Now and again a customer will contact me to ask if I can make a unique piece for themselves or a loved one which will incorporate an element personal to them. I don’t go out of my way to advertise the fact I can make bespoke pieces, mainly because they can be very time-consuming (not to mention nerve-wracking), and at certain times of the year it’s just too difficult to fit around everything else that’s going on.

Having said that, commissions can also be exciting, fun and educational!

Back in March I was contacted by a customer who’s husband was publishing a novel called ‘Fray’ and she wanted to give him a special, unique gift to mark the occasion. She thought my work was reminiscent of the book cover and asked if I could create something similar in diorama form; the book is set in the wilds of Glencoe and the cover artwork by Holly Ovenden features a red cottage set amongst the fir trees and mountains…

If you know my work then you’ll know that all of these things couldn’t be more right up my street if they tried! Mountains, trees, a remote cottage, an intriguing story within = some of my favourite things and what I strive for in a lot of my work. I was also very flattered and excited to be asked to make a piece to celebrate such a wonderful achievement.

As I could use Holly’s artwork as a direct reference point, and with it being very graphic in nature I initially thought “well this will be fairly straightforward”. Always foolhardy! You think I would know by now that starting a piece from scratch is always a lengthy process, even in this case when the separate layers are already quite obvious and I have a good quality image file to work from…to explain further I should really give you a quick rundown of the stages of the design process:

First of all I draw or trace out what will become the first layer, in this case the mountains with their contour lines; when I first saw the book cover design I was immediately taken by the use of contours which you would see on an OS map (again one of my favourite things to use in a diorama, but previously as an actual piece of map forming a backdrop). I thought they would look great laser-engraved onto the wood’s surface. I used to incorporate screenprinted elements in my work to create lines and pattern, but due to a lack of workspace over the past year I’ve replaced this with laser-engraving.

Even with the lines already in place in the cover design, I have to admit they took ages to get right – there was a fair bit of tweaking involved until I was satisfied they would work as engraved lines!

Then comes the 2nd layer – the land with the cottage; the cottage only measures just over 1cm wide so I knew I couldn’t attempt to paint the details of the roof, door and windows, so they all became engraing lines too. When working on this scale I always spend time ensuring no detail will be lost in the cutting process:

The same goes for the trees on the 3rd layer. At this point decisions had to be made regarding simplifying the design to make it work on a small scale (the final scene measures 8cm). This is where artistic licence comes in! I decided to reduce the number of trees and lose the reflection from the original cover design so it didn’t look too busy.

The shapes need to be solid black so that they can be turned into vector drawings readable by a laser cutter. As I have yet to join the 21st century I do this using Photoshop (rather than something like an iPad). While all this is happening I’m also thinking about how the final piece will be painted to create more depth and texture. To help me visualise the final piece I make a mock-up in Photoshop:

Once I’m happy with all the pieces, individually and together, I can then import them into Inkscape (a vector graphics editor). Inskcape enables you to transform drawings into outlines which will be cut or engraved by the laser cutter (for a deeper dive into this have a look at LaserFlair’s blog post).

The really exciting part of the process comes when the pieces are finally cut; I always hold my breath though until I know that everything looks as it should…there are a multitude of things which need to be checked and double-checked before the start button is pressed! In this case everything came out perfectly I’m glad to say:

Of course the pieces still had to be painted and assembled, and the painting on this one in particular filled me with trepidation! Opportunities for mistakes are still plentiful at this point – I was concerned about painting the black mountains neatly to avoid blocking out the contour lines, and I also hadn’t nailed down the foreground area below the trees…

It all turned out fine in the end though, and I’m very happy to report that the customer and her husband loved the finished piece. I feel very honoured that my work is now a small part of the ‘Fray’ story. I can’t wait to read it!

‘Fray’ by Chris Carse Wilson is out now