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Adventures in Laser Cutting
with Sarah Pike at FreeFall Laser
Struggling to get good results laser engraving photographs?
I recently had a client who asked that two photographs be laser engraved onto wood. I didn't tell him, but I was dreading the job. Formatting photographs to output successfully as laser engraved images can be a daunting challenge, and too often a "good" result isn't nearly as good as you'd imagined.

The job I was dreading turned into a new discovery when by chance I engraved the image too light. I took the mistake and turned it into an opportunity for "what if" problem solving. And, voila--a new way of creating laser-engraved photographs with greater depth was born.

Below I explain the inherent challenges of laser engraving photographs and describe my new discovery. Step by step instructions are on my website.

Looking for an artist to share innovative approaches to laser cutting with your students? Contact me to set up a visiting artist lecture and workshop like the one I'm doing at Wesleyan University in two-weeks.

Don't miss the FreeFall Artists Out in the World section at the bottom. Exhibitions with Hannah Smith's laser engraved ceramic tiles and Hilary Lorenz's wall installation with laser cut paper are opening this month!

Have a project idea? Let's chat!

The challenge with laser engraving photographs is that the laser cutter translates the digital image into its own language. This is like trying to communicate in another language when you only have a phrasebook: you might be able to get the basic idea across but specificity is lost.

As you can see below, a photograph that looks good on screen doesn't necessarily look good when engraved.

Part of the problem is how the laser cutter translates the value and contrast relationships. Settings that are optimal for light areas are different from those that are optimal for dark areas. As a result, choosing an average setting to accommodate both creates an image with skewed value and contrast relationships.
original digital photograph : laser-engraved wood
There are ways to improve the results by tweaking the photograph in PhotoShop, and many laser cutters have internal programs to help achieve better results. But, as you can see below, while a reformatted photograph produces better results, the engraved image is still muddy.
photograph reformatted in PhotoShop : laser-engraved wood
What if we could engrave the light and dark areas
separately using the same file?

(without a lot of hassle or having to become PhotoShop master)
laser-engraved photograph using two-pass method

The secret is to engrave the image in two passes. This creates a more dimensional image in much the same way that glazing multiple transparent layers of paint creates a richer color than a single opaque layer. 
Visit my website for step by step instructions
This technique is not just for photographs. It can be used on any grayscale image and with any material (paper, acrylic, leather, wood, and more.) Bellow are laser engraved images done from a monotype by book artist and printmaker Valerie Carrigan.
laser engraved basswood
laser engraved paper

FreeFall Artists Out in the World

Hannah Smith and I have spent many hours talking shop about laser-engraving photographs. Hannah has developed laser-engraving techniques for creating vitreography (glass etching) plates. Last month she came to FreeFall Laser to create laser-engraved ceramic tiles for an upcoming exhibition at the Museum of the White Mountains.

Lasting Impressions showcases multiple generations of alumni in the fields of art, writing, music, theater, and dance at Plymouth State University, highlighting the importance of place as well as the university’s history of incubating critical thinking and artistry. Including everyone from recent graduates to established artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and actors, Lasting Impressions is a collection of works that convey the role the White Mountains, teaching, experiences, landscapes, and ideas have had in influencing these artists’ creative journeys and developing careers. This multisite exhibit celebrates alumni achievement and inspires current PSU students.

Lasting Impressions
September 26 - October 26, 2017

Museum of the White Mountains
34 Highland Street
Plymouth, NH 03264

Hannah  Marie Smith, Paved. Laser-engraved ceramic tiles, brick, and soil, 2017. Work in-progress, detail.

For Hilary Lorenz's new wall installation I laser-cut almost 100 paper plants. If you are in New York City, check it out!

The Making of a Rock Garden is a wall installation of hand-cast flax flower pots containing laser-cut plants and tiny cast stones. Influenced by the T. H. Everett Alpine House at Wave Hill in Bronx, New York--currently on display there in the exhibition Call and Response, curated by Gabriel de Guzman--the piece originated with the creation of forty-nine tiny pots resembling an alpine house planting and using desert plants from the artist's home in New Mexico as models for the laser cuts.

Call and Response
Glyndor Gallery
T. H. Everett Alpine House at Wave Hill
West 249th St and Independence Ave
Bronx, NY 10471-2899 
September 10 - December 3, 2017

Hilary Lorenz, The Making of a Rock Garden. Cast flax, paper and ink, 2017.
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