What is 3D Printing and how is it used by artists?

3D Printing FAQ's Sculpture

A question I get asked a lot when talking about my artistic practice is "What is 3D Printing?" This blog post goes into some detail to outline what 3D Printing is, the types of 3D printers, the technology that lies behind them and some Artists that use them. Please bear with me as it is quite a lengthy post but I am sure you will find it interesting.


3D printers are machines that are used traditionally to produce prototypes in a process that is quite often called “rapid prototyping” due to its extremely fast cost-effective nature. 3D printers create their prints from models created on 3D Software that can save the resulting project as a Stereo Lithography File (STL). Programs like Google SketchUp, Rhino, Blender, Pro-Desktop/ Engineer and Solid Works are examples of such software. To be able to fully explain the printing process I need to address an important point about creating an image in three dimensions in the CAD (Computer Aided Design) software and also printing on the 3D printer. In 2 dimensional drawings, there are only two planes that represent the two dimensions of length and width. These are called the X & Y axis. In a three-dimensional image there are three axes (see figure one.)

Human - What is 3D Printing and how is it used by artists?

The additional Z-axis represents the height and depth. In figure 2.a you can see an example of a model made in Pro-Desktop and figure 2.b is an example of a model made in Google SketchUp (Which is the software I use).

File - What is 3D Printing and how is it used by artists?  Word - What is 3D Printing and how is it used by artists?

To print the model, it must be opened in a software package that allows the 3D printer to print. Z-Print which is used to operate the Z-corp. printers (figure 3.) is an example of such software. Each Brand of Printer will have its own software package. The cube in figure three represents the bed and printing space of the printer. You can see the X, Y & Z axis represented in red, green and blue. 

Display - What is 3D Printing and how is it used by artists?

The Z-Corp 3D Printers work from an ink jet set up. By laying down a thin layer of adhesive fluid from the inkjet head onto the powder tray layer by layer according to cross sections of the model as stipulated by the STL file. The print head moves and prints along the X and Y axis. The build piston that holds the powder tray then drops down by about 0.1mm with each layer so that each cross section can be added. In this way, it then builds the model up from the bottom along the Z-axis (figure 4).

The remaining loose powder supports the model in overhanging areas during the build process. The resulting model is quite brittle, but it can be strengthened by a process of coating it in wax that permeates the plaster. This increases the strength of the product. Coating the model in super glue or resin is another option that can be of use if more strength is needed. The prototype can then be sanded painted and varnished if need be so that it can be presented to the client (figure 5.)

Lighting - What is 3D Printing and how is it used by artists?

This type of 3D printing is one of the only methods that allow full-colour models to be printed. The Z450 from Z-corp. is a prime example of these types of printer. Figure six is an example of a sculpture by Eric van Straaten who is one of the very best sculptors to use the technology of 3D Printing. The picture shows what colour 3D printing is it is capable of.

Figurine - What is 3D Printing and how is it used by artists?


SLS Machines produce models that require no finishing at all and are ready straight from the machine. This is great news for Artists. SLS Machines use the idea of printing into a powder so that no support structure is needed in the same way Z-corp. machines do. But instead of plaster powder, a Nylon polymer powder is used that produces a part of superior strength and durability. The part is cured with each pass of the print head by a laser that sinters the particles of Nylon powder together layer by layer. Joshua Harker is one of the leading artists using SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) to produce stunning Sculptures. Crania Anatomica (figure 7) is one of his most famous pieces and was one of the highest funded projects in Kickstarter history. It became the 3rd most funded Arts project ever and raised $75,691.

Human - What is 3D Printing and how is it used by artists?

The last process I am going to talk about enables a model to be created in metal. In this process, the powder in the machine is made up of Stainless Steel. The process is the same as the Z-Corp. Machines. The model is printed one layer at a time and bound together with glue. Once printed the part is extremely fragile and has the consistency of a sandcastle. This is then infused with molten bronze. The result is a very strong and sturdy sculpture or part that has the same properties as a cast part.

Accessory - What is 3D Printing and how is it used by artists?

The Ora Pendant (figure 8) by Bathsheba Grossman is a beautifully stunning example from the leading artist using this technology. Below is my Twisted Cleff Pendant that was created using the same process. Why not join the discussion and leave your comments below. 


Pendant - What is 3D Printing and how is it used by artists?

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