Create a portrait pattern from a photo

I always start a portrait quilt from a photo.   I usually manipulate my photo with Picasa – cropping, increasing the contrast if necessary, changing it to black and white (to ensure I have enough value differences), and ‘posterizing’ it to reduce the number of values and to create distinct edges for each of the values.

Please note that the Picasa application is no longer available for download.   I will continue to use Picasa to edit my photos as long as I can, because I’m familiar with how it works and I like the results.  There are many other photo-editing programs available, and most have similar effects – although they may have different names for the effects.  For example, in Picasa the black and white effect is named B&W; in other software programs it may be called gray-scale.

Once I’m happy with my edited photo, I print it on 8.5 x 11 paper and draw in any necessary lines or details with pen.  I outline each value with a Sharpie marker pen.  The marker pen shows on the back of the paper which gives me a mirror image to use for tracing onto the fusible web.

Then I take it to a FedEx/Kinkos Copy Centre and enlarge it to the actual size of the quilt.  Many of my pet portrait quilts are about 16 x 18 inches.   The full-size copy of the front is used as a master pattern when positioning the fabrics to ensure correct placement.  The full-size copy of the back, which is the mirror image of the design, is used to trace the elements onto fusible web.

General tips:

  • select a photo with good contrast – strong light and dark values.
  • make a copy of your original photo before doing any editing.  That way, if you need to start over with your editing, you can go back to the original photo.
  • every photo has different qualities and will require different effects at different settings.  Experiment with the settings as I describe them below.  If you aren’t getting the results you want, try doing them in a different order, or try some of the other effects.  Save each version, so you can refer to it later if you like.  Start again with a new copy of your original.
  • continue adjusting your photo until you have a good range of values – light, medium and dark.
  • try using the Pencil Sketch effect to get a line drawing, which can be used as an additional reference.


Preparing the photo:

  • start with a copy of your original photo.
  • crop the photo to the desired size.  Consider zooming in for a close-up.
  • convert the photo to black and white –
  • use the Fill Light, Highlights and/or Shadows effects to increase the contrast, if required
  • use the Posterize effect to reduce the number of values or colors and to create distinct borders for each value or color
  • once you have an edited photo you are happy with, save it, then print it.  I generally print on letter size paper at this point, and enlarge later if required.
  • trace the lines between the different values or colors using a Sharpie ultra-fine or similar marker pen.  These will be your cutting lines for your fabrics.
  • the marker pen lines should show through on the wrong side of the paper.  If some of the lines are incomplete, draw them on the wrong side, to create a mirror image of your line drawing.
  • use a copier to enlarge the printed photo with marker lines to the full size of the quilt.  This is the right side of the design, which you can use as a master pattern to pin your fabrics to ensure correct placement.
  • use a copier to enlarge the back side of the design to the full size of the quilt.  This is the mirror image of the design, which you can use to trace the elements onto fusible web.


Examples of pet portraits:

(click on photos to enlarge)

Terry Aske - Courtenay portraitFor Courtenay the Airedale Terrier, I used Picasa to crop the original photo, then used the ‘posterize’ effect to reduce the number of colors.   (I didn’t use the B&W effect on this one.)  I printed the posterized image and outlined the colors with a Sharpie marker pen.  The marker pen lines showed through well on the back of the paper.  I took the posterized image to FedEx/Kinkos and enlarged the front and back to the actual size of the quilt.

I also used the ‘pencil sketch’ effect to get a good look at the direction of the fur, which was very helpful when thread-sketching the fur.  I didn’t enlarge this – just printed it on letter-size paper to use as a reference.

For the Border Collie quilt, I experimented with the Heat Map effect to get some wild color options, but ultimately decided to use realistic colors and just used the Posterize effect.

Terry Aske - Border Collie portrait

For the quilt below, I did use surreal colors, paying attention to value rather than color.  Terry Aske - surreal colors pet portrait


Examples of people portraits:

  • people portraits are more difficult than pet portraits
  • value is more important than color
  • skin tones are more challenging than unrealistic colors
  • people portraits look best at approximately life-size (8 to 10 inches from the top of the head to the chin)
  • if your head(s) will be much smaller than 8 inches, consider eliminating the facial features as they will be too tiny to cut the fabric pieces

This is the first portrait I ever made.  I hesitated to tackle all the facial features, so I zoomed into the eye.  I also used surreal colors, rather than trying to match skin tones.  Terry Aske - Close up Portrait

Then I decided to do a self-portrait.  I have made 3 very different quilts from this photo.  Terry Aske - self-portraits

Here is an example of a portrait quilt without facial features.  It’s a portrait of me and my three sisters.  It was for my mother and needed to be fairly small.  The faces are only 3 to 4 inches high, and there was no way I wanted to try making eyes or mouths that small.  But the shape of each face and body language makes it easy to identify each sister.Terry Aske - 4 sisters portrait

Here is another portrait quilt without facial features.  The starting photo was quite blurry and the faces were small.  Because the photo was out of focus, the Posterize effect just didn’t work.  However, the Pencil Sketch effect worked very well.  Terry Aske - father & daughter


I hope this tutorial on creating a portrait pattern from a photo is useful to other quilters.  If it all just sounds too complicated, but you still want a quilted portrait of your pet, yourself or a loved one, you may want to check out my Etsy shop for other portraits I’ve made and consider requesting a custom portrait for yourself.

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  1. I have read MANY descriptions about how to make portrait quilts from photos, and yours are remarkably clear. It sounds as though your method means that you can start with a photo of unremarkable quality and that you can avoid unwanted pixelation with its enlargement….both problems I often have. I love all the examples you show and am eager to try your technique. Thank you so much!

  2. Just saw your quilts at Quilt Canada! Amazing work. Thank you so much for the information on portrait quilts. You make it sound easy. I’m looking forward to trying one of my own.

  3. Terry, you are incredibly talented! Incredibly! I fool around with pictures in Photoshop Elements all the time. It is a lot of fun to experiment with effects. But what you do is so amazing, because it is another thing entirely to be able to recreate those effects so beautifully with fabric!

  4. So glad I found you – I had been struggling with how to transform our dog’s picture using Adobe and your instructions HELPED so much!!! Thank you.

  5. Hi Terry,
    Your website is so informative and I can’t wait to try some new ideas. Your art is impressive ! Thanks so much for sharing your tips.

  6. Happen to stumble on your tutorial on pinterest (which i just broke down and joined)…excellent guidelines as i have done several through trial and error (and frustration)…great job!!!!!

    • I believe you are asking about the photo of the man and woman on the
      beach. For this one, the photo was very low-resolution, so I couldn’t use
      the Posterize effect. Instead I used the Pencil effect. Then I printed it
      at full size, and traced all the lines with a marker pen. The marker pen
      showed on the back of the paper, so I had my mirror image of the pattern.
      Does that explain it?

  7. Hi! So I’ve been inspired by your quilts and tutorials and finally got up the nerve to try one. I’m reaching the the quilting part – and since I don’t use a machine, I’m going to try hand-quilting. I had been using Adobe Photoshop, but wanted to try Picasa for the thread sketching. Unfortunately, it appears that Google has eaten up Picasa and while you can still down-load it at two sites I found, before I do – is there any other alternative? The sketch filter in Adobe doesn’t really give a good effect. Thank you again for your wonderful quilts and your excellent tutorials!

  8. Greetings from South Africa…where my husband is a professor at a local University…Decided to try your portrait quilt on a photo of myself and five sisters…3 of whom are deceased…Can’t quite figure out hair…fabric? drawn in ?everything looks like helmet hair in the old photo…dark hair against dark background…what should i do ? The rest is fabulous…modestly speaking ! 🙂 THanks.

  9. I love your tutorial… It is simple and precise! I have a question on the technique you followed on the modern art version of your portrait. Are there steps which you can share to make the colorful version? Thank you

  10. Can you explain what you do about seam allowances? How do you get the pieces to line up once you cut them out? Do you make a solid background and then fuse the pieces on top? Or are they pieced together? If the pieces are fused on top, are there spaces between the pieces? Sorry if these are basic questions, but I have the picture I would like to test out and I can not envision how I will piece it together.