Make an Art With Lasers and Paint




Introduction: Make an Art With Lasers and Paint

About: Artist at Autodesk's Pier 9. I make narrative paintings on wood panels and have a background in performance, mail and video art. I love tacos.

Seascape Triptych, 2015 (Acrylic and pencil on laser-etched wood panels)

This is a triptych made from wood panels that were etched with a laser cutter and then fleshed out using traditional painting and drawing techniques. The laser cut portion is a digital collage of hand-drawn scenes using a Wacom on Sketchbook Pro and computer generated drawing elements in Photoshop. It references photos I've taken, my grandfather's mechanical boat sketches, as well as famous photos of WWI and WWII. How was it made? Well first we need to talk about why.

Hippies. What have they ever done for us?

Hippies believe a lot of nonsense. It seems. However, did you know that without hippies we wouldn't have the internet? Yes, hippies have given a lot to society that we are not always aware of. One of the central beliefs of the hippie, is that everything is delicately interconnected.

With this art, I set out exploring some of my grandfather's ephemera dating back to the transition period of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic. I eventually ran smack dab into hippie jibber jabber. It's a slippery slope when we talk about things being connected to each other. One false move and you're covered in patchouli attending an open mic night with your drum circle.

In some art, the art that is made is the art. In other arts, it is the process that's the art and not the art object. Some of this process can be how something is made through materials or technique; and sometimes, it is right before it is made that's the art part. This is one of those arts. It's an art about content and research and the end object (which happens to be a painting) is secondary. So in order to share how this art is made, it's integral to talk first about why it was made.

Step 1: Subject Matter

Because of my art residency at Pier 9, I started hanging around a lot more engineers and tinkerers. This led me to hunting down some of my grandfather’s mechanical sketches and my mom sent me a small number of his sketches and letters.

My grandfather (b. 1913) was a carpenter and inventor in Turkey. He was well known in his town as a Renaissance man. Through gathering up materials and tales of perpetual motion machines told by my cousin, I followed a trail that led me from sketches of boat mechanics to the incredible history of a boy's prep school, started by Congregational missionaries, known as International College.

My grandfather attended this school in the 30s in Izmir, Turkey (then known as Smyrna). Izmir is a port-town located in a bay very similar in some aspects to San Francisco. It was known as the "pearl of the Mediterranean" and was a melting pot of cultures and culture. International College was founded in the late-1800s and was known as one of the best prep schools in the middle east. It played host to Turkey's first electrical generator, takes credit for restarting the Olympics through intramural sports and served as prisoner of war camp in in WW1.

In the obituary of the school’s founder in the New York Times, I read that he had been “wounded by brigands in 1922.” This led me to eye witness reports of the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922 where over 100,000 people lost their lives. It also brought up the complicated histories of The Greco-Turkish War and Armenian Genocide and how geopolitical decisions impact history on a macro and personal scale.

I followed many trails from the fire, including the paths the teachers at the school went on and even traced their grandchildren, following signs of how an institution's principles can remain embedded in the psychology of the families involved.There are lots of details in any moment that can lead to any other moment.

One boat in the harbor during the fire was the USS Litchfield. The USS Litchfield was one of the boats that helped evacuate an estimated 150,000 Greeks and Armenians from the city, including some professors and students from the school. 19 years later, in 1941, that same boat was stationed at Pearl Harbor. My father was a little boy in Honolulu at the time, and must have seen the ship in the harbor. The two most historically-significant events that either my grandfather or my father witnessed during their childhoods are thus strangely linked by the presence of this ship.

These events have links to many other histories, of other bays, other buildings repurposed for WWI, then WW2, other refugees who flee from politics and war only to find themselves pushed up against the water or escaping in boats. And of course, there are other decisions made by the few that affect the many. Unwinding any thread creates simple, direct connections between people and times that at first seem distant or unconnected. We can not derive the meaning of anything in isolation; our modern world and our place in it is a series of connections.

Step 2: Drawing and Collage

After all this research, I had a lot of images to work from. I wanted to do a landscape that transformed from one bay in to the next, with all places sharing the same water and mixing up timelines from the 19th century to the present.

I started off tracing photos on Sketchbook Pro in order to get used to the Wacom and got a little more control. I gradually developed some water, building and mountain drawings inspired by an old woodcut style. To make the water I decided to use the mirroring affect in order to emphasize in the final work that this was digital and not just hand drawn. It also provides the context of duality and repetition. I used the same water drawing in all three panels to give additional beats to duality.

The collaging mainly happened in photoshop. I used the content fill feature to generate even more non human drawn elements that also emphasize repetition. Boats and parts of the hills repeat. I exported these back out to Sketchbook to correct edges and re draw the bits that were jarring to the eye. I also used photos directly in the warship on the left panel and San Francisco on the right panel by playing around with contrast levels and then cleaning up and adding more depth to the edges using the Wacom. The photo of San Francisco is one I took from near Fisherman's wharf . I used this one in order to get an angle of SF that one would have if you were sailing in through the Golden Gate. My father had recently said that coming back from the Korean War, that view of San Francisco was one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen.

I also scanned in drawings, including my grandfather's boat sketches and worked the layers in to the other drawings.

The final collaging of all the disparate bits took about 20 hours. There were surprisingly few iterations as I knew by the time I started, what kind of look I wanted and what story I wanted to tell.

Step 3: Laser Cut Wood Panels

As you can see I look very tired and crazy. Sometimes the laser cutters don't play well. They are basically printers, and we all know what that is like. I used a spare piece of plywood that covered the entire laser bed to figure out placement for my panels precisely so that they would be etched from edge to edge. I tested several times. Nevertheless, I wasted two panels as the laser belt decided to wonk out a couple of times and mock my tight timeline. Troubleshooting lasted many hours and brought no answers. I thought maybe my file was corrupt and did everything from screenshots and switching software and printing directions. It seemed the only thing the lasers could print correctly was the phrase "Please Work. I'm tired and I want to go home."

Eventually, I did get to go home and I had three panels. If you want to laser etch wood and paint on it there are lot of maker spaces that have lasers or you can outsource or have at it with a wood burner and a lot of patience. This part took longer than it should have due to troubleshooting down time. There are also many great Instructables on this site with good tips on how to use lasers in much less frustrating ways than mine.

Step 4: Painting

I like to lay out everything I might possibly need before I start. I think this is so I can scan the table for something I might need and it will jump out and then I react quick and intuitively. I also think you paint better when you are tired as you stop overthinking.

I use Golden acrylics pretty exclusively as I think they have the best acrylic pigments and oils make me dizzy. I build up thin washes of color, sometimes with different gel mediums, in order to get complex layers of color. In some of my older paintings there are almost a hundred layers.

When using a water based paint on woods, it is wise to do the same thing on the back of the panel as the front so that as it evaporates and the wood changes, it pulls at itself at the same time from opposite directions to discourage warping. Since these are only 24 x 30 in. and cradled on the back, it's not really necessary, but any bigger and you need to be diligent about painting on both sides of the panel.

I fiddled around with the laser cut bits first as I thought out what to do in the foreground. Once something is in motion I find that my ideas change about what I want happening. I like printing out photos I'm going to work from and moving them around to get a sense of what I want things to look like. I also do quick sketches to pin on the paintings when I'm trying to decide what to do or where things go especially if I am switching directions.

Painting on etched surfaces has the great benefit of speed. You do not need as much precision in applying paint. It also encourages more subtractive methods of paint application and echoes printing presses.

The surface texture here is achieved with the following techniques:

  • Thin washes of color that soak into the top surface and laser cut surface
  • Thick globs of paint over laser cut areas that is then wiped off immediately with a towel so as to fill the laser cut areas (similar to intaglio printing techniques)
  • Dry brushing just the top surface of lasered areas (similar to block printing)
  • Sanding off color for faded areas on both laser cut areas and flat swatches
  • Using a linoleum roller for water glints as it creates random straight patterns
  • Drawing with pencil on flat surfaces and shading only with the grain of wood to achieve subtle gradations.
  • Drawing with pencil in etched areas either darkening and creating more recession in the cuts or grating the pencil on carved out areas to create rougher/more natural texture

I apply brighter color down first and then work towards a more natural palette so that the layers of bright color from beneath the lighter colors lends an inner vibrance to some of the more flat washes of color. For example, a gray might have glints of neon orange shining through it.

I wanted all three panels to be different although eerily the same due to the drawings, so I painted them separately. Even when I wanted to use a similar color on two different panels, I mixed it up from scratch for each painting instead of using the same color for both. This way it would be close, but not exact. The colors also refer a little to the main places and times of the panel. Hawaii has a lot of WWII elements and brighter fire and explosions, Smyrna has more smokiness but still fire, and SF is a bit more modern city grey and smoky with only a hint of yellow fire coming through. However, the cloudy smoky sky in SF is painting directly from and old photo of the fire of the 1906 earthquake. It is also the colors of an unidentified transition time frame, with sunset or twilight. These are all uncertain times of the day not just years.

There's a lot of ambiguity in this palette as it is cheery and can be decorative. I think the battleship is the most obvious indicator of the weight of the stories that are being told in these. Otherwise, In order to notice what is going on historically you need to already know the history of these places, or relate personally to the symbolism. There are clues for the audience to lead into other thoughts though. Some boats are filled with refugees, some are empty. There is only one hotel in Hawaii and the landscape is not lush and green but charred. The waves are not realistic but patterned and blurred out. The water is both shallow and deep, the Tide is both in and out. These are some of the drawing and painting choices that add more complications to the work depending on the personal experiences of the viewer.

All three are also self portraits. I think even without the actual self portraits on the side panels they would be self portraits as it is the story of what I've been researching and what my family has experienced and what my relationship is to other experiences. (I believe that all the work anyone does is by tautological definition a self portrait anyway.)

Thanks for reading so much writing and let me know if you have any questions.

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    8 Discussions


    4 years ago

    Thanks Sherry....... I loved reading your story and experiences with etching/laser cutting and art. :)


    Reply 4 years ago

    Thank you, kind stranger on the internet I have surely have never hung out with before in numerous locations around the Bay Area and sometimes even in distant cities that are near roller coasters.


    4 years ago

    This is really fun!

    I love the mix of old and new.

    Art that really tells a story, with a fresh authenticity...


    Reply 4 years ago

    Steve Mann! Thank you. What an honor.


    4 years ago

    This is gorgeous and I love the stories behind it :D


    Reply 4 years ago

    aw thank you!


    4 years ago

    Beautiful work. I like this idea for mixed media.