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Speak Out: 3D Printing and the dizzying new possibilities for art

By Ivan Fernandez
ART TIMES online May 2014

3D Printers – once the domain of component and device manufacturers in the automotive, aerospace, healthcare and consumer products space – is now revolutionizing the world of art. This should not come as a surprise given the fact that nearly every day new applications are being explored for this amazing technology. Wohlers Associates, Inc. reports a $2.204 billion global market for 3D printing in their 2013 report.

Put simply, 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) enables the creation of 3D objects built layer upon layer using digital 3D models. This it does using polymers, resins, ceramics and metals or alloys as base material. A mind-boggling number of other materials are also being experimented with as we speak.

As 3D printers become more affordable, and with a wider selection of options available, a growing number of professional artists and artisans are exploring ways in which this technology can help them in their creative output. In the past, complicated geometries in design were limited by what conventional fabrication, sculpting or crafting could achieve. 3D printing enables their creation simpler, faster and with greater flexibility for the creator in terms of size, material, colour and finish. With the use of digital 3D models, artists now have access to a massive number of new sources of inspiration (an obvious example being the use of body scan images, molecular data or genome code to create artworks). In fact, a recent work by French artist Gilles Azzaro is a 3D-printed sculpture of a voice recording of Barack Obama's State of the Union speech. In addition, 3D printing is likely to increase the synergy between artists and other commercial sectors such as fashion, product design and interior design.

For amateur artists, 3D printing is an exciting tool to help them realize more ambitious concepts. Do-it-yourself hobbyists and weekend artists are now able to create complex artwork that they would never have attempted by hand.

Another equally disruptive impact of this technology is the new possibilities it throws open to art lovers. 3D models of painting or sculptural masterpieces can now be downloaded by anyone with a 3D printer and used to recreate the originals for their own enjoyment at home. American-based 3D artist, Cosmo Wenman has published online the first printable 3D models of ‘The Venus de Milo’ and ‘Winged Victory’; available for anyone to download.

Museums are also able to create new revenue streams by recreating some of their prized collections using 3D printing and selling them to the public. For example, the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam now sells 3D reproductions of Van Gogh masterpieces. (Of course, this could potentially create issues for museums in terms of being able to distinguish originals from forgeries once they reach better levels of replication in the future!).

Greater design freedom for artists (both professional and amateur), greater access to artworks for the public and new revenue streams for museums – what’s not to like in this scenario? Well, some observers wonder how faithful reproductions using 3D printing actually are. Certainly, the technology is still very much at the emerging stage of its life cycle and there are bound to be teething problems. But let us not forget that some of the most significant mainstream applications of 3D printing (in automotive, aerospace and healthcare) require an extremely high degree of precision and accuracy to ensure compliance with stringent standards. This can only create positive spillover benefits for the art world.

(Based in Sydney, Australia, Ivan Fernandez is Industry Director at a global consulting firm. He is also a painter and violinist, writing on life lessons from art.)


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