My first GIMP'ed Mother's Day card. GIMP is a wonderful piece of software, and is completely free. The learning curve is steep, but well worth it.
I started with a pencil sketch over graph paper:
When I saw that the shape of "Happy" resembled a fish, I tweaked it to be even more fishy. Then I scanned it in and decided to run with the aquatic theme. Mom and I used to regularly go to the beach and do sand sculptures, so this seemed like the perfect homage.
The secret to doing anything like this is to use multiple layers to build up the components. I did a lot of work with a layer of the text that was filled-in, "thickened", and put on a transparent background. The "carved" effect I got by creating an "embossed" text layer on top of a "sand" layer, using a transfer mode that made the sand lighter or darker based on the tone of the embossed text. Blurred, semi-transparent versions of the text layer were used to create both ambient and cast shadows. As a final touch, a very translucent bluish-brown gradient was used just above the background to make the beach sand a little "wetter" (and darker) than the letters towards the bottom of the picture. The sand and the shell were just images I found on the web and editted to suit; I surrounded the shell with the same ambient and cast shadows as the text to make it look like part of the scene.