East Dakota Quilter

Tutorial: Designing a Pixelated Portrait Quilt

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Earlier this summer, the Happy Zombie posted a quilt-along called the Ron Swanson Along. I don’t watch much TV and haven’t seen Parks & Recreation, but I still thought her quilt was AMAZING. I mean, who doesn’t love a giant, quilted moustache? Although I haven’t gotten far on my sampler quilt and have at least a few others in the works, I couldn’t help taking a closer look.

One of her blog followers commented that when she is sick, it would be comforting to cuddle up with Ron via her quilt. That got me thinking. Who else is comforting and might make a good quilt image?

My friend Jessica lost her dad several years ago–around the time I met her. I was with her a few years later on the anniversary of his death. We were traveling together in Japan for work, and over the weekend, we just happened to be visiting a temple where people were painting memorial tiles for the roof. She painted one in memory of her dad.

I thought a lot about her dad and the tile she painted. There was something beautiful about that moment, such love. I wanted to capture it somehow. At first, I thought I could paint his portrait, but the photos I wanted to work from had poor resolution, and I don’t have enough skill to paint a smaller size. I couldn’t work it out. But a quilt? A quilt?! A chance to marry my novice sewing skills with something meaningful? That’s exactly what got me started quilting in the first place. In the end, I decided that a memorial quilt might not go over so well. Jessica is a special friend, and I know she keeps the memory of her dad alive however she can, but it maybe seemed a bit too personal. Of course, I didn’t make that decision until I had completely designed my version.

If you want to do a Ron Swanson quilt, I definitely recommend following the Happy Zombie’s plan. But if you want to sew your own portrait, here is how I turned my photo into a quilt template:

Select a photo, desaturate (make it grayscale), then divide it into 3 squares wide by 4 squares tall. The photo should be taller than it is wide to avoid distortion.



Further divide each of of the blocks above into smaller blocks, 10 x 10. I made a 10 x 10 graph in MS Word, then copied and pasted a bigger square from the first 3 x 4 version into the document behind the graph (one by one, creating a separate document for each of the original 12 squares). That way, I could re-use the same 10 x 10 grid for each of the blocks using Save As without having to measure each time. My Word screen looked like this:

MDP Grid 2 by EastDakotaQuilter

Next, make five squares. Fill in one of them with white and the others with different shades of gray from lightest to darkest. I used gray in my design template even though I planned to use varying shades of blue fabric for the actual quilt.

Color Scale by EastDakotaQuilter

One 10 x 10 block at a time, determine which of the 5 color options (white to dark gray) best matches each square (with the photograph superimposed). I put my scale at the bottom of each Word document, then copied and pasted the best-suited color square on top of the photo. The squares often have a range of grays, including everything from white to black. For these squares, try to determine which of the color options covers the biggest percentage of the square.

Photo Editing

I saved each 10 x 10 block as a separate document. Because I couldn’t wait to see the finished product, I copied each 10 x 10 grid into a single Word document, side by side. Here’s what my quilt would have looked like:

MDP Quilted by EastDakotaQuilter

And here are is the photo side-by-side with my anticipated result:


MDP Images by EastDakotaQuilter

At this point, you can also start experimenting with the color tone of your quilt. Just use four shades of a particular color, light to dark, in place of the gray. (You can get an idea by using Picture Tools > Color.

colored photos by EastDakotaQuilter

Note on sizing: Using 2 1/2″ squares, this will make a 60″ x 80″ quilt. You can make the squares bigger if you want a bigger quilt.


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