Laser cutters and spray paint can be the bridge between your digital art and your physical art. This particular example uses an photograph, but these steps would work for any image file.
Step 1: Get Materials
+ An image that is saved as a .pdf
+ Access to a laser cutter. (You can use the one at TechShop after 2 hours of instruction)
+ Sandpaper and a big block of wood.
+ Spray Paints (Montana Gold is the strong recommendation from my painter friends)
+ A medium that you can laser etch onto. I chose plywood because I liked combining wood grain with an image of the ocean.
Nice to have:
+ I use photoshop/illustrator in this example but it is not necessary
Step 2: Find Photo and Pre-Process
Ultimately you want turn your image into a black and white bitmap that the laser cutter can understand.To do this I pre-processed the image in photoshop, maxing out the contrast of the image and using the "Unsharp Mask" filter to an extreme degree to bring out as much detail as possible before moving the image into Illustrator.
Step 3: Use Live Trace in Illustrator to Reduce the Image Complexity
It might take a few tries with the Live Trace and Live Paint tools to get the settings exactly right. I experimented with placing the image over a wooden backdrop, which was helpful in visualizing what it may look like once the images gets placed on the wood. You can see how the top left example is missing much of the breaking wave, so I adjusted the settings to allow more detail of the wave at the expense of a bit more noise in the image.
Step 4: Fire the Lasers
As you can see, my alignment on the left side of the wood was imperfect, but a quick pass on the table saw cropped the excess wood.
Step 5: Paint and Sand
Note: This was my first time with spray paints so I took a few practices at trying to get a decent gradient.
The steps here are:
+ Wrap sandpaper around a large block of 2x4, at least 12" long. This block will let you sand the areas untouched by the laser, but will avoid sanding the recessed areas with the pain.
+ Spray your pattern. Keep the cans ~18" away from the wood and move in smooth patterns (too close will cause globbing). Missing your target areas is fine, but keep in mind you will have to sand off all paint outside of the laser-etched areas.
+ The spray paint seems to come off best before it is completely dry. After you take a finish the spray paint pass, wait about 30 seconds and then start sanding with your block+sandpaper device.
Step 6: Sand Off the Excess
Note that this is a labor intensive process, but the detail that come come out from this is well worth the effort :)