How to Make a Gridded Button Portrait

comments (7) March 6th, 2009     

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leethal Lee Meredith, contributor
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Use assorted vintage buttons for a truly one-of-a-kind work of art!
Like Chuck Close paintings, the image shows up better as you step farther away from it.
You can use any colors, as long as they are divided into light and dark shades.
Use assorted vintage buttons for a truly one-of-a-kind work of art!

Use assorted vintage buttons for a truly one-of-a-kind work of art!

Photo: Lee Meredith
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Back when I was a studio art minor in college, I was really into Chuck Close, and I did a couple of self-portraits inspired by his style with markers and paint. When I started thinking about possible button projects to celebrate Susan's new button book, I thought of these portraits and how buttons could look amazing in a work like that! And they do! I imagine a masterpiece using this idea on a large scale—like a whole wall! Maybe someday I'll get started on that...

You'll need:

  • Lots of assorted flat buttons, in four shades, around the same size (more details below)
  • Photo-editing computer program
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Hot-glue gun
  • A surface like a cabinet door or part of a wall, or a canvas or piece of wood, etc.

First, I'll go over a couple of concepts of this project, then I'll do a step-by-step how-to. You are going to divide a photo up into small squares with a grid, and each square will become one of four shades—white (or almost white), light gray, dark gray, and black (or almost black). You will divide up your buttons into four groups accordingly (you can use any color buttons, but you'll need to divide them into these groups, so it's best to use white(ish) and black(ish) buttons, and then divide the colors into light shades and dark shades). You can use more than four shades, but it isn't necessary and will make the process more complex.


I started out with shades of blue, divided into light and dark.

Beyond this basic assigning of shades to each square, you can get creative with your specific button choices—when I ran out of the blue shades, I switched to light yellow/green and dark green, then blended into light orange/pink and dark pink/red, then into light pink/peach and dark browns. I also could have mixed up all the different lights together and all the darks together, but I think my image reads better by breaking up the colors as I did.


Like Chuck Close paintings, the image shows up better as you step farther away from it.

As for making your photo into the gridded image you'll need to work from, I did the whole process on my computer, but you can do it on paper if you don't have a software program that will do it all. You'll still need to edit the photo into a contrasty black and white image on your computer, but then you can print it out and draw the grid on top with a ruler (that's how I did mine back in college). I'll show you how to do it on your computer, with notes for the low-tech option.

Once you have your photo in your editing program, you need to crop it to the dimensions of your surface. My cabinet door is 9 inches x 24 inches, so I plugged those numbers into the select tool's "fixed ratio" boxes and cropped what I wanted. More detailed images will not work as well with this format—closer-up pictures will have less detail and therefore will be easier to see as a button portrait. (Of course, you don't have to choose a portrait, but faces do work well for this technique.)


Crop to the ratio of the surface you're making into button artwork.

Now desaturate your image (or make it black and white) and adjust the levels, or the brightness/contrast, until it has pure white, pure black, and contrasting shades of gray.


If you don't have a levels option, you should at least have a brightness/contrast tool.

Resize the image now to be the exact number of inches as your surface (DPI doesn't matter, just inches)—it's okay if it gets blurry since you don't need detail, only shades. Before going further, take a look at your buttons and figure out the width of the largest ones you'll be using—that will be your grid size, or the width of each square. My grid width was 3/4 inches. Here's where it may get tricky depending on your editing software: Make a grid over the whole image of that size. In Photoshop, this means going into the grid preferences and setting the "gridline every" to the right length (0.75 inch for me), with zero subdivisions. And then select View->Show->Grid.


Each box in my grid will be one button.

If you choose to make your grid on paper, you'll have to do more math, so if you can print it sized to make the grid easier to draw, that will help you out a lot. For example, for my final size of 9 inches x 24 inches, and a grid size of 3/4 inch (or 0.75), if I had printed it at 3 inches x 8 inches (the size divided by 3), then I would draw a grid with lines 1/4 inch (0.25) apart. That's much simpler than if I just printed it fit to the paper size (so around 11 inches tall), making the math much harder than simply dividing everything by 3. Your particular dimensions will be different from mine, of course, so you'll have to figure out your own math. Once it's printed, just use a ruler to make marks across all four sides for the grid, then connect the dots with the straightedge.

Now you need to choose which of the four shades each square will be. So look at each square and see which shade seems to take up the majority of it—many squares will have multiple shades, so use your best judgment when choosing shades.


Around the eye, if more than half the square was black(ish), then I chose black; if more than half was white or gray, then that's the shade.

So if you're doing all this on the computer, you'll need to create a new layer, trace over the grid lines with a brush or line tool, then use the paint bucket to fill in each box. I went over the whole image filling in every white, then every black, then lights and darks. If you're working on paper, you can do the same thing, or use symbols to make it quicker, such as leave white blank, draw a check mark on light gray, an X on dark gray, and a star on black, or whatever works best for you. By choosing the shades ahead of time, you're making the button-gluing step go much faster and easier!


I chose to make the background all white so my cat's outline would be clear.

Now you get to start on your surface, so first you need to draw your grid. Use a pencil (if possible for your surface), and keep it as light as possible. Mark along the edges, then connect the dots across with the straightedge.


If you can't mark on your surface with pencil, you'll have to find another way to make your grid.

Sort out your buttons by shade—this project is all about organization! I used a box with dividers and placed them in order (white, light, dark, black) so I could grab them without paying too much attention. What you see in the photo wasn't anywhere close to enough buttons; I added more white ones throughout the process as needed, and I added more blues until I ran out completely and switched to different colors.


If you want to be extra organized, you could count each shade in your grid, and count out your buttons before starting.

Warm up your glue gun, and get ready for hours of gluing and lots of hot-glue burns! Not to scare you—it's super-fun to watch the image come into view as you go! Look at your gridded picture, and glue on each button according to the shade. Keep track of your rows by marking off each one as you finish it. I never printed out my computer image; I just looked at it on my laptop screen, filling in the first box with red as I finished each row.


Center each button within its box to keep your work from looking messy.

If you work like me, then switch up your button colors as you need or choose to...


Once my blues and greens ran out, I moved on to yellow/orange/pink/red/brown.

One other option to consider for your button choices is to match up button sizes with the shades for higher density in the darker shades. You can see how I used that idea with markers in this drawing, by adding one circle for each shade darker.  Your image will show up even better if you are able to choose large blacks, small whites, and light shades, and medium-sized dark shades. I only used that concept a little with my large blacks, since I didn't have enough buttons to choose from to be able to discriminate based on sizes.


You can see in the eye how my black buttons were a little larger than most of the others.

So that's it—if you want to perfect it when it's done, you can use a moldable eraser to take out the pencil lines, but I find that you don't notice them unless you're really looking for them. The buttons pop so much that the grid is nearly invisible.


Tah-dah! My cat, Garbanzo, as a Chuck Close-inspired button portrait!
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posted in: , buttons, art, glue, picture, portrait, wall, mosaic

Comments (7)

paperrain writes: I'm doing this! I'm going to also buy stock in buttons. I've got about a dozen projects for them now!
Posted: 5:08 pm on March 21st
oldjack writes: What a great idea for a portrait. Can not wait to try this.
Thanks Lee.
Posted: 12:17 pm on March 14th
gabriellek writes: This is absolutely FANTASTIC! Thank you for sharing! We can't wait to make a few and put our mosaics on canvas'

Love it!
Posted: 12:04 am on March 10th
sALTYGAL writes: Awesome idea and great instructions!
Posted: 1:57 pm on March 7th
eyesaflame writes: Ok, this is really cool . . .are you sure you've been sick? Or have you just been letting your body be taken over by some kind of alien snot-monster craft genius? 'Cause this is BRILLIANT!!
Posted: 3:59 pm on March 6th
Sister_Diane writes: Wow, Lee - this is so amazing. And your instructions are so clear, I totally feel like I could make one. Thanks so much!
Posted: 10:00 am on March 6th
Jen_W writes: This is splendid and so original! I love Chuck Close too, and this is such a great twist.
Posted: 12:21 am on March 6th
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