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3D Printing: Art’s Latest Blank Canvas?

In the 1980s and 90s, the world of music was split right down the middle. On one side were those using sequencers, samplers, and synthesisers. On the other we had music as craft – musicians insisting instruments needed to be learnt, nurtured, and perfected. It was a cultural argument between people who identified themselves as “real”, “serious” musicians and those whose creativity was being allowed to fast-track past learning their scales, staves, and crotchets.

There’s no doubt about which side history has thrown its weight behind. Despite a few indie revivals, when guitars became cool, the idea perfectly credible music can be produced in bedrooms isn’t challenged anymore. Throughout the whole period, it seemed to slip the notice of those craving credibility the great classical composers were doing little more than programming orchestras; and although some were virtuoso players (Mozart, Beethoven, and Paganini spring to mind), none could play every instrument at once. Just as prog rock is largely ignored but its rivals funk and punk still thrive, cultural history tends to be less than charitable to snobs.

An example of how comfortable we’ve become with letting technology be our creative assistants has been in the way 3D printing is being used in art. We’re being altogether more grown-up about it, and judging work on its merits rather than how it was created. Artists have been using all manner of material in their work for centuries, but mixed-media artists found particular success in the twentieth century. Artists from Marcel Duchamp to Tracy Emin have been lauded as professionals who have not restricted themselves to traditional materials.

Last year Grayson Perry explored the British class system in his work The Vanity of Small Differences. The works are in the form of six large tapestries, and are inspired by Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress. But at no point did Perry get his tapestry tools and bits of wool to create the 48 square metres required of the 4m by 2m images. The imagery was a combination of his own sketches, some computer manipulation, and the work of some experts in digital rendering. Finally, the tapestry itself was carried out using machines. The work has met with critical acclaim, and the originals are well worth a look if they are touring near you. They also show what can be done when talent is let loose on the latest technology.

Making an Exhibition of Itself

Alex Hindermith‘s model (not from the show)

Last week The Independent covered the 2013 London 3D Printshow, an annual event where the most imaginative people in 3D printing come together to showcase their work. Whilst the show is not specifically an art event – it features all sorts of pieces from medicine, product manufacture, and fashion – it does have a strong artistic component. According to the organisers, the number of artists exhibiting this year was 45, more than double the number in the inaugural event.

Judging by this unscientific measure alone, artists seem to be excited about the prospect of being able to turn their visions into concrete objects. Its use could come at any stage in the creative process, not necessarily just for creating finished works. Sculptors, for example, can experiment with 3D printed forms before committing themselves to working on stone or making a cast. Shapes that would be incredibly difficult – or even impossible – to make out of solid materials can be rendered in 3D print with relative ease.

The art department of Wake Forest University in North Carolina recently borrowed a 3D printer from the Nanotech Center to let their students loose on. Although they apparently struggled to get their initial ideas to work, the learning experience has been a valuable one. Sometimes simply having a go of something will spark new creative ideas around it, especially once you’ve learnt its true potential and limitations.

Art is, of course, a highly subjective term. What one person considers art, another might consider a craft or some other form of expression. If we’re talking about art in its loosest sense, 3D printing is already beginning to find its feet in the gallery.

Bringing the Old Masters to Life

3D technology might be about to make a splash in the very two-dimensional world of canvas painting. Painting, of course, isn’t two-dimensional at all in the eyes of connoisseurs and students of the art. The paintings are made up of countless brush strokes, mottling, and building up of paint to add texture and drama to the works. Experts can study these textures to ascertain the precise techniques used by artists several hundred years ago.

The problem is the originals have to be seen up close to be studied properly by experts, and enjoyed by the general public. Moving them around the world is fraught with security issues, not to mention the potential nightmare of damage in transit. Luckily a team from the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands might have come up with a solution. Using two highly precise cameras, they have managed to scan some Rembrandt and Van Gogh works with such sharpness the digital files do indeed show up the individual bristles on the original brush strokes. It’s a relatively short leap (of the imagination, if not of the technology) for these digital files to one day be made into real, living pictures using 3D printers. Whether the technology will become available to faithfully reproduce colour automatically, or whether artists will be painting onto the models, remains to be seen.

One way or another, we are left with the inspiring prospect of near perfect copies of the world’s masterpieces to be available in museums all over the world. Perhaps in living rooms and toilet cubicles. It’s what Marcel Duchamp would have wanted.

About the author:

Alex is a marketer and writer for Office Kitten and Cartridge Save in Manchester. He focuses on business, technology, and cultural articles, as well as managing our social media accounts. When not busy with this he's a creative writer with a novel and a blog to his name, and he takes great interest in literature, films, and music.

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