Pixels into Paper

As Janet described so well recently, sometimes we all need a project that will rejuvenate us creatively or otherwise. I was feeling a similar need for rejuvenation late last year and decided to dedicate the month of January this year to completing one significant art project. The idea came to me like many do, through a series of small inspirations and one bright flash. I had been noticing a lot of vector-based graphics on the web and in print ads and thought they were cool. Then, I saw a link to an online application that would convert bitmap graphics to vector images. I was pleased with how easy it was to use and how nice the results were. The same thing can be done in Photoshop or Illustrator, I'm sure, but it's probably buried among a thousand other functions.

bitmap vs. vector graphics
(image credit: Vector Magic)

The flash came when I envisioned making a vector-like picture using real-world artifacts rather than with a computer. If you could create a realistic image from a bunch of digital shapes, why not do the same thing with pieces of colored paper? I thought that it would be cool to create a semi-realistic photo from paper cut-outs, using a vectorized image as a guide.

My first step was to choose a suitable photo. I had a pretty clear idea of the requirements - I knew that it couldn't contain too much variation in color, because I was going to have to cut out separate objects for each distinct color. That meant that the scene couldn't be too complex. I also wanted something that would be fun and lively, something that would be interesting to look at as a purely visual object. I knew it right away when I saw it. This is a photo that my wife took on our honeymoon last summer on Kauai. It met my requirements perfectly.

surfer kid

I cropped it quite a bit to whittle the photo down to its essential elements and here's what I came up with as the vectorized version. What used to be millions of pixels of myriad colors was now summarized in about 25 clearly-defined shapes of distinct colors.

vectorized surfer kid


Then, the question became: where to go from here...? It had been a really long time since I had done art with my hands. I nearly gave up on the project here, but stumbled my way through unfamiliar tasks like picking out paper at art stores, testing the adhesion strength and other properties of various glues, and even making myself a guide with precise measurements.

trying out glues

the guide that I made

At this point, it felt a lot more like engineering than art.

I also didn't have a good work space for something this size. On my laptop, I can work on something that's 10,000 pixels wide just as easily as something the size of an icon. But the real world has physical size constraints that I'm not used to. I made some space in an unused area of the floor and got to work.

Once I established a system, it went pretty smoothly. I started by cutting out shapes for the background and layering them from the bottom up. Part of me wanted to get everything precise, to match my printed out guide, but I also knew that I had a lot of leeway, since I was just trying to create a sense of a beach scene. I would make sure that the left and right edges were at the right height, then have some fun cutting curvy, wave-like lines between them.

background 1

background 2


I then began on the kid, which took a lot more eyeballing and working by "feel" than the background. I think this part was the most fun though. Working with my hands and needing to focus so much got me caught up in a flow-like state a few times.

surfer kid in progress


After a few weeks of spending a spare evening hour here and a weekend afternoon there, I was finished. It turned out surprisingly close to the vectorized image that I based it on, and I was able to let go of the "mistakes" since I was pleased with the style of it independent of its level of realism.



I'd say that the most rewarding result of this experience was the feeling that came from seeing an idea through to completion. Sometimes working on a team can obscure your view of the big picture and it was nice to have my own fun project to work on for a while. My just-for-fun project this month has been to take 10 photos each day and post my favorite one online. You can see the results here.


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