New technology is no new news, it’s the norm now. 3D printing, lasercutting and etching are readily available at our fingertips, they’re not whimsical glimpses of the future on Tomorrow’s World anymore, no longer a fad, trend or quirky toy.
Now that we know all about them and can experiment at any opportunity, it’s time to move away from the obvious lasercut keyrings and etched buttons and use this equipment to create true pieces of art.
Barnsley’s ‘Enlightened Exhibition’ (made possible by Cutting Technologies and design studio DMSQD) brought together a selection of artists and designers to create lasercut pieces of art and furniture to show quite what’s capable of the lasercutting technology in 2014.
For the show, artist Ben The Illustrator designed a new surface pattern inspired by the Australian rainforest, a lush little scene featuring a Wompoo Fruit Dove, which he then developed into a (rather heavy) lasercut metal installation.
When I was first asked to create something for the Enlightened exhibition (shown here), the curators and I agreed that it would be great to take a surface pattern design and develop it into a lasercut wall-hanging installation.
Aesthetically though I wanted to clash with the clean, modern, flat laser-created shapes and design something lush and rich, bring some softness to it.
For me, putting together a surface pattern is a very technical, digital process, but in order to reach an outcome that doesn’t look too digital or graphic,
I frequently start with a sketch, to set the scene, instead of starting with a technical (or even mathematical) plan for the pattern itself. My inspiration was the Australian rainforest: deep, rich and natural.
Idea conceived and scene set, for the pattern design itself I then drew out each element separately in order to build the rainforest pattern.
Jungle tip: don’t draw the same kind of leaf over and over again, you get a far more realistic lushness with a variety of leaf shapes and sizes.
After the drawings were scanned, I traced each shape using the Pen tool in Illustrator.
For this the pattern’s repetition, colours or final medium are not a concern – the focus has to be on ensuring that each leaf shape is just exquisite.
If you are developing an illustration or design piece to be lasercut then your only choice is to be working in vectors – as lasercutting machines read vector files, not bitmapped ones like JPEGs or PSDs.
There are services that could take your design work and vector it for you, but it will cost you!
For this particular pattern I knew I’d be working with three layers of material to create the depth in the installation. However as well as each flat layer of cut material, you can also etch with lasercutting – allowing you to play with six different textures or ftones to your artwork.
I added etching on the focal bird element to let it stand out.
I already envisaged the pattern as a criss-cross layout, so to start building it I put together a motif of leaves surrounding the fruit dove, where the lines would cross and repeat.
As this is the central part of the design, I used the two leaf shapes I liked most – which helpfully also sat well together.
Such is the way of lasercutting (and gravity), that as you put together your design you must remember that every element on one flat layer must be connected. If it is separate then it would fall away from the main piece, as the piece marked with a X here would.
However, you can cut holes in a layer – as shown by the tick.
There are multiple different tools and methods for building a repeat pattern in Illustrator. All can be effective so long as you know the repeat will always be seamless when cropping at the Artboard's edges.
A good place to start learning is the ‘Pattern Options’ panel (
Windows > Pattern Options)
I often work on a grid, starting with a 1000px artboard. If an element crosses over one edge, then copy and move that element to come back in on the opposite edge.
To do this select the element in the Layers panel, duplicate it using the Layers panel’s flyout menu, then move the object 1000px in the appropriate direction using
Object > Transform > Move.
For my installation, I also had to add a frame to each layer – just to hold it all together and so the three layers could be connected together.
However, depending on what you’re designing, you can always break out of the box and not restrict yourself to a frame.
The second level followed the first fairly closely, adding another dimension but following the criss-cross of the top layer.
The third layer (shown) was a lot fuller, filling the gaps beneath the top two layers and really evoking the fullness of a rainforest scene.
My pattern designed, I created a final mock-up in colour to show the lasercutting team how I was envisaging the final piece.
Initially I was looking at coloured plastics or wood – or possibly a mixture of the two. However, I learned that wood might be too fragile to deal with some of the finer details and hold together across the large sheets once lasercut.
The experts suggested using sheet metals, in this case copper and brass – which sounded amazing. Some lasercutting machinery however can only etch metals, not cut them – so do ask your cutters early on if that’s your aim.
Work alongside your lasercutting team to get the best outcome – they may even suggest something that illustrators wouldn’t usually even dream of.
My vector file then went off to Cutting Technologies, where their lasers cut the one-metre sheets as precisely as they were illustrated by me.
As with anything like this, there is an element of ‘handing’ over your vision to experts and their machines, I never foresaw that these shapes would have the extra outline from the laser heat, but love the effect.
If you’re used to working predominantly digitally, then using your digital designs to create something ‘real’ means you may have to rely on someone else’s expertise to deal with the practicalities of how your work will exist in the face of gravity and material strength.
For example, my main concern with using one-metre sheets of metal was its weight and how that weight would stay on the wall – but Cutting Technologies could tell me that my work would hold together where it was hung.
One of my favourite outcomes of the final piece was something I can take no credit for.
Although I frequently think in strong and striking colour palettes and digital lighting effects, I never could have conceived how well the design would catch the light and glow like finely crafted gold jewellery.
If you’re already skilled in digital design and illustration, then lasercutting gives us all the opportunity to move into different areas, to consider designing pieces for interiors or public spaces – which we couldn’t perhaps create by hand – and moving away from simply producing digital art prints.
Experimenting with lasercutting and learning how to take your own skills and vision into this area can really be exciting. It can be an expensive procedure, but not always if you play with the right materials.
One additional advantage of this process over hand-made work is that its digital conception means that it can be easily repeated and batches of products can be made for sale or self-promotion.
In the end, the Enlightened Exhibition brought together a host of illustrators, graphic designers and typographers who worked together with curator Kyle Wilkinson and Cutting Technologies to produce everything from art pieces to chairs and tables to animated zoetropes.