I have been a fan of Square Painter’s work for some time now and I really love his overly large pixel paintings that he’s done. It always seemed like something fun to do so I decided a few months ago that I wanted to try my hand at a large painting myself. Of course life happened and I never got around to actually making the painting, but then when I was out of work and had that magical time period between getting an offer to start a new gig it opened up the time for me to do something I wanted to do. I already had all the supplies together and now it was time to make my pixel painting. The following are the steps I took in order to pull this painting off. Keep in mind this is a long process. I spent just over 40 hours on actually painting it, plus maybe another 5 of so of prep time before I even started. So don’t expect to blast through this in a night or two.
Figuring Out What You Want to Paint
I wanted to paint a screen shot from Castlevania. In particular I wanted to paint the Clock Tower scene from the original NES game. The first thing I did was find a proper resolution screen shot in GIF (or PNG) format from the exact scene I wanted to paint.
Digitally Setting Up Your Image
Next I needed to figure out the exact size of the canvas I wanted to paint this on. I decided on a large 36in x 24in canvas. From there I sized my image in Photoshop to the canvas size. To do this make sure your image is Index Color and then adjust the Image Size. This will keep the pixels nice and sharp and will not blur them when blowing up the image. In this case I did 36 inches wide and the images height was larger than the canvas size. I cropped the image to the proper height once I blew it up to 36 inches wide.
The next step I did was grid the image by tile. A NES tile is 16×16 pixels wide. Of course this image is so large that a pixel in this case isn’t an actual pixel size, but the size of a square that makes up the equivalent of a pixel (I feel that statement makes zero sense, but I’m having a hard time putting it into words). I then gridded out the image so that it was 16 tiles wide by 11 and half tiles high. I found this to be the easiest way to break down the image since it’s so hard to keep track of so many pixels.
After I had my grid I then group together large, important objects. So for example I grouped the 4 tiles that made up Simon together, I grouped all of the clock tower and moon together as well. I then gave every single tile a number and wrote that number in each of the tiles I laid out. When you assigned a number to a tile, that tile will always have that number. So if a brick tile is the second tile you number, the tile will always be 2. Essentially you’re building an Adult Paint by Numbers system.
After I had all of my tiles labeled I then made a tile sheet on a separate document. I copy and pasted each unique tile onto a new image document. Also, for the tiles I grouped together I numbered them differently. For example all of the tiles in the Moon set were labeled M#. After I laid them all out I gridded the tiles pixel by pixel. You can easily do this by running lines through all of the pixels. If you laid it out properly one line should pass through all of the tiles horizontally and vertically. Once I had all of that together I broke the document up into 8 x 10 sheets so I could print them out and use them as reference once it was actually time to paint.
The final thing I did was paste a gridded tile onto its own document and printed it out at the actual size it would appear on the painting. This part was key in helping setting up the physical grids on the canvas. Once I printed this out I cut it out and had my actual size tile.
The nice thing about choosing a NES game to paint is that you can find pretty much any color used already premixed in a store. I set up a color palette of all the colors used in this painting, printing it out and color matched the best I could (open the original GIF you used and hit Save for Web, select GIF and you’ll see the exact colors). Keep in mind you want opaque colors. I made the mistake of buying a transparent yellow which I caked onto the painting only to eventually buy a semi expensive tube of yellow paint which despite being opaque I still needed to cake onto the painting. Yellow is a tough color to work with as it turns out. Also if you can, buy a small flat brush that closely matches the size of the pixels you’ll be painting. Bring your actual size tile to help you choose one. I was lucky with this and already had brushes that were the exact size I needed. You’ll want larger brushes for the areas where you’re painting lots of the same color, like the blue sky in the Castlevania image.
Now Lets Paint
You have your supplies and you have all your work digitally gridded out. Now it’s time to physically grid your painting. Depending on the size of your painting you’ll want to use a T-Square ruler and a mechanical pencil. Measure out the size of your tiles and grid the tiles onto the canvas. So again in my case I now had 16 x 14 (and roughly a half) tiles on the canvas. This is where the paint by numbers thing comes in. Now that you have all of your tiles, label them exactly what you labeled them on your print out that you set up earlier.
Now is a matter of picking and choosing where you want to begin. I suggest taking similar parts, especially the areas we grouped together and knocking those out. For example I saved the entire clock tower until the end, which took me probably around 8 hours to paint. Use your actual sized printed pixel and use it as a guide to notch out measurements on the canvas. Once you’ve notched out the areas use a regular size 12 in ruler to grid out the tile you’re going to work on. Do not grid out every single tile. You’ll get lost. The trick is to slowly break the image up into manageable chunks. Plus you’ll smear pencil all over the place. I also suggest keeping a paper towel under the ruler/your hands arms to prevent smearing. You’ll also be using the paper towel to place on top of dried parts of the painting later when you’re gridding out future sections of the painting.
Now once you have your grid, you want to figure out which pixels to paint. I always started with black on this painting. I would look at the tile guide sheet I printed and figure out where each black pixel was. I would draw a little diagonal notch onto the canvas to tell myself to lay the black paint there. Once I put down the black, I moved onto a different tile and laid the black down there. Once that dried (which is dries reasonably fast) I would notch out the next color and continue on. That’s pretty much what you’ll be doing for the next 40 hours of your life. So whew, enjoy it I guess?
A few other tips:
You’re going to have to repaint certain parts twice or maybe three times depending on how opaque a color is. You don’t want to see the notches you drew for each pixel.
Your pixel measurements are not going to be perfect. It’s okay. It all kind of comes together in the end, almost magically. Also your brush that is hopefully pixel sized will sort of make up for the measurement mistakes you’re going to make.
I can’t stress enough tackling group object together. For example the moon. I gridded out the whole moon and then painted it all together. This will also help avoid seeing a tiled effect on the painting when the paint dries.
If you screw up your initial tile grid on your canvas, don’t fret, just gesso the board and start again. I did when I originally started this painting NOT using the tile method and trying to grid out each pixel, line by line. What a mistake.
It’s ok if you make a mistake. I once painted the wrong tile into a spot. I just painted it over with white and started that tile again. You can’t even tell.
So there you have it. That is exactly how I approached making my Castlevania painting. I tweeted at Square Painter about his technique and it sounds like he works very similarly so this is probably the best way to go about painting something like this.
If you make a painting based on this tutorial please send me a photo of the finished product. I’d love to see it. Have fun and be patient.
or if you don’t want so many at once, though I’d recommend having more than one pencil:
I suggest looking for colors in real life as you can match them, but for everything else here’s a shopping list for you. Full disclosure, these are Amazon referral links, so think of anything you buy off here for your project as a little tip jar for your truly. Thanks!