In this tutorial, I'll show you the proper steps, from choosing an image, preparing it for reference, mapping out colors, obtaining LEGO pieces, assembling a sturdy base, and even a few tricks and tips for easing production.
Step 1: Determining Your Image
Here's a little more reference to give you an indication of pixel size versus LEGO size: in the winter of 2013, I was commissioned by Nintendo of America to build a store display for the release of LEGO City Undercover at Rockefeller Center, and a few of my displays involved mosaic portraits. Please note: I'm also a really tall person -- yet, as you can see, a tiny pixel image on the screen will balloon up into a large portrait-sized image when built from LEGO bricks. When deciding what sort of image you'd like to create, always be sure to determine if in fact the final creation won't be too big and bulky to make.
You also don't have to limit yourself to video game sprites. I simply chose them for most of my recent mosaics, since retro games themselves were heavily pixelated and much akin to a LEGO creation -- and of course, because I was at the time being paid by Nintendo of America, hence relevancy was key. I also made a portrait of LEGO City Undercover's protagonist Chase McCain, which didn't in fact contain any sprites per-se -- rather it was a modified image of his model from the game (which is 3D). That being said, you can make a mosaic portrait out of any reference image -- video game or person, or even an original arbitrary piece that doesn't require reference photos.
Step 2: Choosing Colors
For starters, there are over 150 different colors -- including transparent, metallic, pearl, glitter, and others -- but for the sake of simplicity, I'll explain the basics of using colors efficiently, which you'll see in the color chart. Standard colors are abundant and relatively cheap in bulk. The basic colors of LEGO pieces encompass the majority of the library of parts -- in other words, virtually any LEGO piece created can usually be found in one of the standard colors. These include black, blue, green, red, yellow, reddish brown, light bluish grey, dark bluish grey, and white. If you decide to build your mosaic of these colors, you should have no problem finding pieces and getting them for a reasonable price.
Next we have uncommon colors; these particular colors may be a bit harder to find and would thus be slightly more expensive to purchase in large quantities. Occasionally the LEGO Stores might have entire cases of these colors, and in that event, I would recommend purchasing as many as possible. These colors include tan, dark tan, orange, lime green, medium blue, dark brown, and dark red. Again, these pieces may cost a bit more if you were to purchase individual pieces online, and if you happen to stumble upon them at a LEGO Store, fill up your cup -- because they won't last long!
Semi-rare colors are to be rationed, but not completely neglected. These colors are mostly slightly-varied shades of the previous ones, which in some cases you can actually mimic thanks to LEGO color mixing (which you'll ready about by and by). Sand red, sand green, sand purple, and sand blue are actually rather uncommon outright -- and medium azure is hard to obtain as well. Dark green, dark orange, medium dark flesh, and dark blue are pricey, although some can be slightly cheaper than others.
Finally, rare colors should be avoided if possible, due to their high value in conjunction with scarcity. For instance, even if you were to find a dealer online who has pink or purple LEGO pieces for under 20 cents U.S., he/she might only have a few in stock -- in contrast with standard colors like black or yellow, to which you can purchase hundreds for only a few dollars. The multiple shades of pink and purple only come in a handful of sets and are almost never available at LEGO Stores -- thus online dealers tend to jack up the prices for individual parts. If you're thinking about making a huge mosaic that requires a ton of pink and purple squares, you'd best be prepared to spend a lot of money and buy your parts from multiple vendors -- as opposed to choosing basic colors and getting everything you need at once and for a low price. When making my Chase McCain portrait, the reference photo called for several shades of blue -- and to cut corners, I reduced the colors in Photoshop, so that I could merely use blue and medium blue in his cop uniform -- rather than scrambling to find a bunch of Maersk blue bricks -- which run for about 35 cents a piece U.S.
If you don't have the luxury of living in a geographic region with more than one LEGO Store, the best place to obtain bricks would be from BrickLink.com -- which is essentially a candy store for new and used LEGO pieces. Any piece, color, or model you could ever want is available on that site via numerous vendors in just about every nation. You simply browse the catalog of which parts you need, then see if a certain vendor in your country has those in stock. You're able to shop around and compare stores to see who has the better deal, such as if one particular vendor has a greater quantity of a specific color than another store, but charges slightly more money. Using your own savvy of buying things online, I'd highly recommend checking out that site and becoming familiar.
Download the Photoshop index color table of 33 LEGO colors:
Step 3: Preparing Your Image
After you've determined what image you'd like to use and what colors to make it -- or that if you're making a video game sprite -- make a new image in Photoshop with the canvas size rather small. As mentioned in the last step, a 16 x 16 pixel image will be equal to about 5.5 inches tall when built in LEGO form. My Nintendo Wii U logo for Nintendo World Store was 90 pixels wide on the computer, but was almost three feet wide in reality! If you've never assembled a large LEGO project nor a mosaic image, I wouldn't recommend tackling a huge portrait that exceeds 32 pixels in initial length.
Now, if you're using video game sprites, then congratulations -- this will be rather easy to prepare an image, for the sprites are already made of tiny mosaic squares, thus you won't have to do a lot of work. But if you're planning on making a vertical LEGO portrait of an original image, you'll have to prepare it via index coloring. For this example, I'll show you three index-colored photos: a video game sprite, a black and white photo, and a full-color photo -- all three are arranged in order of difficulty to prepare, from easiest to hardest.
Again, making a video game mosaic is rather easy, as the games themselves were blocky and pixelated, and contained mostly primary colors. A black and white photo is more elaborate, but has a reduced color table for easily acquiring parts. Finally, using a full-color photo converted to 120 pixels wide (120 pixels = 120 LEGO pieces wide = about three feet wide) with the index color table containing 33 different color options -- some standard, some rare -- with moderate diffusion. The diffusion meter (which is optional) controls the spreading out of pixels to maintain more accuracy of the base photo. With index coloring, your image is verbatim to the specific colors you apply to it; when using a full-color photo of Jonathan Frakes, with its colors reduced to 33 (and only a few of those actually being assigned), you notice the picture looks choppy and pixelated as if it's a poorly-optimized Gif image -- but, this is what we're looking for -- a blocky image with reduced colors! To make a picture in indexed color mode in Photoshop, select Image > Mode > Index Color, then at the top dropdown menu, select "Custom", and then load a color table -- the color table in the download links below, which contain the 33 LEGO colors I mentioned in the beginning of the tutorial, from standard to super rare colors.
Download the Photoshop index color table of 33 LEGO colors:
Step 4: Constructing a Sturdy Base
Again, a base is not mandatory -- but highly encouraged if you want your final portrait to be a stand-alone structure. If you want to incorporate your mosaic wall into a preexisting structure, like a ship or a castle, then ignore this step, and simply use the remaining steps to make your portrait however you please. I've actually done both: my mosaic portraits commissioned by Nintendo World Store were stand-alone pictures for the display case, whilst my giant Super Mario 3 airship had vertical mosaic walls for the inside of the ship's cabin. As you can see in the image of the stained-glass window fire flower sprite, that particular mosaic didn't require a base, as it was integrated with the structure of the ship itself.
Download the LEGO Digital Designer file for the base:
Step 5: Using Your Reference Photo
In Photoshop CS5 on up, when zoomed in far enough into an image, a grid appears over each pixel: this is extremely vital in counting pixels and figuring out where each LEGO piece will go. I also prefer to make a top layer of a solid color that covers up the image, and after I've completed an entire line, I move the whole color layer (the purple layer in the example photo) up one pixel at a time, to avoid confusion. You can also hide the layer any time to skip ahead and see what the next line's colors will require, in case you'd like to jump the gun and do any special masonry techniques to ensure durability. For instance, when making that Mario warp pipe on the far right, the straight line pixelation made a horrible masonry pattern that was rickety -- thus, I skipped ahead to the black line in the middle (above the Kirby star wand, below Mega Man) and assembled the black line the whole way across to keep the green lines in place. You're free to move the guide anywhere you'd like, but to remember which line you're currently working on, make sure to have your Photoshop rulers visible and use the guide lines to mark spots.
Step 6: Quit Slacking - Get to Work!
Where applicable, always be sure to use a sturdy masonry pattern: in other words, try to as often as possible make your top layer of bricks overlap over the cracks of the previous layer. This is a major issue when you're doing super detailed stuff with individual 1x1 pixels -- as you can see in the far right warp pipe. As with the warp pipe, I had no other option but to not have the pieces overlap, hence that particular section of the completed mosaic is kind of weak and wobbly -- unlike the area with Samus and Bomberman, which is quite strong.
Step 7: Tips & Tricks
2) Never bite off more than you can chew! No no no, wait, wait, I'm not referring to biting bricks -- because that's an asinine thing to do -- rather, I'm speaking about tackling huge projects if your skills are dull. In other words, I'll give you the completely honest, blunt truth -- which may come off as a bit pretentious and condescending to some of you more novice builders: if your only source of income is earning an allowance, the largest LEGO set you've assembled was that Harry Potter set you got for Christmas (and built with the help of your parents), and you don't have access to Photoshop, I would NOT -- I repeat, I would NOT recommend taking on a huge, ambitious LEGO mosaic that contains dozens of colors and thousands of pieces! Trust me, you'll only frustrate yourself and diminish your wages in the process. In this case, I would highly encourage you to only build what you're capable of doing with the pieces/colors you've already got. To start off, try making a simple 16 x 16 mosaic portrait of a retro gaming sprite, which only uses basic colors. Once you've practiced enough and got the gist of making mosaics, then feel free to work your way up to larger images and more elaborate designs. I could be wrong: you, the reader could be filthy rich and have experience with bricklaying as a profession, hence you could easily afford to throw down a couple hundred bucks here and there to buy parts and make a durable LEGO mosaic portrait. I could be wrong, I could be right. I will, however, point out that making elaborate mosaics can be increasingly difficult, not to mention frustrating when you run out of a specific color and have to keep buying more pieces. Only work within your means, from not only a financial standpoint but also a creative one too; never do something you're uncomfortable with doing, and to save yourself the stress, start off small and simple as a form of practicing. The first vertical mosaic I ever constructed was the inner cabin of my Fireflower Airship, which used simple 16 x 16 pixel walls of Mario sprites. I ran into no real challenges per-se, but then used that acquired skill to make my larger portraits for Nintendo World Store in April 2013. From there, I had the experience and talent to create the giant 120-piece-wide Nintendo character portrait as shown in this tutorial.
3) For tools of the trade, LEGO actually produces a device called a Brick Separator. This simple and cheap tool uses basic leverage functionality to pry pieces apart. I've personally got three of 'em, although I'll let you in on a little Baron von Brunk secret: I grow my fingernails really long so that I can easily pick apart pieces! Some of you younger male builders might have uptight parents that would get concerned about you growing your nails out, but if they ever ask, just tell 'em you're learning how to play classical guitar or something. I've consistently maintained long fingernails since childhood specifically to easily pry apart my LEGO models; it's one of my quirky traits that a lot of folks don't quite understand when they see my fingers up close (what's even worse is that my speaking voice is naturally really fast and jumbled, so occasionally people who will hear me talk rapidly will then stare at my long nails and get a false conclusion that my nails are used for ill purposes, if you catch my drift). But anyway, yeah, get yourself a brick separator or at least stop biting your nails for a while, because you're bound to make mistakes when putting these things together! Nothing's worse than trying to assemble a 1,000+ piece LEGO model and your dexterity is totally shoddy; your fingernails are like nature's needle-nose pliers!
4) I almost never glue my LEGO models together, however if you plan on gluing yours, I'd recommend a soft glue that doesn't immediately dry, in case you need to make changes in bricks. You'll frustrate yourself to infinity and beyond if you glue each piece in with Krazy Glue and accidentally made a mistake. Your best bet is wood glue or school glue, which are both gooey and take a while to dry; with those glues, any errors in placement can be easily resolved, as long as you're quick enough and make sure to wipe off the glue.
5) Building custom LEGO models is a non-union gig -- thus you can drink on the job! Assuming you're over 21 and currently residing in a place that's not a fascist state, feel free to consume beer whilst assembling your vertical LEGO mosaic! In my case, Coney Island Lager's Mermaid Pilsner was a vital addition to my construction. Beer can be purchased at your local 7-Eleven store, along with donuts and nachos. However, try to avoid foods that could make a mess when touching your LEGO pieces (i.e. Doritos).
6) Put on a playlist of '80s new wave and pop to relax yourself as you build these things. I'm serious. When you really delve into these vivid projects and zone out into your own private world of multicolored plastic bricks and British one-hit-wonder synth songs, everything else around you disappears. When I'm "in the zone", I no longer care about taxes, work, obnoxious roommates, sore fingertips, and the absurd hatemail I keep getting on OkCupid. Oh, if you've got a smartphone and Instagram, be sure to occasionally snap work-in-progress photos to give something neat for your friends to check out until your creation is done!