Introduction: How to Paint (without Any Hand Skill)

My dream was always to paint my own art that hangs on my walls, but I have a problem: My skill with the brush is minimal at best. I'm a digital kid (read: Photoshop etc.) who's been trying to move into physical goods. The answer is pretty sweet once it hit me...


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

For this project you will need:
+ 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

I love the ocean so I wanted to make a piece of art with a wave. I went to and searched for large images of "Breaking Wave." 

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

The output from photoshop can now be placed into Illustrator. The "Live Trace" and "Live Paint" tools can be used vectorize the image. For further learning on the Live Trace tool, this 5 minute video is a great resource.

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

Placing the image into the controller software, blow it up a bit bigger than the actual wood, then be sure to set an etch that is as deep as is safe. This example was about 3/16" deep.

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

The laser cutter has etched in the pattern of your image, so you can paint over your image, then sand off the excess to get the full detail.

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

Wrap the sandpaper around the long block of wood, and use it to sand off all paint that was not part of the original image. Make sure that the piece of wood is long enough to distribute your force across multiple raised areas, and to avoid using the corners of the wood as it would damage the paint you want to keep.

Note that this is a labor intensive process, but the detail that come come out from this is well worth the effort :)

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