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Gem painting is the TikTok-friendly craft that lets me turn off my brain

My favorite quarantine activity is like IRL pixel art

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A gem painting canvas featuring an astronaut wading in the ocean Photo: Emily Heller/Polygon

I’ve struggled to find the perfect quarantine activity. I love puzzles, but sometimes even the challenge of searching for a missing piece is too much work for my quarantine-addled brain. It’s hard to knit and crochet when my cat pounces on any yarn ball she sees, and if I eat any more sourdough bread, I might explode. I just want something fun and productive (that doesn’t involve a screen) that I can mindlessly work on while listening to a podcast or audiobook.

The perfect solution? Gem painting.

If you’re currently asking yourself, “What the heck is gem painting?,” allow me to explain. Sometimes referred to as “diamond painting,” “5D painting,” or “gem art,” the concept is similar to a paint-by-numbers. Instead of acrylic paint, though, a gem painting uses tons of tiny resin gems to create an image on sticky canvas. Think of it like a mosaic made of rhinestones or, if you prefer, like IRL pixel art.

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Quarantine mode: ON ‍♀️✨

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Gem painting entered my life the way most impulse purchases are introduced these days: through incessant Instagram ads. I scrolled past enough sponsored posts featuring perfectly manicured hands sticking shiny gems to a brightly colored canvas that curiosity took over. I tapped on the Instagram profile for @PaintGemArt, one of the preeminent gem painting companies on the platform. Of course, once I visited the page, Instagram’s advertising algorithm pegged me for an easy mark and served me even more of those flashy, colorful ads.

PaintGem is just one of many companies selling gem painting kits (you can even buy them at Amazon or, probably, your local craft store.) A standard kit includes a sticky canvas printed with symbols that correlate to differently colored gems, packets of said gems divided by color, a small tray to pour the gems into, a pen-like applicator, and a small pot or pad of wax. You dip the applicator into the wax, which sticks to the gem but doesn’t leave any residue when you transfer the gem to the sticky canvas.

A photo of a just-started Gem Painting canvas Photo: Emily Heller/Polygon

Tons of different styles are available, from photorealistic images to cartoon characters to replicas of famous paintings. You can even get your own custom art turned into a gem painting canvas. My favorite gem paintings are of Random Galaxy’s whimsical photoshopped creations that look like the artist took psychedelics and wandered around a planetarium and then a zoo. (I’m currently working on a picture of an astronaut in the ocean.)

Where PaintGem in particular stands out is in how it harnesses the power of social media. Instagram and TikTok are all about the aesthetic, and PaintGem’s aesthetic is consistently vibrant and whimsical, down to its colorful applicators with oversized diamonds on the end and wax pots shaped like macarons. PaintGem even has a section of its website dedicated to user generated TikToks. It’s a smart strategy that works — or at least it worked on me and my friends. I saw a PaintGem ad, thought it was cool, and showed my friend who was visiting (this was pre-coronavirus, back when friends could visit safely.) A few weeks later, that same friend bought me a gem painting kit for Christmas. The image was of a dog and cat who looked a lot like my own pets. I was hooked.

The great thing about gem painting is how it maximizes the ratio of intricacy to mindlessness. I can completely turn off my brain and still feel completely engrossed by a project. I was never a visually creative kid, vastly preferring a coloring book to a blank sheet of construction paper. (I always colored inside the lines.) I like the serotonin burst I get when I follow instructions to create a finished product. As an adult, that’s manifested as a love for assembling furniture. Part of why gem painting clicks so well in my brain is because it scratches that same itch, but a gem-coated canvas is a lot less obtrusive (and cheaper!) than a new Ikea desk.

The pandemic can heighten anxieties, and like many people I have the tendency to give into doomscrolling whenever I’m in front of a screen. Gem painting occupies my hands but not my brain, and it’s incredibly relaxing to zone out while picking up little shiny squares and sticking them onto their corresponding spaces. Now I just have to find space on my walls for all this sparkly art.

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