Homemade Mac:Make Yourself a Beautiful View

Springtime in Northern California. It's the time when gray clouds part, houses stop their slow slide toward the ocean and homeowners once again throw open their blinds to marvel at the sunshine dancing off the coast and distant hills.

At least, that's what my IPO-financed friends tell me when I call.

My own bedroom window offers a stunning view of the peeling, Pepto-Bismol tinted, stucco exterior of my neighbor's apartment building. (And occasionally -- if I'm lucky -- a glimpse of said neighbor doing the dishes in his underwear.) This has lead to something of a predicament. Now every time I open my blinds I'm faced with a decision. On the one hand there's the warm glow of sunlight. On the other, an unattractive neighbor who apparently doesn't own any pants.

For the record, I was perfectly willing to accept this trade-off as the price of living in one of the hottest housing markets in the country. Then I saw my neighbor unpacking his new exercise equipment.

We all have our limits.

If, like me, you own a less than inspiring view, there's hope. Let me show you how to make sun catchers -- colorful, translucent window decorations that work like stained glass, capturing sunlight and (more importantly) masking an otherwise dreary scene.

You'll need some beautiful images for this project. It's a great opportunity to break out those old vacation photos again. Just think, every time you look out your window you could relive the day when that sexy lifeguard saved your life and then invited you to a moonlit picnic...

No, wait, that was an episode of Baywatch .

Of course, if your idea of a scenic vacation is a slow cruise through the McDonald's drive-thru, you can always look to magazines and stock photography for inspiration. If you don't have any stock photography handy, consider looking on the Web at sites like PhotoDisc which offer great royalty-free photography. Unfortunately this can be pricey. A low-resolution image from PhotoDisc will cost you $25. Wherever you find your picture, though, be sure to choose images with vibrant colors, as sunlight tends to wash out pastels and subtle color transitions.

Personally, I've always wanted a garden view. While rummaging through some CD-ROMs of stock photography, I happened across a close-up shot of daisies. Looking for a dramatic effect, I opened the image in Photoshop and altered the colors of the individual daisies by choosing Replace Color from the Adjust menu under Image. In the Replace Color panel, I selected one of the flowers with the eyedropper, adjusting the fuzziness slider until the entire flower was visible (the white areas you see are the ones that will be affected by the command). I then moved the Hue and Saturation sliders until I found a new color.

I then played with Photoshop's Levels (located in the Adjust menu under Image) until I found a good combination of light and dark areas. The Levels window contains a histogram which shows the distribution of highlights and shadows in the image. Here I got quick -- and dramatic -- results by simply cropping the histogram. I moved the two outside arrows right up to the edges of both ends of the histogram. This makes sure that the darkest and lightest areas in the image are mapped to black and white, which increases range in tones and helps maintain the image quality when the finished project is held up against the sunlight. I then used the middle arrow to fine-tune my results.

Finding the right paper for this project is as important as the right image. You want paper that is translucent but sturdy enough to survive a color printer. Paper that is too thin or absorbent--such as tissue or tracing paper--will ripple from the moisture in the inks and cause the colors to bleed. On the other end of spectrum, transparency film such as acetate can also be difficult to use because it doesn't absorb any moisture and takes forever to dry.

After a stroll through the specialty paper aisle of a local art supply store and a lot of experimentation, I finally settled on a translucent laser vellum by SwissClear which resembles wax paper and costs about $6 a pack.

Once you have your lovely translucent photograph, you'll need some way to hang it in your window. There are several options here. For example, if you don't mind shelling out a little cash, you can purchase a backless picture frame. I see these everywhere now. The frame floats the image between two panes of glass, preserving your image's translucency.I purchased one from the local store for $12.

Of course, you could also save your money and use something you probably already have lying around your house--old CD cases.

I, for one, have roughly three gazillion such cases abandoned in the far corners of my apartment. They are the fallout from several poorly chosen but well-intentioned Christmas presents from distant relatives. (Do the words pan flute mean anything to you?)

I once tried to pawn them off on my local used record store, but the pierced and tattooed clerk looked at me with a mixer to horror and scorn and refused to even take them for free. Now, at last, they have found a purpose.

First, remove the top lid of the CD case and gently snap off the protruding tabs that connected the lid the rest of the case. Trim your photo so it can slide snugly into the lid's interior tabs. Now, with a glue gun or other quick-drying adhesive, run a thin bead of glue along the outer edges of the photograph. Be careful not to get any glue in the center of the image!

To finish, mask the edges of the CD case with ribbon or colorful decorations. String fishing wire--or floss -- through the holes on either side of the case and hang the sun catchers at varying levels from hooks above your window.

This may shave months off my future therapy bills. Now, if only I could drown out my downstairs neighbor's off-key rendition of Shake Your Bon Bon ...

Assistant Editor KELLY LUNSFORD is a firm believer that you should always exercise with appropriate clothing. You can send her comments, questions, or your own Mac-oriented craft ideas at klunsford@macworld.com.

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