DIY: Pixel Painting

The other day while editing some of my Iceland photos I accidentally scaled a photo down to 15 pixels wide instead of 1500 pixels wide, and I liked what I saw. Just a few blocks of color were able to maintain the mood of the photograph even though the details were completely lost. Before I knew it I was getting out my watercolors. This project is simple, but if you hate tedium you might want to skip it. I gravitate toward time consuming, monotonous tasks (especially when they provide a beautiful end result), so I thoroughly enjoyed the process.

You’ll need:

digital photograph
photo editing software
basic math skills

watercolor paper

square tip watercolor paintbrush

How to:

First, open the photo you want to work with in Photoshop (or your preferred photo editing program). Resize the image to about 10–20 pixels wide, and zoom in until you can see the individual pixels. Play around with different widths to see what you like best. The larger your image the more detail your painting will have, and the more time consuming your painting will be. For me 12 pixels wide was the sweet spot that gave me the amount of detail I wanted without being too daunting. You may need to experiment with several photographs before you find one that will look interesting simplified into pixels.

DIY pixel painting

This is where you need your math skills. Once you’ve finalized your image, use a ruler and pencil to lightly draw a grid on your paper. The grid should have as many boxes as there are pixels in your photograph, but it still needs to fit on your piece of paper. My grid ended up being made up of .75″ squares.

Grab your paints and paint brush. Keep your pixel-ized reference photo handy and paint each grid square the color of the corresponding pixel. Watercolors worked beautifully for this project. I could easily mix and tweak colors, and the effect of the paint gathering at the edges of each box is gorgeous. It works best to paint every other box, let them dry, and then go back and paint the ones you missed so the watercolors don’t bleed into each other. Don’t worry too much about staying in the lines perfectly or mixing the exact colors. Imperfections are what will give your piece depth.

DIY pixel painting

After a few hours of painting squares your eyes might start to cross, but don’t stop! It will be worth it when you end up with a neato painting.

DIY pixel painting

What do you think? Are you going to make your own? I really love how this turned out. I think I’m going to have to go frame shopping.


  1. Mika

    How fun! I always love seeing your art projects. You’ve inspired me to be more brave about being creative, and I even started taking lessons from a new friend who turned out to be an art teacher. Thanks for the inspiration! This painting is fabulous!

  2. LyndaKay

    First of all, your original photograph was spectacular! And thank you for the easy to follow tutorial. I will try this!

  3. Talia

    ga-ga-gorgeous!! I may have to try this with some times squares photos I recently took! the colors will be incredible!

  4. Emily

    Ooh, love this. . .I have a ton of great pictures from our year abroad and this could make some great Christmas presents for impossible-to-please family members. Thanks for the idea! I’ve been to Iceland three times now and it IS gorgeous, and you got some absolutely incredible pictures! I’m adding all the locations from your pics to my list of places to visit next time we go!!

  5. Saaraa

    Hi Amanda,

    I just wanted to let you know that I tried this for myself the other day. Its not as wonderful as yours but it was so much fun to do! Its based off a wonderful picture a friend took of a sunset by water and I’m going to give it to him. Thanks for the idea and great blog.

    link to my attempt:

    X Saaraa

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      That looks so good! I love the colors and the panoramic proportions. Awesome job!

  6. Melissa

    Got sent to your site from a pin on Pinterest. I love this idea. I too love something that takes time and detail. When I first saw the pin I thought you were picking paint colors for a room by pixelating your photo. I’m glad I came to check it out.

  7. jackie

    what an amazing idea. i love it so much…how do you think this would work for a large scale image? i guess you’d have to do it in sections and then connect them somehow?

  8. dinny

    I tried this today with my son for his homeschool art friday. We both had a blast and our results were totally different. Thanks for the inspiration!

  9. Kally

    Gorgeous! You are very creative and inspirational. When browsing for beautiful examples of art, I came across sites that use paint chip samples for pictures. I’ll bet that people who are intimidated by water colour paints could try to use these with your technique!

  10. Alyssa

    This looks interesting… I’d love to do this to a vibrantly colored photograph! :) Thanks for the inspiration.

  11. Erin

    I’m using this method to create a tile mosaic in a shower re-do and it is coming out great! I love the way the tiles are turning out in the randomly artful design. Thanks for getting my creativity going.

  12. Amy

    This is a really great idea! I’ll definitely try it one day. But at the moment, I only have acrylic paint and canvases to use up! Maybe you can try that to. Thanks!

  13. Janelle

    We’ve been looking for an art piece to put on the mantle, this will be perfect, if I can figure it out…. I’m having difficulty zooming into the picture once it is pixalated. I’m using the picture editing website called Pic Monkey, so maybe that’s why? Do you have any tips on what I could do to zoom?

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      You will need to use a software program that will let you resize the image to a specific pixel width. I used Photoshop. You might try Gimp, which is a free Photoshop knockoff.

  14. Sara

    Do you have any suggestions for someone with no water color experience? Is mixing and matching the colors very difficult? I’m excited to try this!

  15. Rose

    I am going to do this with my students to teach them how to mix paint and use value! Thank you so much for the idea!

  16. visualsensesdesign

    I liked you work. I did a lot of that sort of paintings in Interior Design when I studied in the 70s hours and hours of gouache perfect gradations. It was mathematical work adding x drops of black to white and other colours as well as applying to to perspectives, squares and rectangles and having clean edges done with mask taping. Lucky your free hand watercolour came out so nice BRAVO. Sure frame it and shine the right light on it!

  17. Terry Ann

    My son did a art project like this in 8th grade. His teacher took a black and white close up. Printed them out on 5×7 photo paper. The students then drew squares on the photo. Kinda like “pixeling” by hand. Then they used charcoal pencils on 36×36″ paper that was also pixelated(if that’s a word) to color each square. The final project was unbelievable. He had the most awesome art teacher. He did several really cool art pieces that now adorn my walls. Just thought you would like to try this if you are unsure of your painting skills!!

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      I just started with a sheet of 18″ x 24″ watercolor paper, drew my grid in the middle and trimmed the paper down after I was done painting.

  18. Frank Bowman

    Thanks for such a simple way of instructing, I have done this before using complicated photos and funny enough used PAINT as photo reducer and pixel image, to add … I changed some colours to meet the indoor ambient where the picture will live. Bu the way I used acrylics instead of watercolor, and paintings are 50cm X 70cm

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