Me and my wife have been married 10 years and I always do my male duty - and do a terrible job at making our anniversary special. So this year, I wanted to use the toolset at Walsh Makerspace to create something truly special for her. I was racking my brain and remembered the works of one of my favorite artists, Chuck Close. He has this style where he creates many small square images up close, but from afar, they turn to pixels and create a photorealistic image. See example here, a self-portrait by Chuck Close himself:
My wife has this ritual of taking a selfie with us everywhere we go. She has collected so many pictures of us, probably in the thousands or so. She always feels that I am deadpan in them (I am autistic so this is likely just a reflex of mine). With this in mine, I wanted to print something for her using our laser cutter that would really just blow her socks off! Up close, this image is hundreds of small memories of us. But back away and you will see a wedding photo!
- Flat wood, hardwood or plywood, depending on price and preference
- Gimp 2.10 Software
- Access to a laser burner (this one courtesy of Walsh Makerspace)
- Lots of free time
STEP 1: FORMATTING THE MURAL
- This part took probably the most time. I downloaded 100+ pictures of us to use in this mural. I then found a large picture with a strong outline from our wedding day to use as the overlay.
- Measure your surface. For mine, I used a 12" by 24" piece of wood, about a 1/2" thick. You can play with this but take note of the dimensions.
- Feel free to play with the design here. You may want more oblong images or an atypical layout. The key here is to shrink the images to the right size. I shrunk mine to a .5" to .5" dimensions for each one in GIMP then saved it in case I needed more copies. You may need to use some images multiple times.
- Create a new file with the same dimensions as your surface. This image will be called our mural.
- Turn on View->View Grid and View->Snap to Grid so you can assign your images accordingly without much work. This part will take you some time depending on how detailed you want to get. I ended up using 576 images to cover my surface accordingly in a uniform fashion, true to Chuck Close style. Warning: this takes a VERY long time. It was about 15 hours for me. (I recommend doing this by hand to avoid having any repeating images by each other or in close proximity to one another - but this could just be me being a perfectionist.)
- And now an obvious reminder: Save your image! (And save it piece by piece, as images this large and detailed can slow down GIMP quite a bit.)
- Your end mural should look like this: (size reduced on upload)
2. THE OVERLAY
Now, the easier part - creating the larger image that you should see from afar. This is very easy to do in GIMP and easy to preview before we go to the laser cutter.
Here is the image I used for the overlay (before formatting):
This was from our wedding pictures, obviously. And yes, my hair was very metal. Anyways....
- Get the picture you want as the long-distance image and make sure this one has a very high resolution as these details need to be more pronounced to be visible. We will call this the overlay.
- Size the picture or crop it to fit the dimensions of the work space. This image and the mural should have identical dimensions when all is said and done.
- Make a new image with the same dimensions as both your mural and the overlay. (We could just paste into our mural, but this was a lot of work and if you mess up, you'd like to be able to try again, right?) Make sure you right click the new image, click Layer->Transparency->Add Alpha Channel. This makes it so we can use the overlay and change its opacity to create the visual effect.
- Copy and paste your mural into the new (empty) image.
- Copy and paste your overlay.
- Now, on the right should be an Option with a slider called Opacity. Fiddle with it until the overlay is bright enough to be visible but transparent enough so your other images show. This will boil down to your preference and own artistic decisions. Use GIMP to play with this, step back and see how it looks, before committing to the final laser cutting.
- SAVE the GIMP project (XCF) before we begin converting for laser work. DO NOT FORGET TO DO THIS!
- Once your satisfied, save this file as our final image and let's get ready for the laser!
3. PREPARING FOR LASER
Now, to take this image to laser, we will need to do a few more steps. The image will need to be in grayscale and will need some other adjustments to make sure our details pop.
- In GIMP, go to Image->Mode->Grayscale.
- OPTIONAL BUT RECOMMENDED: You may also want to Equalize the grayscale. This makes a more uniform pattern between the mural and overlay and allows for more consistency in the final design so it doesn't look as blocky. Go to Colors->Auto->Equalize. I also recommending upping the Brightness as well as we will be rastering the images and rasters can be dark if not formatted correctly.
- Many laser programs work better with BMP files, so go to File->Export As-> and then change the file extension to .BMP. You will get a warning message about losing transparency - this is ok as we want one image anyways. Make this file a different name in case you need to fiddle with it some more.
- On our laser, after loading the .BMP file, make sure to click Half-Tone Dither (I am using Full Spectrum Driver as my laser cutter and their software). This part is CRUCIAL as without the dither this may very well come out as a blob.
- OPTIONAL but RECOMMENDED: Get a test surface out, home the laser accordingly, check the perimeter of the job and do a test burn. (I am glad I did this, because my first burn, which was FOUR hours, turned out a dark blob of a mess.)
- Once you are confident in the formatting, set your test surface. Do any sanding before the laser work.
- Set your point of origin, put your Cutter in Raster mode, test the perimeter and fire away! You may want to find something to do here, because my burn took four hours for a 12" by 24" print. (Eight hours if you count the test print.)
- If it comes out good and your formatting was correct, it should look like this from afar:
-And THIS up close:
And VOILA! You just turned memories into real art. Your spouse will surely love it. Mine definitely did.
- It's too dark! I can't see anything! -- This could be because your forgot to turn on the Half-Tone Dither option. You may also try adjusting the image brightness before going into Grayscale. (This is why we save the multiple steps of the process.)
- I can't see the small pictures! -- You likely put the opacity too high on the overlay image. Load up the files again in GIMP (XCF file) and adjust. If you kept the mural before the BMP conversion, this should be a simple swing of the slider.
- I can't see the big picture! -- Sometimes you may have to be in a well-lit area to see it. On this, you probably put the opacity too low on the overlay. Go back into the XCF file and adjust.
- The colors mismatch or it's inconsistent - If your image looks blocky or not uniform, try going into the Grayscale image in the XCF and using the Equalize function. (Colors->Auto->Equalize) This creates a greater consistency through the image.
DISCLAIMER: This may raise your spouse's standard for gifts, create deep attraction and emotion and make your spouse crazy about you. Results may vary! I accept no responsibility for the raised gift standards, increased intimacy and awesome powerful feelings this may produce.
This work of art was created at the Walsh Makerspace in Fort Worth, TX. Special thanks to Scott Sumner for help with the formatting for the laser cutter.