Introduction: How to Make Giant (Or Small) Candy-Dot Art
As an artist, I work a lot with the idea of selfhood, and look at ways that our identity is shaped by how we present ourselves to the world, and the methods we use to project that identity. Often, this involves interaction with technology, for example, posting selfies to the internet. (Critic and author Alicia Eler has been analyzing the selfie and has some great articles about it on Hyperallergic)
This project came about somewhat serendipitously, when my sisters gave me a Make-Your-Own-Candy-Dots kit as a present. It reminded me of being a kid and how much I liked those little candy buttons even though they always seemed to get paper stuck in your teeth. It also just happened to look a lot like the halftone art I had been making, and I just happened to have an art exhibition scheduled at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center that would be the perfect opportunity to try out this new technique.
I'll take you through all the steps I used to make this particular artwork, feel free to adapt the scale or techniques for home use.
Other than the candy and paper, most supplies are optional, so I added them in during their appropriate steps.
Here's a mostly-complete list of materials that I used, excluding some common and optional items:
Step 10 has your candy-making supply list.
- Computer with Adobe Illustrator (preferred) or Photoshop
- Phantasm CS plugin (free trial) OR try Rasterbator which is free!
- Wacom tablet (optional)
- Scotch® Removable Tape 811-2PK, 3/4-inch x 1296 Inches, 2-Pack
- Laser (or inkjet) printer
- Printer paper
- Tape measure
- Linen hinge tape
Step 1: Picking Your Image
The first step is to decide on an image that you'll next turn into a halftone template. A halftone is just a way of breaking an image into small dots of varying sizes that your eye will then optically blend together into a cohesive whole. Just about every newspaper and magazine photograph is made with halftone dots.
I had taken a series of bathroom selfies with emotionless facial expressions, and thought this one would be perfect to make into candy.
Choose any image you want, though minimal yet dynamic images with strong tonal contrast and bold features works best, since the halftone process will drastically reduce your image resolution, and consequently a large amount of detail is lost.
Step 2: Optional But Important: Test Your Image Small-Scale
This is a step I took very early in the process as a proof-of-concept test to see if it was even possible to make art with candy dots.
Here, I'm using the candy-dot kit with a quick halftone image about 8.5x11" on four skinny strips of paper. The details on how to do all this are in following steps.
I'm noting this here because it's always a good idea to test your ideas in small scale before investing in anything big, and it also shows that this project can scale to almost any size.
The second image is from my studio wall, where you can see the final mini-dot picture (in red on the right). Next to it is an early color test for the big piece (more on colorizing soon) along with some other CNC-drawn artwork and two prep images for another installation in the same exhibition.
Step 3: Convert Your Image Into a Halftone
First, figure out how big your image will be. In my case, I started with a 5' tall image, but eventually managed to somehow decide I had to scale it up to about 13' tall. It just barely fit on the gallery wall. I figured if I was going to go through all the trouble to make this thing, I might as well go all out.
Once I knew what size I needed I imported my photo into Adobe Illustrator and scaled the document artboard height to 130" with the keep-proportion link enabled, and Illustrator figured out the width for me.
I measured my paper strips, in my case 3", and made a series of lines 3" wide by 130" long to simulate the paper strips I'd need. I adjusted the placement and cropping of my image to fit within the edges of the paper strips.
I used a plugin called Phantasm CS to create a vector halftone (it's a paid plugin, but they have a free trial). Phantasm has a bunch of neat tools for Illustrator, but I use the heck out of the vector halftone function. You can also make a halftone image in Photoshop, but it has much less control and is raster, so it doesn't scale well to large sizes.
EDIT: I haven't used this, but a commenter suggested it and it seems like it could do the job: Rasterbator, it's free but you won't be able to make a silhouette as easily because you can't remove any dots after the conversion process. To compensate you can either white out your background beforehand, or print out the full image and ignore whatever dots you don't want when you're extruding the candy (you'll use more ink/toner this way though). Just make sure your maximum dot size is small enough so they don't touch. This will also conveniently embiggen and tile your image for you.
The screenshot shows the settings I used. I had to figure out what average size I wanted the dots, which I did by comparing them to the vertical paper strip guides I made. When I settled on the size I tweaked the settings to make sure the dots all had individual separation by looking at the darkest areas and adjusting the scale (90%) and dot gain curve.
Your settings may vary somewhat depending on your image and whether or not you scaled to 100% already (sorry, I'm writing this months after the fact so I can't remember the exact order I did things in). The goal is a good average dot size with clear dot separation and a DPI setting that centers your dots within your paper strips. You don't want your dots to be off-center. If each line has a column of dots down the middle or evenly spaced on either side, you've got a good workable setting.
It's okay if the dots overlap the lines, we'll take care of that in a later step.
Step 4: Expand the Halftone
Phantasm is an Effect, so you can go back and edit the settings as many times as you want. Just select your image, open the Appearance tab and click the Phantasm CS link.
However, while it's a live effect, you can't edit individual dots. To do that you have to expand the effect. More on that in a minute.
First, save a file copy (or what I like to do is to duplicate the artboard using the Artboard tool (Shift+O on Mac)). Make sure no layers are locked, then Option-click and drag the artboard name and you'll create a copy of your artboard, complete with content.
Now you have a backup with the effect settings secure and editable if you need to go back and make a change. Lots of halftone copies tends to bog down your processor, so I'll usually make new layers for old versions and just hide those layers while I'm working on the latest version.
Now on to expansion. Select the image, which should highlight as a box with an X through it, and click:
Object > Expand Appearance.
And deselect by clicking off to the side with one of the selection arrows. Now, all your circles are individual vector paths, and you can edit them the same way you edit any other vector path.
Step 5: Create a Silhouette
If they're not already, put your paper strip lines on a separate layer and hide it for now.
If you want to have a clean silhouette, you now need to get rid of extraneous dots with the lasso selection tool. A pen tablet helps enormously in this step, but you can make do with a mouse if you don't have access to a tablet.
Step 6: Delete Overlapping Dots
Turn your paper strip guide layer back on, and lock it.
Now, use your Direct Select (A on Mac), aka the hollow arrow to draw selection boxes and delete any dots that overlap your lines. Sometimes this leaves big gaps, like in the last image. That's ok, it only adds to the individuality of the resulting image.
You'll notice in my closeup that not all of my dots are perfectly centered, that's also ok; just get it as close as possible for the majority of strips when you're editing your halftone settings.
Step 7: Colorize
This step can be approached numerous ways. It's art! Have fun with it. Make a duplicate (or duplicates) of your monochrome image and play around with the colors. Keep the monochrome version for the next step.
Make swatches that correspond with your dye colors and start playing around, or just wing it and pick colors as you go. You'll need to ungroup all the dots, if you haven't already.
Because I had an (awesome and incredibly patient) assistant helping me install, I had to make sure I had an accurate guide that she (and I) could follow, so I picked my colors ahead of time.
You may want to make each column of dots its own group, if you're coloring the way I did.
Step 8: Prep Your Image for Printing
As you can see in the images, I numbered the columns for reference. The next step is that we're going to print a full-size version of the image, broken into strips that fit on standard printer paper. In my case, it was 3.
Except at the final few strips, which I had to break up into smaller chunks.
The squiggly lines will help with registration after printing out a full artboard in a bunch of smaller pieces of paper.
Staying organized at this point is crucial! It's very easy to accidentally mix up the order of your template, since at full scale the differences between dots will likely be imperceptible.
Step 9: Print and Assemble Your Template
Using Illustrator's Tile setting in the Print dialog, start printing out your template one column at a time. You can see my settings here. You want to make sure you have some overlap that's greater than your printer's edge border. If possible in your version of Illustrator, use registration marks.
Note: InDesign has excellent tile control with multiple registration mark settings that makes putting tiles together so much easier. If you can import your AI file into ID without a lot of headache, I recommend it.
WARNING: Be aware that if you use a laser printer (cheaper than inkjet), as the printer warms up, the heat causes the paper to change size slightly. On individual prints this isn't a big deal, but when you're tiling it will cause you to have sections that just don't fit together on every side. To keep your sanity use a printer that's been printing a while or send a bunch of prints through to warm the machine up before you print your templates.
Tape your sheets together in columns.
Step 10: Making the Candy
Here's the basic inventory, with some handy Amazon links.
- AmeriColor Electric Color Soft Gel Paste Food Color - Gel coloring is definitely the way to go if you want bright, vibrant colors. I bought a separate, larger bottle of black from the same manufacturer.
- Disposable Pastry Bag with Dispenser - You can use ziplock bags with the corner cut off, but I found these to be so much easier to work with. They're slightly grippy in texture and filling is easy from the top.
- Calculator Rolls, 2.25 Inches x 150 Feet, White - I used 3" tape, use whatever width you prefer, just adjust your template calculations accordingly. Cut the length to suit your project size.
- Meringue Powder - Experiment to find the best brand, especially if you want to eat the stuff. Apparently not all meringue powder is built the same.
- Electric mixer with whisk - A hands-free mixer works best, because you have to whip the stuff for a loong time.
The candy recipe I used I found here (though it's a pretty standard recipe), and tweaked it as I went based on humidity and temperature changes. She's got great instructions so follow along on her site or use my abbreviated instructions:
- 2 Tbsp meringue powder (or 2 egg whites - use meringue if your project is for display)
- 6 Tbsp water (use half to start, add water as needed during mixing)
- 1/4 tsp almond extract (Optional for display, if you're going to eat the stuff use vanilla, lemon, peppermint, coconut etc., for different flavors)
- 1 pound confectioners' sugar (1 pound = 3.5 cups)
- Add all the stuff together in a mixing bowl, using only about half the amount of water to start.
- Whip the heck out of it for 10 minutes.
- Add water as needed to reach the consistency of sour cream.
- Fold over the edges of your pastry bag, insert it into a tall cup or vase.
- Fill the bag leaving enough room to tie off the end.
- Snip the end when you're ready to apply to paper, adjust the size to fit the size dots you want. Go smaller than the smallest dot. Experiment to get the feel for it.
- Refrigerate filled pastry bags if you're working in bulk. Just be aware that the water and coloring will eventually separate, but you can just re-whisk it to rejuvenate the texture.
- The consistency you use will vary somewhat, and it will affect the roundness of your buttons. There's a balancing act between thinner mixture/rounder buttons and thicker mixture/hershey-kiss dollops. Too thin, and your buttons may run into each other. I did this intentionally (and unintentionally) in a few spots to vary the image texture.
- When extruding large dots that are either very close to each other or overlap, work in a checkerboard fashion, hitting every other dot. When the candy has set up a bit go back and fill in the rest.
Step 11: Dots!
Now you can finally start putting dots to paper!
Roll out your paper-tape rolls on top of your halftone template. Give yourself some extra room on both the top and bottom. You can always cut the paper down, you can't add on to it.
Secure them with removable tape while you work. Scotch Removable Tape 811 is my favorite light-tack tape. It's acid free and is the only tape I let touch artwork because it won't damage the paper.
Take your time, the image will only be as good as your attention to detail. That said, when you're working this large, there's definitely a healthy margin for error.
Check the images for additional notes and tips, I put a bunch in this step so you could see the progression from different angles.
The whole process took about a week, with two people working every day.
Step 12: Put It on a Wall
Finally! Stick that puppy on the wall!
I started with the center strip and worked my way out on both sides. The top is fastened with a thumbtack tucked under the roll. The bottom needed to be fastened also, but I had to make sure there was room for paper expansion due to humidity and heat fluctuations. I ended up using a z-hinge on the bottom. It's basically a little accordion-like folding of tape that has some flex to it.
I used a level with the first strip, then basically just aligned edges, checking plumb every few strips.
Be careful on ladders!
Step 13: Hooray Art!
Bathroom Selfie In Sugar And Spice And Also Ants
Candy Dots on Paper Strips
130 x 100"
Exhibition: In Translation, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, January 2014
Atlanta's NPR station even did a segment about my work in the exhibition. That was pretty neat. Listen here if you want to know more about the conceptual side of this project.
I hope you enjoyed my art experiment. I put this together after the fact so I might not have photos for every step. Please comment to let me know if you'd like anything else explained better, and I'll do my best.