Introduction: Illuminated Mosaic LEGO Sprite Portraits

About: This is the official Instructables profile of Baron Julius Alexander von Brunk, an eccentric multimedia artist in New York City! Baron von Brunk is widely known as a master LEGO craftsman whose work has been p…

First I brought you my tutorial on making elaborate vertical LEGO mosaic portraits. Then I dazzled the likes of you all with my popular mosaic LEGO lamps. What happens when you combine the two? Why, you get a vertical mosaic portrait with illuminated components: a vertical mosaic portrait to display up against the wall, but with an internal grid of LED strips for light output, rather than light bulky bulbs!

This particular method of illuminated mosaic LEGO portraits is actually a refined experimental concept I've been tinkering with, by having a mosaic portrait with hollow innards and LED strips to provide the light output as opposed to low-wattage bulbs. The first experiment with an illuminated LEGO portrait was in October 2013 when I built two different revisions of a light-up portrait of my late cat Tiggs (Tiggs Portrait Mk.1 / Tiggs Portrait Mk. 2). As you can see in the photos, the eyes of the portrait use the original stained glass method as seen in my original Super Mario Bros. Coin Block Lamp, whereas shortly afterwards, I came up with the method of using "Lite Brite" style dots to make more vibrant color outputs, as seen in my popular Mosaic LEGO Lamps from December 2013. Using the same essential layout of building the Tiggs lamp, along with the dot matrix Technic brick and transparent plate rigging like the Mario block, I successfully came up with a method of having beautiful portraits with rich colors -- as in, the specific Legend of Zelda portrait shown here. The Tiggs lamp was actually made when I was still honing my skills with electronics and LEDs, hence the lighting supply uses a jury-rigged method of connecting two small E12 Candelabra bulbs in a parallel connection with a 120VAC cord. The Tiggs Mk.1 portrait uses two incandescent bulbs, which has the obvious dull yellow/orange glow, whilst the Mk.2 portrait uses two bright white LED bulbs of the same size for more accurate green and yellow eyes. Also, the Tiggs portrait was photographed with my old camera before I began using a DSLR, which means the photos of the eyes lit up are grainy and distorted, as there is no altering of the aperture or shutter speed. After I built this model last fall, I decided to experiment with dot matrix Technic brick and transparent plate grids for the "Lite Brite" design -- which is what you see here in the Link & Triforce portrait!

The initial idea was to have the portrait thicker and to have a parallel circuit of tiny E12 LED bulbs behind certain areas of the portrait, then I opted to use a grid of LEDs connected in an array behind the dots to make the portrait as thin as possible -- unfortunately, there are well over 500 dots, which would make soldering this sucker a chore and a half -- thus I ultimately and successfully came up with the idea of using flat SMD (surface mount diode) LEDs from a lighting strip reel! Controlling the lights is a small Radio Shack switch wired to a female DC adapter input, which connects to the array of LED strips. The whole project is then powered by a 12V/5 Amp AC adapter which plugs into the wall. The actual LEGO construction of the design (sans base) was completed over the course of a weekend. The base, however, was an evolutionary design that underwent several revisions around my numerous changes to the sizes.

Like my other LEGO tutorials, I won't give the specific explanation how to copy my design -- rather, I'll explain the fundamentals of this design scheme, the electrical components, the methodology behind the construction, and resources where to get parts, so that you can build your own similar creations using this overall suggestion. Also like my other creations, this isn't a cheap project to build (assuming you're tackling an elaborate design), nor is it something easily done by the novice builder with poor engineering skills. If you have the talent, patience, dedication, and ample funds, these illuminated portraits can be a fun and elegant creative piece to have around your house.

Step 1: The LEGO Portion

  1. Read First: my Instructables tutorial on vertical mosaic portraits -- this covers how to build a sturdy base, determine a proper size, obtain parts, and design your pattern. More or less, the particular project you'll be building shall use the same principles of the vertical mosaic portraits, in terms of preparing pixel images and assembling structures. Although, this precise model in this current tutorial uses a special base with a door and slots for keeping electronics in place, in the original mosaic portrait tutorial I elaborate more on structural integrity.
  2. Then read my tutorial on mosaic LEGO lamps to better familiarize yourself with the dot matrix "Lite Brite" design for color output. Ignore the parts about light bulb types in that particular tutorial, as the specific project you're about to build now uses a totally different system for lighting. This system uses flat LED strip lights with adhesive backing, which means you won't have to cram any light bulbs into your project.
Now that's you've studied both of my Instructables (presumably), you should be familiar with the dos and don'ts of choosing an image to design, as well as how to obtain parts en masse via the internet ( or official LEGO Stores. In this particular example, I've chosen more video game themed designs, as sprites are optimal for LEGO mosaics: they're already broken up into grids for easy measurement, they feature simple colors, and most importantly, geeky projects trump all! I mean, you're free to make a portrait of anything you want, assuming you possess the engineering power and the amount of parts -- but as a retro video game nerd myself, I tend to focus on sprites (except my obvious cat portrait).

Using LEGO Digital Designer (a free download from the LEGO website), here's a basic, crude base with the infrastructure for having a hinged door, a hole for an AC adapter, and a hole for inserting a switch. The size of the base is entirely up to you, and the design/color of the base is also per your own choice; I stick to using standard solid black bases, as I have an excess of black slope pieces. My particular Link & Triforce portrait lamp is 34 studs wide, and 45 studs tall -- LEGO studs = computer pixels. The sample base in this section is 22 studs (pixels) wide, with 18 studs (pixels) of the visible area; two left studs are reserved for the hinges, and two right studs are clearance for the electrical stuff. Again, your design can be as wide as you'd like, but remember, more width means more pressure on the rear door. My Link portrait is twice as wide as this sample base, and there are no real issues with the rear door unless it's opened all the way, in which case the portrait sort of goes unbalanced and wobbles, so I had to use a makeshift LEGO jack (like a wheel jack) to hold the door balanced as I soldered the wires. The LDD 3D file I made is included within this page.

With making a hinged door, also keep in mind that the edge of the door must have clearance when closing. See the 3D diagram and the photos: the edge of the door's far side must "slap" against a flat surface, and cannot have a dado joint. You can use Technic bricks and modified bricks to shut the door, which is also pictured in the diagram. For masonry, the front of the design is entirely up to you, but try to make strong brick patterns to ensure sturdiness, and always make sure to have bricks overlapping cracks, both on the front or on the rear/sides for support. Be advised that the thickness of your portrait is 4 studs, so that you have enough space to have the electrical portion attached to the rear door without it jamming up against the front design. Fortunately the LED strips are rather compact and flat, so this isn't an issue.

Step 2: Electronic Parts

This part requires some definite electrical savvy, but most of the stuff can be purchased at Radio Shack or on eBay for relatively cheap. I recommend copying my exact electronics list to ensure a good light output.
  1. Female AC adapter plug with two screw terminals - I bought mine on eBay for a few dollars U.S. - here's a link to the same ones on Amazon.
  2. (If using all 16 feet of LED strips) 12V 5A wall wart - I got mine on eBay for a few dollars U.S., but you can get these from hardware stores and computer shops. As a rule of caution, always be sure your wall adapter's amperage rating exceeds your LED's current. A 16 foot/5 meter reel uses roughly 5 amps, so you must use a likewise power supply, or use fewer LED strips. In other words, if using 16 feet of lights, you can't use a typical 12V 1.5A wall wart like a cell phone charger! This will no doubt fry your circuits or cause further electrical damage.
  3. 16 foot/5 meter LED strip light reel, type 3528 (NOT 5050), bright white (or cool white), non-waterproof. Here's the one I bought on eBay, but there are plenty of others just like it for the same price ($13 USD). Amazon has similar ones, and I've seen LED strips at electrical supply shops that charge by the foot. LED strips come in a variety of colors, but always use bright or cool white if you want to accurately illuminate several LEGO colors. 5050 LED strips are larger and use more connections, as they're more heavy duty. You could technically use them, but I highly recommend 3528, as they're very small and simply require connecting two pairs on each strip. LED strips have adhesive backing, so simply cut, peel, and stick.
  4. On/off pushbutton - I got mine at Radio Shack for a few dollars U.S. - this is the exact same part used in my LEGO traffic signal lamp. This precise switch is rated for 3 amps -- well below my LED rig and power of 5 amps -- yet I've never had any issues with it nor with the traffic signal. There are other switches available with higher amperage tolerance, for relatively the same price. However, make sure you get a toggle, rocker, or standard on/off button, and NOT a momentary switch: a momentary switch is a spring-loaded button that only provides a connection as long as it's pressed down, like a video game button or a computer key.
  5. 18-24 gauge wire. I used pre-tinned non-insulated 24 gauge wire for each of the soldered shorts on the LED strips, whilst using 22 gauge wires for the switch and AC adapter. This was like $5 USD at Radio Shack.
Now that you've got the LEGO portion of this bad boy assembled, here comes the technical part. First map out where on the rear door you'll be placing LED strips, then cut and attach them accordingly. LED strip lights can be cut after every three lights, or where there's an indication on the strip (usually marked with a scissors symbol, in between two pairs of copper dots). In my model, I've placed the adhesive strips on the rear door according to the spot corresponding spot on the artwork. Each copper dot on the strip is then soldered onto the the next, and remember, LED strips are polarized -- meaning positive goes to positive, and negative goes to negative. Connecting them to improper ends will cause your circuit to cease from powering. Also, you don't need to connect the final LED strip to the front of the circuit like a standard series circuit: the power flows back and forth through the array of LED strips.

Towards the bottom where the AC adapter plug goes, the primary two power wires are screwed into the two respective terminals, but make sure to have one go astray and connect to the switch right above, then connecting back to the first primary LED strip (see the photo). Feel free to use small strips of electrical tape to keep your wires up against the LEGO door when soldering. This process is very tedious and requires a great deal of precision: always make sure your soldered connections are secure and detailed, and avoid damaging the individual lights or resistors in the circuits. Usually a faulty connection will cause the lights after it to not power up, whilst the ones before it stay on (unlike a Christmas light string), thus you can easily troubleshoot bad connections by diagnosing where the fault begins by starting with the first strip to not light up.

Soldering is also dangerous, if you don't know what you're doing! The fine folks at Instructables have plenty of tutorials on how to solder, in fact you can get a decent kit at Radio Shack for under $20 USD. I mean, I'm making the logical assumption that you're at least somewhat familiar with how to solder, thus you'll know full well to never touch the iron while it's turned on, and to take proper measures to avoid electrical damage.

The two particular power parts: the switch and the female adapter plug -- can slide in securely into the two door holes if built verbatim to my guide, and if you choose the precise two parts. In other words, assuming you're using the same switch and plug as me -- and assuming you've build the two different door holes for keeping them in place, both electronic parts can be held firmly (see the third photo with the door closed and the switch/plug held in place in the door).

Step 3: Tips and Tricks

Again, this isn't an easy project to build, hence if you lack any LEGO-building skills and/or electronics savvy, you may feel rather frustrated. This isn't a cheap project nor is it something you can slap together with a few pieces. However, since I'm a happy jolly elf of a guy, I'll share some secrets to make your construction go smoothly!

Mixing colors: In my tutorial for vertical LEGO mosaic portraits, I mentioned how you can "mix colors" by using thin plates of alternating colors to create the illusion of new colors -- for instance, to mimic pale Game Boy screen green, try blending plates of lime green with tan. With the illuminated dot matrix "Lite Brite" grid, you're limited to available Technic brick colors or transparent plate colors -- but you can create new color outputs by mix-and-matching transparent pieces with unequal bricks. For instance, placing a yellow transparent dot into a yellow Technic brick will cause an obvious yellow glow when illuminated -- but placing an orange dot over a yellow brick will cause a pale orange color when lit. On Link's body, I made a glowing brown color by placing transparent red or orange dots into dark grey or reddish brown bricks. 1x1 Technic bricks aren't available in reddish brown, hence I used headlight bricks. Basically, when the light turns on behind the Technic brick, it causes the dot to glow, but the color of the brick can affect the outcome of the dot's glow. Using clear dots against white Technic bricks causes a stark white glow, but placing a clear dot into a tan brick will make the output light off-white, as seen in Link's flesh color (although the pictures don't do justice; in real life, his skin color glows tan/flesh, whilst his teeth are solid white). You can do shading effects by using grey Technic bricks, as the darker brick will then slightly darken the transparent dot; this comes in handy when requiring multiple shades of blue. To do a test of mixing colors, use your best judgement and make a mockup of dots attached to Technic bricks -- then place in front of a light bulb to see what the color output will look like.

Try to limit your amount of LED strips. With a standard LED strip reel, you're limited to just 16 feet (~5 meters), which surprisingly doesn't go a long way when you make an ambitious project, and as mentioned in my electronics section, your adapter (or wall wart) must not be weaker than the amperage. In this particular Link portrait, I designed it before I knew how many LEDs I'd use, and thus I used an entire reel for the lights, and with the strips cut dozens of times, I spent a few days soldering! This was very tedious and left a lot of room for failure. If you have too many shorted connections, you risk a greater chance of accidentally having one come loose, as there are so many to maintain, whereas a smaller rig of circuits is clean and simple. I proverbially bit off more than I could chew when deciding how many LEDs I'd require, which meant I spent a long, long time soldering -- often times making failures, faulty circuits, and damaging LED strips in the process. The project was almost aborted during the first electrical tests when some connections came loose, ergo I falsely assumed my wall wart completely fried the circuits -- in reality, one of the soldered shorts wasn't attached securely, which broke the circuit.

When choosing LED strip reels, always go for non-waterproof. I made the mistake of using a waterproof LED reel initially; waterproof reels contain a thick layer of rubber (or silicone) over top of the strip, which means in order to solder two copper connections, you have to use precision with a fine knife to cut and peel back the rubber stripping. Using a non-waterproof reel simply means cutting, peeling back the tape, putting it in place, and soldering the two strips.

You're not limited to sprite designs, but again, I choose to use video game sprites because they're easy to work with, they're already block and made into grids, they're simple, and because geeky designs are paramount! In my mosaic Tiggs portrait, I based the design off a photo of my late cat, which required a lot more detail and color usage, and the only illuminated spots were in the cat's eyes. You can build a portrait of anything you'd like, assuming you have the creative abilities.

When cutting LED strips, never cut anywhere except the cut area! Usually this is marked with a scissors icon, and is located between the two pairs of copper contact points. Before soldering the short wires, be sure to add a small dab of tin to the copper dot, so that your short wire will connect easily. Never add/remove extra lights or extra resistors to the LED strip: everything is already integrated. Again, an individual strip of  3528 LED lights has a minimum of 3 lights when cut; try to map out your LEGO dot design in multiples of three. The LED strips I used had a lot of output power, which meant some of the light shined through to dots that weren't directly in front of the strip behind it.

Step 4: Baron Von Brunk Can Triforce!

After I completed this project and took the photographs, I got curious and touched the glowing Triforce on the portrait. Suddenly, the whole thing magically split up, and two of the triangles disappeared. However, there's a single glowing triangle on the back of my hand now. Well, that and I have strange new abilities, like pushing mountains with my bare hands, punching holes through the universe with my fists, dividing zero by zero on a calculator, making bean dip out of spaghetti sauce, and defeating Hitler in Wolfenstein 3D on "I Am Death Incarnate Mode" with only the knife!

-Baron von Brunk

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