How Jon Corbett used a computer program to create beaded portraits

How Jon Corbett used a computer program to create beaded portraits


Artist Jon Corbett first became interested in computers as a young boy — a fascination that continues to this day, and has a direct influence on his artwork.

“Back in the ’80s, when I was just a kid and learning how to use a computer program, the scan lines of a computer monitor really fascinated me,” said Corbett.

“Ever since then I’ve been enthralled with artwork that is made up of … fractured colour components.”

When deciding what to do for his fine arts masters thesis, Corbett was at a bit of a loss in how to incorporate his fascination with computer images.

“One of my advisors had said, ‘you know you have this really strong draw to these fragmented images … have you ever considered that your own heritage’s beadwork is just that same process?”

Corbett, who is of Cree, Saulteaux and Métis heritage, said he couldn’t believe he’d overlooked the connection.

He created beaded portraits of his family, with the beads serving as the fragmented colour components But creating the portraits by hand ended up being complicated and time consuming. So he came up with a workaround.

The final transition in Corbett’s film Four Generations, where a portrait of Jon transforms into a portrait of his son. (Submitted by Jon Corbett)

“Because I’m fairly proficient with computer programming, I wrote a computer program that basically I would feed [a photo],” said Corbett.

From that photo, a pattern would be mapped out of what colours go where.

“I didn’t have to worry about making all the decisions, I could just sit down with my trays of beads and bead – it just literally told me which colour to pick up and where it goes.”

In addition to creating beaded portraits, Corbett created a digital rendering of the portraits which he made into a short film called Four Generations, that screened at The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian.

The film starts with a portrait of his grandmother, which unravels to reveal the portrait of his father. This continues through to Corbett’s portrait, and then his son’s.

“To me the beads represent moments in our life … and that bead is connected to the next bead because its built on my previous knowledge  … and so when you get to the end of your life, your entire portrait is created,” said Corbett.