of them had little rough edges here and there. That meant sanding.

Armed with a couple of pieces of sandpaper, Solange and I started sanding tiles. Just a quick rub on all four sides of about 400 tiles took about 3 days, off and on…

After all the tiles were sanded and stacked, we started painted each tile with gesso. For the uninitiated, gesso is a thick paint-like substance that sticks to just about anything. When it dries, it has a nice flat, and WHITE surface ready to take paint. If we didn't paint the tiles with gesso first, then the dark brown color of the surface would have shown through the paint, which would have rendered the entire portrait darker.

After all this preparation, we were finally able to start painting tiles.

From experience with Solange's portrait I knew that if I only got close with the color I'd still be ok. In other words, the colors only had to be pretty close to the pixel color and it would still have the effect I was looking for…

Gary delicately swipes the mud off a tile. Oh wait, he's painting it that way.

left to right: sanded tile, gessoed tile, painted tile, 2 coats polyurethane tile

So… I'd look at my printed guides, decide which color I felt like painting, determine how many I needed (again the guides totaled it all up for me) and start mixing. I'd pull the computer version of the portrait up onscreen and find an example of the color we'd paint. Then I'd sit in front of the computer screen mixing up colors until I'd get close.

Then Solange or myself (or both of us) would start painting. Painting was pretty straightforward, although we realized that we had to be pretty careful about application - care had to be taken to avoid streaks, get the paint on each tile without leaving any trace of brushstrokes, etc. We actually bought some nice brushes for this - they cost like $6 apiece.

After each one dried, I labeled them all on the back with a Sharpie, using the guide that I printed from my program. I also painted at least two extras of each color, just in case. I didn't want to be missing just one tile during assembly - that would have been just too frustrating.

There were two sets of two numbers: the first set was row:column, and the second set was portrait:color (In other words, this tile belongs in the 8th row somewhere, cuz I haven't written which column, and it is the fourth color in the third portrait... what? ok, so this tile is obviously posed for photo purposes - there is no THIRD portrait)

All of the tiles completed and turned on their face so we could check that everything was in order before packing it up.

After we'd finished around 10 or 12 of the colors (there were about 32 colors in all), we started "assembling" the portrait. We moved the dining room table over a few feet, and started lying the tiles face down in a wide area on the carpet. Because I'd marked the back of each tile with its position, we were able to guess their rough position relative to one another. As time went on and we painted more colors (remember, we're both working full time jobs, etc., so it took a few weeks), we'd adjust the layout on the floor.

A quick aside regarding the numbering on the back of each tile. After I'd finish a batch of say, muddy brown or robin's egg blue, I'd refer to the list and make sure I'd painted enough of each color. Then, after that batch had dried, I'd turn them over and write the row/column combination on the back. At the time I was thinking that this was the "first" of many such mosaics - after all, I'd written software that made certain processes a SNAP! Of course I totally discounted the rest of the work as mere trivialities! So, below the row/column combo I also indicated which portrait it was (this one was the FIRST, so it got a "1"), and also which "color" it was (in order of most common to least common). So that's why, in the photos, you will see two sets of number combos on the backs.

Closeup of the tiles - note correct labeling of tiles - row.column and portraitnumber.color

Though it isn't obvious, here we are placing tiles on a sheet so that we spray them with polyurethane. So the portrait is slowing being taken apart here.

Occasionally we couldn't resist, and we'd turn over everything we had finished to see if we could "spot" the face (we could).

After painting them all, Solange and I signed the bottom right tile

After signing I sprayed them all with two coats of polyurethane (had to wait for a warm weekend to do this - in was early November at this point)

Then I made a neat little box just big enough to store them all (including the extra tiles). It was clear that the unmounted tiles made for an easier travel situation than mounting them all.

We flew down to Chile - box in hand. On this trip we were flying down to Punta Arenas to meet up with my sister-in-law and her family. This meant flying to Miami, then flying to Santiago, then flying to Puerto Montt, then flying to Punta Arenas. It was a long flight to be dragging a heavy box of tiles around. But we made it, and presented the gift to Solange's mom for Christmas in Chile in Punta Arenas!

I don't think she was impressed, but she was very gracious and said, "thank you". A couple of the nieces and nephews thought that it was pretty cool. In fact, both Karen and Gigi helped us glue the tiles…

Here is half of the tiles carefully packed in the custom box we built

All here are all of them packed in their own juices for extra flavor.

We only stayed in Punta Arenas about a week or so. Then we flew back to Santiago and took the bus to Valparaiso, Solange's hometown. Once we settled back in Valpo (settling took several days!), Solange and I went to the "woodstore" and bought a large panel of wood with a nice smooth finish, and had it cut to size.

We sanded it, and we went to the hardware store and bought a quart of paint in a nice light mustard color (we thought it would go nicest with the tiles we'd painted)

By the way, we did all of this mounting work in our condo, in an empty room (the condo was brand new, and Solange's mom hadn't had time to decorate the entire apartment yet)

We painted the board, let it dry for a couple days, and then we started mounting the tiles using the Chilean equivalent of Liquid Nails, which was called ????

After mounting them all, Karen and I (Karen's my niece) took the mosaic out to the balcony of our condo there in Valparaiso. That balcony faces the hill Solange grew up on. Her mother's home is visible from the balcony. In fact, windows in her house are more or less the same height as the balcony in the condo (on the 10th floor!) In other words, the windows of the condo face the windows in the home (albeit several hundred yards apart)

Karen called the house and told Solange to walk to the window. She hung up and came back to the balcony, whereupon she and I hoisted the portrait above the railing and held it up facing the hill. Solange came to the window and we could tell she was smiling as she held two thumbs up!! We could see her turning her head and gesturing to others, and a moment later, Gigi (Solange's sister, Karen's mother if you're following me) and mother Iris were at the window, gesturing and clapping! Solange snapped a photo but it didn't come out - cameras tend to make things look further away on their default settings.

We called the house again and Solange and Gigi both said you could really tell it was their mom.

The entire set of tiles lying on the dining room floor.

All of the tiles order by color quantity (in other words, the tiles at top left are the most common color, followed by next most common color, etc.

Lessons Learned:

  1. If I were going to do it again, I'd use slightly smaller tiles and MORE of them. I believe a slightly higher "resolution" would create a more "aha" effect. With Iris's portrait, one has to stand pretty far back to see the image - so far in fact, that the portrait really doesn't work in smaller apartments. You can't tell anything about it except that it's a bunch of tiles.

  2. Some of the tiles aren't truly square - they're off by sometimes an eighth of an inch. The system that the Reston Woodshop advisors suggested didn't work as well as it should have. And I was too naïve not to notice that my guides were off till I'd cut about half of the tiles. Next time I'll triple check the guides to make sure they stay in place.

  3. As it turns out, the software I wrote was kept on a hard drive that was later infected by a virus. Though I still have the hard drive, for all practical purposes the software is gone; I'd have to rewrite it from scratch. As I recall I got the main part of it up and running within about a week, so add that time to any future mosaic plans.

The completed portrait, mounted on the wood and all tiles glued into place