Penny Mosaic Abraham Lincoln

Over the weekend an astonishing thing happened. Matt Groener of Oregon entered our Let’s Make Cents Challenge. His entry was a little late. About two and a half months late if we’re counting. But he could care less about the prize and I am thrilled by his entry.

You’ll recall that for the Challenge inspired by the Standard Grill’s penny-mosaic floor, I made a nice (but pedestrian) penny mosaic tray, and challenged you all to cover things
in pennies.

So Matt? Well, this genius did this:

Penny Mosaic Abraham Lincoln Portrait

Yup. Abraham Lincoln in pennies. Holy smokes.

3,111 pennies.
51 wide by 61 tall.
Based on an 1864 photograph of Lincoln.

I was floored.

I catapulted Matt an email and he was kind enough to shoot over all his photos and to share his project story.

The Penny Mosaic Lincoln actually took him a year and a half of free time to complete; he just finished it last month. When he came across the Challenge post, he was compelled to enter.

Matt said, “Although you and I were each inspired to come up with a penny project separately, I find it interesting that we both observed the tradition of ‘intentional errors’ (mine being the single 1943 steel penny as the final penny to throw off the otherwise ‘perfect’ copper palette).”

Enjoy this slide show of the making of the Penny Lincoln, and Matt’s play-by-play below:

Click on the photo to start or pause the show. Mouse over the bottom of the photo to bring up the controls. Click the square icon on the bottom right to watch full-screen.

HomeWorkshop (HW): Tell me a bit about your artistic/creative background.

Matt Groener (MG): I would characterize my creative and artistic background as a rank amateur with a broad interest in photography, watercolors, and what I call “dimensional art” (I like large form factors and three-dimensional pieces). I suspect my children could pull a Canon lens out of a lineup as well they could my own face.

Very few of my art projects make it to a final, presentable stage, either due to lack of time, or nagging issues with perfection. Thus, most of my artistic time is spent behind the camera, as this is a place where I’m most likely to have instant success (or failure, which I can blissfully erase).

HW: What inspired you to make the Penny Mosaic Lincoln? Have you seen something similar before?

MG: I started the project in March 2008 (!) after reading an article about a father/son who were inspired to make a Lincoln penny mosaic after seeing one at a museum. Being March in the Pacific Northwest, I am always looking for indoor projects to work on with my two young sons, and this seemed like a great teaching point about coins, Lincoln history, and art.

I have been a lapsed coin collector since I was a boy, and the appeal of pennies and using the natural patina of the copper coins really “clicked” with me. As you will see, life can get in the way of any art project, and by the time I was nearing the end of the effort, my project’s ambitions morphed to include a celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the Lincoln penny (1909-2009).

Can't Step Back Enough to See ShadingHW: How long did it take you to complete the project?

MG: I glued the final penny on October 24, 2009. However, in general each row of 51 pennies took about 30 minutes to stage, adjust, and glue. In theory, this means the project would take someone with ample free time about 26 hours of sheer effort.

This does not factor in the time to map out a plan, organize the materials, and trips to the bank for questionable looks from the teller when asking for “dark” pennies. I would factor at least a week of prep time to acquire the raw materials, map out a plan, and be ready to glue your first coin.

On a scale of 1 to 10 in difficulty, this project is about a 4: the hardest part is making your plan and eyeballing three thousand pennies into place. It’s more repetition that skill, in my opinion.

HW: How did you plan out the design — Graph paper? Computer drawing?

MG: My grand ambition was to fully exploit the palette of “penny patinas” that exist in the real world. I knew from my coin collecting days that pennies really come in all sorts of shades, even steel. I wanted to paint, essentially, with the pennies, rather than creating a rough outline of Lincoln… with sharply contrasting colors. (Note: I did not alter any pennies, just used them as they came to me).

Abraham Lincoln seated Feb 9 1864I needed a portrait of Lincoln to use as my model. I searched for a good likeness that was also not the most common of poses, and settled on this one. This portrait was best for me for several reasons:

1. It had good detail in the facial features.
2. The lighting was well-suited to be translated into copper equivalents.
3. It was stately and grand (and fitting of a presidential portrait).
4. I wanted a side-on view of his face as I felt it provided a better gradient to show off the color palette I was hoping to achieve.

The next step (recognizing that I am essentially making this up as I go at the time), I needed to figure out how large to make the project in order to achieve the “painted” look without going impossibly large, nor so small as to lose the portrait in a pixelated mess. (This whole process took about 4 days.)

I quickly realized that my master plan to “paint” the portrait would be stymied by huge amounts of time sorting pennies by eye. I considered building some sort of digital “eye” out of a web cam and some chromatic-scale-detecting software, but this was:

  1. Out of my technical league, and
  2. “Cheating.”

I resolved to complete the project by “eye” alone.

I decided that I could approximate the scale of the project by mapping to the portrait some carefully selected pennies—representing my “palette”—and making some logical guesses about height and width.

I cropped the portrait to the area that I wanted to reproduce, and I converted the face from B&W to greyscale.

I picked out 20 pennies, from shiniest to darkest, and scanned them into my Mac to use as a palette. I then “cut” each penny into an individual picture, and fed both the original face and the individual pennies into a mosaic tool called MacOSaiX and played around with the settings to create a prototype of the final project.

This gave me a good sense of two things:

  • Was my palette diverse enough for the project?
  • Would the size of the project make it look very detailed and realistic
    (the “painting with pennies” idea)?

From this model, I increased the palette to 30 pennies instead of 20, and I came up with a scale of 51 pennies across by 61 pennies down.

There are practical reasons for this size:

  1. It fits well on a sheet of 48″ square luan plywood
  2. 3,111 pennies equates to about 21 pounds of pennies alone. Once I factored in the weight of glue, backer, paint, and a frame, I was looking at over 50 pounds! (and I was off by 25 pounds for a total finished weight of about 78 pounds).
  3. The time involved in “painting” each line of pennies. I estimated that it would take about 15 minutes per line, and I wanted this project to be attainable (and not fall into a permanent unfinished state like so many others before it).

Pixelated Pennies

Once I had my dimensions, I “blurred” the prototype image I created into solid blocks of copper colors, one block representing one coin. I printed this out on a color printer and used this as my model.

The next task was to acquire and sort pennies for the palette, and once again, I hit an immediate snag: Sorting pennies into 30 color “piles” would take forever. When you factor in changing light throughout the day with which to sort, I could see that I would need to “wing it” as I laid the pennies down rather than pre-sort to the detail I had planned.

I resolved to sort the pennies into 5 basic piles: “brand new”, “shiny”, “medium”, “dirty”, and “dark”. While this saved literally tons of prep time, it increased the total time per row to about 30 minutes, due to constant hunting for the right shade, and adjustment time when I felt I had made a poor choice.

HW: Where did you hang the work?

MG: Given the scale of the project, it’s best viewed more than 14 feet away (although at close-up range it has the added bonus of focusing attention on individual pennies and their unique appeal).

We placed it at the landing of the stairwell facing the front door. This way guests (and our family too) would see it first thing when entering the house.

HW: What was challenging about the project?

MG: More than I expected! It taxed my creativity, my sense of color (especially with regard to such a narrow band of color as pennies afford), and my patience. The scale I chose was too large for me to complete in the time I had allotted myself, and this was a depressing reality throughout the 20 months it took to find time to finish.

Detail of Different Patinas at WorkBecause I reduced my palette to five “buckets”, I found myself over-analyzing each patina choice. I resolved to getting an egg timer set to 35 minutes to keep each row manageable. However, the scale was the “right thing to do” and ultimately I am extremely pleased at the “painted” effect that I was able to achieve.

The scale I chose really meant that I had to “trust” that I was getting the proper shading and gradients I desired. The best view, as I said, is about 14 feet away, and this meant there was no easy way to get far enough away from the penny surface to see if the “pixellation” was a problem or not.

I was reminded of a photo I saw of Monet in his very late years painting the Nymphae series with a brush on the end of a long stick. His vision was so poor that he needed to be far away from the work to see what wanted to achieve.

If only I could get that far away from the project to see if I wasn’t just making a mess of the whole thing! Luckily, I took a couple of iPhone pics, and the admittedly crummy lens gave me the fisheye-type perspective I needed to see I was on the right track (and no comparison to me and Monet – I am not worthy!!!).

Lining up the pennies was easier than I thought. I anticipated that I would need to be very precise if I wanted all the rows to line up exactly. The final dimensions right to left and top to bottom were no more than a 1/32″ out of square, which was completely acceptable to me.

The one thing that was not challenging was the materials. Pennies, by and large, were easy to obtain (though I did “purchase” hundreds of “Wheat” pennies for the darker elements; with more time on one’s hands, it is possible to find the colors I used in general circulation).

The glue I chose was just a guess: TiteBond II Wood Glue. I cannot say enough great things about this glue. I glued the pennies on one dab at a time, rather than run a line of glue for each row, and the occasional errant dab dried invisibly. Clean up was a simple and painless process, and when I occasionally needed to “adjust” pennies that I wanted to replace with a different color, I had to chisel them off the backer board. (I resolved not to do that very often anyway).

First Look at Finished Penny Lincoln from Proper Distance

HW: When were the project costs?

MG: Total project costs: $166

  • Pennies: $31.11 ( I ordered $50 in pennies from my local bank as my “pool”, and I bought about $50 in “antique” pennies but used very few of them; my sister gave me some much needed penny assistance for Christmas that made the dark segments go much more easily).
  • Backer: $24 (48″ square luan board, backed again with 48″ x 3/4″ plywood)
  • Paint: $20 (black, gloss spray paint; very low tech but the effect is great)
  • Framing: $80 (!) The framing materials were the most expensive real cost. I had estimates of over $600 with Plexiglas, but decided to frame it w/o glass to give the observer unfettered access to the pennies.
  • Wire/Hangers: $10

HW: What’s your encore?

MG: I’ve considered a few other coin-related projects, but I am not sure if that’s where I want to spend my time yet. One idea that comes to mind is reproducing Mt. Rushmore at similar scales, using pennies or perhaps a combination of quarter, nickel, and penny coins (though pennies lend themselves to this idea better than any other coin, and Teddy Roosevelt has never been on a coin). I estimate I’d need almost $200 in various coins to complete it, and it would need a hallway with at least 20 feet of viewing distance to achieve the same effect.

I think my next project will be: The next crazy idea that catches my fancy (I’m open to ideas!)


Okay everybody, let’s tell him. What should Matt make next?

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10 Comments for “Penny Mosaic Abraham Lincoln”

This is really great and as much as I love seeing the final product I enjoyed reading about the process. I imagine your two boys will grow up thinking anything is possible. What a great gift to give them!

That was a very insane project. his next project should be creating a mosaic with shredded credit cards.

Credit cards! Great idea. I wonder where to get shredded credit cards from?

If I kept with the money theme, I could also try George Washington out of shredded $1 bills.

I also considered using foreign money (for example, the Queen of England), but apparently you are not allowed to deface/misuse coins in England or Canada (it’s an offense to the Queen’s image).

Barry and ‘cm,’

Impressive, eh? You’ve got to have a great eye to separate all those pennies by color, and to be accurate with it. Knocked my socks off.

Stop by anytime.
— Kathy


I vote for Mt. Rushmore and the credit card artwork; you can switch back and forth between the two and keep from getting bored. Anyone work for a bank and have an idea where Matt can get some shredded credit cards?

I think I see a themed art show developing. Let me know where and when to be at the opening. 😉

Great work!
— Kathy

I got into this about two years ago myself, started with a Lincoln with just under 850 pennies, then moved into doing an Obama
I did half as many pennies as you did with your Lincoln, but decided on the offset diagonal grid because it fills the empty space more and lets you do the diagonal lines of faces, which appear more than vertical lines. I ended up sorting into 5 shades as well, but kept second guessing the middle 3 shades.
Moved on to a couple smaller ones (Yin Yang, a flame on a matchstick, and Brutus the Buckeye)

Great job man! I have actually been due for another project and I think this might be something for me to do. We have lots of pennies that we have just sitting around and I figured, what the hay? I think it would be cool to do Mona Lisa for a next piece if you were still considering.

Keep it up! If I ever do get my project rolling along, I want to show everyone.


I came accross your article through a client of mine. I wanted you to know that I created my Abe Lincoln Portrait in 1996. I have been using it to educate Kindergarten & 1st Grade for most of the elementry children in our local communities. Hundreds of folks had taken photos of my mine. I Created it from my a brainstorm I had while I was in the Military. It is hard to believe that someone else has done a very similar Portrait. I read your article and am in disbelief that you have come up with this on your own, while thousands of children & school teachers have been inspired through my education courses.
Gary Klaric
(678) 521-5656

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