An elementary school in Nebraska appears to be raising an entire generation of little Chuck Close impersonators, all thanks to the influence of one visiting artist. Paint By Finger is an interactive portrait project by the Omaha-based Scott Blake, which merges pixelated photographs with a paint-by-numbers process, substituting fingers for paintbrushes. Blake worked with over 150 students at Sunset Hills Elementary School to recreate their school pictures on paper grids with a colorful palette of finger paints.
The Paint by Finger project came about when Blake's neighbor Kris Greenwald invited him to be a visiting artist at her daughter's school, and Blake tells Creators that the children really took to recreating their own pixelated likenesses. "I was scared it would be too hard for the kindergarteners and boring for the sixth graders, but all 150-plus students finished their portraits in about 2 hours. Even children with disabilities were able to paint their portraits using dot markers."
Over the past 20 years, Blake has made a number of mosaic portrait projects featuring unusual materials like barcodes, QR codes, Oprah's Book Club covers, and even ecstasy pills. Despite the differences in subject matter, the process of creating all these projects is similar. "I wrote a photoshop action script, that's something I've been doing since, jeez, 1998. That's how I make my barcode portraits. I describe it kind of like a player piano, in that I write a script on photoshop that processes one picture, and then I press a button and it goes and processes 150 pictures," Blake says.
One of Blake's previous projects also helped people create portraits based on the work of Chuck Close. When Blake created a free digital filter designed to make any image look like it had been painted by Close, the project garnered some controversy after Close threatened Blake with legal action. Blake took down the website that hosted the project, but remnants of it still exist on Blake's current website, as a record of the curious dispute it caused.
To streamline the Paint By Finger project, Blake gave each student a piece of paper with a grid printed on it. Each square on these grids contained a letter, representing a corresponding color of paint. Blake increased the resolution of the portraits to make the project more challenging for older students and admits that he was startled by how well the children responded to the project. "I was surprised at how quickly they got it. […] It was really fun and addictive." But he was even more surprised at how how enthusiastically parents and teachers reacted. "At one point, one of the teachers pointed to a student, kind of weirdly placed in a corner, who was doing really good. I didn't really notice any difference between the rest of the students and they said that child had been in a lot of fights and was kind of a 'problem child,' and even that kid was really focused!"
Blake says he was so impressed with how appealing everyone found the project—regardless of age, cultural background, or physical ability—that he's thinking about offering the process to people in rehabilitation, which he relates to Chuck Close's work. "I was thinking this could also be good for retirement homes or people at the end of their life, and that sort of goes back to Chuck Close when he had his stroke: there's a painting (Alex II) that he went back and started painting in the hospital. I thought it would be cool if I could totally offer this to people in rehabilitation or retirees."
Seen from a distance, these portraits may all seem very similar, but according to Blake, closer inspection reveals that each portrait is as unique as the person who made it. "After spending the day at the elementary school and watching all of the students paint with their fingers, I started to notice different styles. Some were fast and sloppy. Others went row by row making very precise finger prints. The final image not only looked like their face, but each individual dot of paint turned out to be a tiny reflection of their personality."