Making and giving gifts is a way that I like to express my appreciation towards others. Although this past year has been more than filled with its share of challenges, it has made me just that much more grateful for the support of my family and friends. When I came down with pneumonia last March, it was my mother who brought food, water, and Tylenol to my bedroom door as I recuperated under covers for the better part of three weeks. As I recovered, her support (really throughout my entire life) inspired me to create a project dedicated to her that I entitled “Philadelphia,” Greek for “brotherly love,” a recreation of one of her favorite photos of my brother “Superman” and I when we were kids. As our entire family was back home together for the first time in a year, it just felt right to work on something emphasizing familial bonds.
The photo of my brother and I was taken in Hong Kong when we were kids. I don’t recall the specifics, but apparently, my brother was trying to get me to smile for the camera. For what reasons he is dressed up as Superman and I am holding a plastic wand-like thingy, I cannot say, but the picture has been one of the family favorites ever since.
I knew that I wanted to make a photomosaic, and my first design choice was to figure out the scale of the project, tied directly to the size of each mosaic piece and the detail of the work as a whole. I decided on 0.5″ cubes as a reasonable size. I played around in Photoshop to determine the resolution necessary to capture sufficient detail and ended up on dimensions of approximately 58 x 77 cubes, or 4466 cubes in total.
Most of the photomosaics I had seen online were composed of black and white dice – the number of dots on the face of the die allowed for modulation of grayscales, and the orientations of die faces two, three, and six allowed for additional subtleties in tonality.
I didn’t want to go down this route, and I instead found a set of primary-colored die along with the usual black and white. They were from a random Chinese company, and while at first the idea seemed promising, after playing around with representative die faces in Sketchup, I concluded that the dots did not provide sufficient differences in color – I probably would need many more cubes to make this idea work.
My next idea was to use blank colored cubes to create the mosaic. Once again, I found several varieties from a few overseas websites. Crunching the numbers, though, I realized that it would cost a few hundred dollars after shipping to obtain the colors and numbers I needed for the mosaic.
Moreover, the colors I found were a bit wacky, and it didn’t seem like they would work well in the context of the image I wanted to recreate.
Finally, I settled on the idea of making my own cubes from 2″ x 4″ construction lumber. The process involved first crosscutting down the lumber, which I believe was 10′ in length, down to more manageable lengths. Then I ripped the lumber into 0.5″ x 0.5″ lengths of square dowel.
The frame was constructed from two pieces of 5/4″ x 4″ x 8′ select pine. I wanted to make a bright, lively final piece, and so I chose a light-toned wood. Using half-lap joints, I constructed the frame, with rabbets along the back face for a 0.5″ backing MDF board. I got fancy and made another, deeper rabbet along the inner border of the frame – my thoughts were that this rabbet would allow me to overhang the mosaic pieces to account for some expansion-contraction. As it turned out, the rabbet was cut too shallow and was completely useless!
I decided upon 16 colors for the final design, and I wrote a quick MATLAB script that outputted the pixel-by-pixel colors numbered from 1 to 16.
As I now knew how many mosaic cubes of each color I needed, I was able to then paint the appropriate number of square dowels for each color. For one of the colors, I kept the natural wood hue. Crosscutting took several hours over the course of a couple of days, and the next-door neighbors even stopped over to ask what I was making. Sorry, guys!
I put the completed cubes in small zip-lock bags for organization.
I diligently progressed on the mosaic, using wood glue to fix 1 – 2 lines per day. I sounds strange to say that I did two lines a day for a few weeks… With ever-so-slight gaps between the mosaic pieces, I was able to fit in 77 cubes across and 56 cubes vertically, for a total of 4312 in the completed mosaic.
I admit, the day before a relatively large final exam, I spent five hours to finish the last fifteen lines of the mosaic. Worth it!
The final dimensions of the project, including the frame, is 48″ x 36″, and the piece also has a hefty weight as well! While the skin tone is not exactly natural, I do like the supersaturated colors. The only part of the project that kind of gets me are the eyes which are kind of menacing!
Although this project went along without too many snaggles, I can point to several areas in which I can improve upon for a future photomosaic build.
1. Building a custom cutting jig – I was not able to safely run the table saw continuously while cutting out the mosaic cubes, and I resorted to stopping after each crosscut. I know there must be a way to be able to build a jig such that I can make repeated crosscuts without stopping, but I’ll have to give this some thought.
2. Using new ripping and crosscut saw blades – for this project, I used the original saw blade included in the DeWalt jobsite table saw, and after several years of use, the blades have dulled. With a new, sharp set of blades, I would have been able to obtain finer, more uniform cuts.
3a. Painting along one face – after ripping through hundreds of feet of 2″ x 4″, I was left with dozens of 0.5″ x 0.5″ square dowels. For each of these dowels, I painted one of the long sides, but the side painted was random between face grain and edge grain. Sticking with only one of the grains would have made for a more uniform appearance.
3b. Selecting for grain texture – on the flipside, one idea would be to use the edge grain and face grain selectively for different areas (e.g. use edge grain for the shirt fabric in the image).
4. Incorporating various wood species – I used basic 2″ x 4″ construction lumber for the project, generally to save costs, but it would have been amazing to find 16 different wood species of varying hues and grains to use, such that I could forego paint and bring out the natural wood colors instead.
5. Completing the frame afterwards – while I originally thought that there was no way I would be able to build a frame in the confines of a school apartment, lacking the requisite tools, I now realize that I could have made it work with a simple fine-tooth saw and pre-rabbeted framing lengths cut slightly longer than needed.
6. Creating a color-blind mosaic – inspired by the Ishihara Color Blind Test, I wonder if it is possible to create a painting in which color-blind people can appreciate hidden patterns and images while color-vision people, perceiving all colors in the work, find themselves missing the deeper patterns within.
There are few things better in life than dedicating time and effort into making gifts for those you appreciate and care for deeply.
I really, really enjoyed putting this mosaic together. This is one of those projects that, from the outsider’s perspective, is tedium defined, but I was uplifted and fueled throughout the project built by emotional energy. Thankful for my brother and parents!