Rainbowscale Portrait Embroidery

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I've always admired gorgeous thread portraits, but never felt like I had the right eye for color and shadow to pull one off myself. Luckily for me, Photoshop and printers significantly reduce the amount of artistic talent necessary to make your own custom portrait. This Instructable will take the difficulty of a thread portrait from Van Gogh to a paint-by-number.

I used Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 to make my design before starting to stitch. GIMP is a free alternative that can create similar effects. Also, remember that you can use Adobe at many public libraries. The other materials you will need are thread, fabric, an embroidery hoop, a printer, and freezer paper. Let's get started!

Step 1: Choose an Image

Start by choosing the subject of your portrait. Teeth are hard to replicate in thread; I recommend choosing an image that doesn't show them. I found the best pose to be at a slight angle in a well-lit room. Three-quarter angles shade a little more nicely than head-on or side angles.

Open your image in Photoshop.

Step 2: Simplify the Image

First, remove the background by using the Quick Selection tool to select everything besides the subject. Press delete to remove the selection.

Use the eraser tool to clean up the neck however you'd like.

Step 3: Choose Color Palette

Now let's break the image into simpler blocks of color. Select Filter > Filter Gallery, and choose Cutout. The number of levels is up to you and the amount of thread colors you're willing to work with. I found 6 to work well. Edge simplicity and edge fidelity can stay at their defaults.

Next, create a New Adjustment Layer on top of Layer 1 by selecting the semicircle icon. Select "Gradient Map".

Click on the gradient map in the adjustment layer tab to open the gradient editor. Choose the blue, red, yellow preset. The boxes of color along the strip are called stops. Double click on each stop and set the saturation to 50% (or whatever you'd like -- these numbers are just instructions on replicating my look exactly). Notice that you can slide the stops. Slide the rightmost stop in towards the middle, then double click where that stop used to be to add a new color. Set this new color to white. Now, readjust all stops however you'd like.

From left to right, my locations were 0%, 38% 71%, and 100%. When you're happy with your arrangement, click OK.

Step 4: Generate Swatches

Unless you have an impressively stocked thread supply at home, you'll want a set of colors to bring to the store. Select Layer 1 and Gradient Map 1, right click, and select "Merge Layers" (Ctrl + E). Then select Image > Mode > Indexed Color. From the pop-up menu, choose:

Palette: Local (Selective)

Colors: 7

Next, go to Image > Mode > Color Table. These will be your thread colors. Notice that several colors may be almost identical, and it's okay to remove the duplicates.

Step 5: Resize

Remember that your printed image will need to fit inside an embroidery hoop. I was using a 6" hoop, so I resized my Photoshop canvas to 6", drew a circle on it, and manually adjusted the size of my model until I was happy with her placement inside the hoop. I also used the eraser tool to remove her hair, because I knew I wanted a ponytail instead of a bun, but this is totally up to you.

Step 6: Prepare Fabric for Printing

Freezer paper can stick to fabric and act as a stabilizer, making it perfect for convincing your printer that you're using a regular sheet of paper. Trace the outline of a standard 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper onto both your freezer paper and your fabric and carefully cut them out. The fabric should be slightly smaller than the full page so that it doesn't jam your printer. Next, iron your fabric onto the shiny side of the freezer paper, placing your iron on the fabric side. Make sure that the edges are adhered as well as possible. Trim any stray fabric threads.

It's a good idea to do a test print of your image onto a regular sheet of paper to make sure everything looks right. You can see that my real paper print was brighter than the fabric print on the right. When you're ready to print, put your fabric/paper hybrid in your printer, keeping in mind that some printers flip your page upside down. Orient the paper so that the printer will print onto the fabric, not the freezer paper.

Once your image is printed, peel the freezer paper off of the fabric.

Step 7: Fill With Thread

Start to fill in the image with one color at a time. Try to follow the natural curvature of the face with your stitches. For finer details like the lips and eyelids, I used only 1-3 strands of thread. If you choose to add hair, fill in as much of the scalp as possible by tacking down long threads to follow the curve of the head. I used a fine tooth comb to brush out the threads of my hair, and it really helped separate the six stranded chunks.

Step 8: Finish the Edges

My preferred hoop finishing method is gathering. Trim your fabric about an inch away from the hoop and use a single piece of thread to add long stitches along the circumference. Pull the thread taut to gather the fabric and knot off. If you'd like, you can also cut a circle of felt slightly smaller than the hoop and whipstitch it to the back for a very professional finish.

Step 9: Display With Pride!

Colors of the Rainbow Contest

Runner Up in the
Colors of the Rainbow Contest

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    5 Discussions

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    Taz-Hood

    4 months ago

    Spooky, This is a WONDERFUL Instructable, with clear steps for beginners and a professional-quality finished product. Do you do have a business (e.g., on Etsy) where you sell your work? It would be so great if people could submit portraits (following your guidelines for what works well and what doesn't, of course) for you to complete for them! You would have to be selective in what you accept (maybe asking potential clients for several different shots of the subject in various poses using window light for illumination), but I believe people would gladly pay good money for this uniquely personal keepsake. Thank you so much for sharing your process with all of us!

    2 replies
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    spookydonutsTaz-Hood

    Reply 4 months ago

    Thank you so much, this made my day! I'm experimenting with different skin tones and color schemes to see if I can selectively do custom pieces someday. I appreciate your feedback and I'm glad you found this useful!

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    APC23Taz-Hood

    Reply 4 months ago

    I would buy somthing like this!

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    RayP24

    4 months ago

    Great 3D effect with the pony tail! Great instructable! Thanks for sharing