Are 3D Digital Tools Changing the Boundaries of Sculpture or Are They Creating a New Category of Art?
by Harry Abramson

Over the ages, artists of all types have taken advantage of advancements in technology to produce their work. From early cave drawings to the Sistine Chapel to the Lord of the Rings movies, the evolution of how we use imagery to tell stories is constantly evolving. Computers and the internet have revolutionized music, entertainment, and photography, making huge shifts in the creative process and the distribution and appreciation of finished work. With more powerful tools, artists have the opportunity to save time while improving consistency and precision in their work. While the bar will continually rise on technical perfection, it is the artist’s vision, and execution, independent of technology, that will separate great works of art from the not so great.

Consider animated films. In 1995, Toy Story set a technical milestone as the first feature-length computer animated film. As a commercial and critical success, it established computer animation as a legitimate methodology for making movies. Now the technology involved is more powerful and common than ever, and over 70 films have been created this way. Through familiarity, the wow factor has somewhat diminished, and only about a handful of computer animated productions have rivaled the overall success achieved by Toy Story. Digital animation has changed the boundaries of film, but regardless of the technology a director chooses to employ, it is the creative vision and artistic execution that remain the most critical elements in making something that audiences love.

Sculpture too is now going digital, as artists adopt a world of 3D tools that have been developed and optimized by the aerospace, automotive, and entertainment industries. While the definitive digital sculpture is yet to be revealed, countless sculptures have been created employing digital processes. The word “formtography” is not an official or accepted term, but it labels and attempts to explain the concept of what these tools make possible: capturing 3D forms, and then, like a photographer, recreating them in any desired size. While this term may not stick, the concept is here to stay. “Formtography” is the combination of three types of technology-- 3D data capture (think camera), digital sculpting or digital modeling (think Photoshop), and digital production (think printer) that together allow us to recreate physical objects without ever touching them.

Data Capture
3D data capture involves 3D laser scanning or structured light hardware that collects dense 3D point clouds which accurately represent an object in virtual space. Data capture technology consists of hardware that digitizes objects in the physical world, and then brings the 3D data (represented in X, Y and Z coordinates) into digital space. The tools used to gather this data include contact measurement tools known as Coordinate Measurement Machines (CMMs), and non-contact laser and white light scanners that collect tens of thousands of points per square inch. Each tool varies in speed, accuracy, resolution, cost, portability, and ease of use. Some devices are designed to scan objects the size of buildings, and others can accurately capture micro-textures like pores, fingerprints, or wood grain. Some can even capture color detail! Once an artist has a created a maquette for scaling, the next step is then to have it digitized with the appropriate tool that will provide the necessary resolution and accuracy for the completion of the project.

Digital Modeling
Digital sculpting or digital modeling employs the many CAD (Computer Aided Design) animation, and design software packages to convert the raw data into its ultimate desired digital form. Digital Sculpting is the creation and modification of 3D objects in digital space using software packages typically called CAD (Computer Aided Design). Initially created in the 1950s to run mathematical calculations in the design of cars and airplanes, only the largest companies could afford computers powerful enough to operate the software. Now there are many software packages that provide designers and artists alike the ability to design from captured data or from scratch, and then to modify the design in infinite ways.

Digital Production
Once a 3D digital sculpture is complete in form and detail, it can be produced in virtually any scale or material. Digital production utilizes Rapid Prototyping, also known as 3D printing, and CNC machining (Computer Numeric Controlled) to cut or build an object in the desired material, scale, and resolution. These tools are all established and evolving technologies that are now more reliable, accessible, and affordable than ever before. In both cases, digital models are interpreted by software and then fabricated by machines to a high level of accuracy. Of course these processes have limitations, but it is generally cost that must be balanced against the amount of perfection that one desires or requires.

Rapid prototyping (RP) is a process in an established and growing industry consisting of a spectrum of technologies that each builds objects layer-by-layer in three dimensions. RP has the advantage of making small objects with very high levels of detail very quickly. Each type of RP offers varying material options, quality, and size limitations. Service bureaus around the country have arrays of machines ready to make parts from digital files. The challenge is getting an accurate digital representation of a sculpture and discerning which processes match the project’s needs.

In the CNC milling process, a block of material is carved by a computer-controlled tool that moves along 3 to 5 axes. The level of detail and accuracy that the mill can produce is subject to bit size (as fine as 1/32”), and “step over” between passes. Additionally, undercuts can pose logistical obstacles in CNC milling. Though is possible that with unlimited time and money, one could mill any sculpture at any scale, it should be noted that costs multiply exponentially as the size and of detail of a milled piece increases.

If and how artists choose to use formtography is a personal, project-by-project decision. The most common and established use of formtography has been in rough digital enlargements from artists maquettes. Fast and affordable, this approach provides artists with scaled foam armatures that will ultimately be hand-detailed through carving or application of clay.

Once the artist completes the hand detailing, molds are made and the traditional casting process begins. This approach minimizes time and cost in all three steps (data capture, digital sculpting, and digital reproduction) because there less need for attention to detail-- that will be the artist’s job at the end of the day. Lower resolution scanning takes less time, less expertise, and uses more affordable equipment. Digital sculpting at lower resolution requires less computing time and power, and with a much larger margin of error can still produce a very accurate model. Finally, lower resolution armatures require significantly less milling time and money due to larger tools, faster cutting speed, and lower cost materials.

Many artists choose to work this way because they prefer to finish the work by hand, or the project’s cost just cannot be justified any other way. I personally work with a wide range of artists, foundries, museums and other institutions, using the most progressive technology to solve more complex, typically more expensive formtography challenges that employ high resolution scanning for applications that require very detailed, very accurate reproductions, or that pose very technical data acquisition challenges.

Museums, for example, typically have pieces that cannot or should not be touched, yet present tremendous opportunity for study, documentation, interactive presentation, or scaled or one-to-one reproduction. The great news is that with one scan, all of the above can be achieved without any physical contact with the work of art.

Foundries encounter a wide range of challenges working with artists over and above standard enlargements. Sometimes an original is just too fragile or too complex to try recreate using traditional mold making. Other times there just may not be enough manual time to accomplish all of the work required using traditional processes. And still other times, the artists’ concept relies on digital processes to combine unique forms and textures that would be impossible or extremely difficult to achieve manually. Some foundries are offering their own digital services for their clients, while others project manage the digital work through outside vendors.

Artists with large budget projects, a backlog of work, and/or particularly complex projects seek out digital solutions that offer greater control in order to keep their resources focused on the creative and marketing side of their work. Scanning a maquette can provide a tremendous amount of information for computing costs related to surface area, volume, and structural analysis on a potentially large sculpture. Furthermore, the scan data can be used to market and sell the work, showing it in its proposed scale, material, finish and environment using animations and photorealistic renderings that can be distributed over the internet.

Some of the most interesting and complex applications of formtography have been in areas of conservation. An example of this is when Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell was scanned for the creation of “The Normandy Liberty Bell,” a recreation which omits the famous crack, but shares the same bell curve and therefore rings the same tone originally sounded by the Liberty Bell. Similarly, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National cemetery is cracked, and has since been accurately captured and digitally repaired and is ready to be milled in marble to create an exact, flawless restoration of the original Tomb. Finally, the Robert Mills Funerary Monument at the Monumental Church in Richmond Virginia had eroded terribly over its more than 100 year existence, and was completely restored due to a multi step process of scanning, digitally restoring, digital reproduction, hand carving, re-scanning, and finally milling the new piece in marble.

The Awakening
Last November, I had the opportunity to collaborate with one of the first pioneers to provide digital enlargement services, Jon Lash, CEO and managing director of Digital Atelier (formerly the digital division of Johnson Atelier). He needed our help relocating “The Awakening,” by J. Seward Johnson, a sculpture of a 100-foot tall human figure emerging from beneath the ground. Jon started working in sculpture as an apprentice 30 years ago, and was on the original team that created “The Awakening.” Under the direction of the artist, they used a pantograph to scale up the original armatures, made molds, cast the original sculpture, and installed it in the ground. My company was hired to scan the sculpture in situ, and document its current layout. We used a one-of-a-kind high-resolution long-range laser scanner to capture the sculpture’s form and detail to an accuracy of millimeters. With the help of this data the re-installation will recreate the relative position of the pieces as they had come to rest nearly three decades earlier. As we collected over 50 scans through the night, Jon shared some of his recollections.

“As a former apprentice, I was aware that the labor side of producing large-scale or monumental sculpture had been handled by apprentices throughout history,” said Lash. “This labor and time translate to costs that the artist has to bear. I saw the opportunity to save the artist time and money while keeping their creative control in their own hands.”

In 1995, Jon became the manager of Johnson Atelier, then a full service art foundry and fabrication facility. He had been following the use of digital tools in industrial foundries for years, but didn’t feel as though it was cost-effective for sculpture until 1998. By 1999, he purchased a first generation laser scanner and a custom large-scale CNC router and began offering digital enlargement to his customers.

Tomorrow's Artists
Today’s manufacturing and computing technologies have reached a level of proficiency, power, and reliability that enable today’s sculptors to pursue projects that were perhaps unimaginable as recently as a year ago. New waves of sculptors are already masters of the digital realm, sculpting and manipulating their work in virtual space. Artists can now focus more energy on creating and marketing the form of their sculpture, relying on technology to help overcome the complex and critical tasks of engineering and scaling. In some cases, the digital output can eliminate the mold making and/or casting process altogether. Pieces are milled directly in metal, marble or wood, and then finished by hand. Others are milled in foam, then coated with fabric, spray metal, or some other material. Perhaps most interesting is the concept of high resolution rapid prototypes made from wax materials that are designed to burn out in the lost wax casting process.

High-resolution 3D data capture provides archival documentation that enables quality reproduction at any scale, supports scholarly study for conservation and curatorial purposes, and empowers structural analysis for installation and fabrication. 3D modeling software and digital sculpting makes it possible to create perfected virtual forms that are either exact or modified copies of physical works, or unique digitally-created forms that are ready for production and visual representation. Digital Production improves with new Rapid Prototyping material options and improved milling technology. As the tools and the artists who use them continue to develop, so too will the list of applications.

Still, there is a debate about how digital technology impacts the creative vision of an artistic work. Today, any musician can walk into a music store and purchase a digital studio for their laptop that would dwarf the tools that the Beatles used to change the world. Overnight a recording could be made and posted on the internet for the world to download. But it is my personal opinion that all of this technology doesn’t make it easier to create good art, it only makes it easer to produce good art. The creation still relies on the unique vision and perspective of the artist in order to impact his audience. Whether you are a filmmaker, a musician, or sculptor, “making something” may become easier through technology, but making something special that stands out will become harder as that technology becomes more accessible and affordable. Today, as ever, it takes superior artistry to create something that people will care about enough to notice, purchase, download or choose to experience in person. Formtography is just another tool, an option, in a sculptor’s bag of tricks. Ultimately, it is the sculptor as an artist, his vision, his execution and presentation that will ultimately define his work.n person. Formtography is just another tool, an option, in a sculptor’s bag of tricks. Ultimately, it is the sculptor as an artist, his vision, his execution and presentation that will ultimately define his work.