3D Printing in the Visual Arts (Mellon Project Report)

For the Digital Mellon initiative I proposed the addition of a 3-D design and printing component to all of my presently listed course offerings. Implementation of the project has been slow. In June of 2016 I attended a workshop that was an introduction to 3D digital scanning and printing technologies at “Creating in Cahoots” maker’s lab in McKinney, TX. In this workshop we received an abbreviated tutorial covering scanning printing and shaping software as well as open source options. Additionally we had tutorials in using Sculptris and Tinkercad, and introductions to Netfabb, Meshlab, and Skanect.  We then proceeded to hands on training in 3D scanning using the Skanect system and the iSense scanner. Inspired by this workshop I decided to use these techniques in my classroom this spring as the first step in the introduction of digital technologies.

In fall of 2016 I began with some select students to produce small projects in order to familiarize myself with the technologies as well as to get programs loaded on our classroom computers. Working with a selected student, we used Tinkercad to produce a “chop” or signature stamp for ceramics class. We couldn’t get his design to print because the foundation architecture was not developed in a way that the printer could understand. We then simplified the process and drew the design for the chop as a vector file, then saved it as a .svg and opened it in Blender. We converted the .svg file to a mesh file and extruded it into a three-dimensional shape. This process was pretty accessible for all students and I had plans to use this as my first 3D assignment. Unfortunately because of our department staffing I didn’t teach the spring ceramics course and instead taught an introductory art course where this assignment didn’t fit.  

For my sculpture class in spring 2017 we decided to conduct a digital version of the surrealist artist and writers exercise, “The Exquisite Corpse.” The Exquisite Corpse is a game where multiple participants, each without knowledge of the previous composition, compose either a drawing or poem; these works are then collectively assembled as a new unique composition. Our sculpture class divided into groups of three, and each group scanned one member’s head, another member’s torso, and a third member’s legs. The idea behind Exquisite Corpse is to move beyond conscious bias and inhibitions in order to create something new by letting the subconscious and serendipity take over the creative process.

This assignment seemed to be an ideal introduction to digital technologies for my non-technical students. The project is designed to be fun and the students enjoyed the scanning and planning process. The compositional part was a bit more taxing. Student groups were able to learn basic 3-D scanning and manipulating processes that culminated in a finished work that was printed with the Ultimaker 2+. Students worked to learn scanning with 3-D imaging and then manipulated body regions with the open source program Blender. These models were then printed and processed. These PLA products will be used as forms in the lost wax casting method, with plans to form them in bronze with a centrifugal casting process. I will also develop a file to be sent to a commercial fabricator, Shapeways, to better understand and to price prints made in more durable and aesthetic media.

In the future, digital design and printing will be a tool for prototype in advanced studio and an introductory feature in my fundamentals assignments. In Art 255, Ceramics, I plan to have students use Sculptris, an introductory modeling program that allows users to manipulate a 3-D model. These models can then be printed as a maquette. Students will critique work before continuing on to produce a full-scale version in clay. In Art 252, Sculpture, I will have students design using Tinkercad and Blender. Students will then be able to print maquette and proceed to fabricate the sculpture with steel or even direct cast in bronze.

Projected Student Outcomes

  • Introducing new technology into the classroomsThe art world is abundant with media forms; there is literally nothing off limits. Introducing digital media to our students as a critical component of art making will expand their understanding of the 21st centuryvisual vocabulary. With the pending addition of new faculty in our department, these beginning steps toward becoming digital versant will represent a foundation to build new initiatives.
  • Foster collaborative learning. Many tired project scenarios feature collaborative work. Updating our classroom to include 3-D printing will bring a new energy and excitement to the collaborative artistic practice.
  • Artists creating better productsBuilding maquettes or drawing initial designs are often given short shrift by student artists. Product prototyping will result in a more deliberate and aesthetically rich final product.
  • Bridge the divide. The myth of emotive creativity is pervasive in young artists; planning and structure are not universally valued. Students will better understand that drafts and revisions are a key factor in art making.  

Considerations and Concerns

I was surprised by the considerable print time of 6-8 hours that even our small prototypes required to finish. For a class of 22 students, printing similar files would take two weeks of consistent print time and monitoring. If multiple classes were attempting to print, wait times would be significant. This could be resolved if students were given responsibility for printing files from a commercial shop, though to many students the extra cost might dissuade them from getting a project completed.

The scanners that we currently use don’t render much detail and are not sufficient for close up work. In addition to better scanners, we need more of them. Currently we use an iSense scanner that is on loan from the digital pedagogy design office. The art department also purchased a X-Box camera that is able to interface with the Skanect software. While this camera produces really interesting textural files, is very bad at details.

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