Behind the Project: Obama Mosaic Illustrations

Of all the art forms that might have you asking – “how’d they do that?” –  mosaic art might be one of the most mysterious. Charis Tsevis, a Greek visual designer, has made a career out of his unique creations – for clients like IKEA, The Wall Street Journal, TIME, and many more. Over the past few years, he’s created a series of immensely popular Barack Obama portraits, contributing illustrations, posters, and graphics to his campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Go behind the scenes and discover the inspiration, and step-by-step process to creating these. 

What was your inspiration for this project?
The inspiration was Barack Obama himself. Obama as the person, the politician, the idea.

Can you describe your process in creating this project?
The main idea behind all my Obama-related works is ‘Unity’. Obama consistently repeats himself with the phrase of “Out of many we are One”. Moreover, the relationship between the whole and its parts creates a fundamental base for all my work.

Once I have found the idea, I collect the various parts that are going to form the whole. I like to carefully select the right elements between many photos and graphics. I spend a lot of time carefully preparing all the small parts. Photographs have to be cropped, corrected and enhanced so they can express the specific meaning I want to emphasize. Typography has to be selected carefully. Verbal and visual content has to be in harmony. After that I select the portraits of Barack Obama that express what I want to say. Although I have bought various photos from different photographers, I still need to work on them. The most important aspect for me in a portrait is light. I want the person to be illuminated in a symbolic way.

When everything is ready, I combine the various elements using software. I use a series of custom developed techniques, scripts and macros with Synthetik Studio Artist. With the help of this program I create the first version of the illustration. Most of the times I have to go back and correct details on the portrait and of the elements.

When I am satisfied with the basic mosaic, I move onto Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator and I continue working on the mosaic. All my works are 20% result of technology and 80% manual work. Fortunately or unfortunately artificial intelligence is not yet so intelligent.

Did you go through many versions and iterations before coming up with these final pieces?
Absolutely! It’s very difficult for me to create only one piece of work. Actually I think it’s impossible to create the ideal piece of work. I love nature’s lesson of creating many species and letting the better ones amongst them survive. I have found this reality really valuable so I dedicate a lot of time  to experimenting on all aspects of a project.

Do you feel that this project is “done,” or is there anything you’d like to improve on or change in the future?
The project is never really “done”. When you have completed it you have learned so many things that you could use them to make it much better. On the other hand I believe that projects should be finished and delivered. I like Steve Jobs’ quote that “real artists ship”. Progress is made through many small and bigger steps. It cannot be done differently.

Did anything interesting happen as a result of the success of this project?  (fans contacting you, job opportunities, blogs picking it up, etc).
I owe a lot to Barack Obama. In 2008 and 2012 many great things happened to me as a result of these projects. The work has been featured in – besides Behance – some of the most respected media around the world. I managed to get the attention of many clients that got to know my work through this series of artworks. I think that the impact is much wider than what I can measure.

What I have enjoyed the most though is that I was lucky to meet some great people around the campaign. Most of all I liked the grassroots organizations around the US and the world that I found around this work is something honest. Last but not least I have had the pleasure to work on something I really believe in and enjoy thinking that I have added something to that.