The impact of 3D printing on the art world

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The application of 3D printing technologies across industrial sectors is unrelenting, and will likely continue for many decades as the ecosystem around it continues to improve and evolve. However, there is one discipline that continues to demonstrate its capabilities in the most captivating and eye-catching of ways whilst offering a wholly new medium for creativity — the art world.

Bathsheba Grossman Design Sculpture illustrating her focus on symmetry and produced by 3D printing

And to clarify, here I am talking about art as a distinct subset of the creative industries and artists that are creating work as an expression of human imagination to be appreciated primarily for their beauty and/or emotional power. In this regard, my loose criterion for what sets art aside from creative design (jewellery / architecture / fashion etc) is a lack of physical function.

Or, to use a couple of borrowed Warhol and Einstein (respectively) quotes that I came across recently:

Art is anything you can get away with...

Creativity is intelligence having fun...

Art vs design

Of course there is an intersection between art and design, one that 3D printing technologies actually promotes in many ways, and I am guilty of often confusing the two because of this. Over the years I have been extremely fortunate to witness the work of some of the most prestigious artists and designers operating in the realms of 3D printing.

Indeed, when it first started to happen, it was a welcome departure from the hard core industrial emphasis I had become accustomed to at the very beginning. But then I started to meet with and talk to some of the artists and began to understand that actually, this was a whole different world of hard core!


Art appreciation is a subjective activity. It is personal and it is often emotional (for better or worse) and no two reactions will be exactly the same. No matter the medium an artist chooses to provoke that reaction, the desire for a reaction is the one thing they all have in common.

When it comes to 3D printing however, the medium itself is part of that provocation. Where I’ve found many artists working with 3D printing differ is in their motivation for their artistic expression. I imagine this goes for all artists, but I have never studied art in any depth and I am sure there is an endless philosophical debate in there somewhere.

However, from my personal experiences with 3D printed art and talking to the artists behind it — motivation can vary. From raising awareness of issues, voicing objections to the status quo, creating unprecedented complexity in sculptural form, a fascination with mathematical principles to satiating personal desires or egos and even just a fascination with the technologies themselves and digital experimentation — there is a broad and deep spectrum of stimuli behind 3D printed works of art.

What cannot be denied is that an increasing number of contemporary artists are embracing 3D printing and digital creation within their creative process. At the most basic level - it demands a different approach to the traditional modes of painting and sculpture with the creative process taking place in the digital realm.

Of course even while the 3D printing process is an automated process for the build of the piece(s) — understanding how the process works, the materials being used and post-processing requirements and how they all relate to the final result is vital to the artist’s intent.


I think the first artist to come to prominence for utilising 3D printing in her work was Bathsheba Grossman. With a degree in mathematics and subsequent classical sculptural training that earned her an MFA in sculpture from the University of Pennsylvania, Grossman first came across additive technologies in the late 1990s. Despite the limitations of the technologies back then, particularly in terms of the materials, she quickly understood the power and potential they offered her work and dedicated herself to learning 3D computer aided design software for the front-end digital sculpture. Her utilization of the technology resonates directly with her fascination with geometry and symmetry born of her love of maths. The combination is evident in all her work, which today focuses largely on metal sculptures in a variety of sizes.

To gain a deeper understanding of the lady and artist that can be attributed with pioneering 3D printing in art, I would urge you to read her personal statement on her website. In these words I find a woman that understands who she is and what she wants to do — to share her work and her inspiration and earn money from it, without money ever being a driver for her creativity, and to leave a legacy that will resonate through future generations. I think she is inspirational in this regard and her legacy will endure.

In the last two decades a host of notable artists have emerged and made headlines with their 3D printed works of art. Notable among them are Joshua Harker, Nick Ervinck, Michael Winstone, Shane Hope, Masters & Munn, and Pussykrew. This is in no way an exhaustive list but offered as a sample of some of the inspiring artists that are working directly and consistently with 3D printing technologies.


Beyond the intent of personal expression from contemporary artists working with 3D printing processes, the technology is also finding purpose in other areas of the art world, particularly in combination with 3D scanning technologies, for the preservation, restoration and even reincarnation of historical works of art.

In terms of preservation 3D printing is not actually the dominant technology as it is 3D scanning that permits the creation of exhaustive digital archives of existing historical art and artefacts across the globe. Natural disasters and man-made wars have, over time, desecrated and destroyed myriad works of art. Creating digital archives ensures that should the worst happen, the works will still exist in digital form and can be reproduced physically, with 3D printing and/or other techniques, ensuring future generations still have access to their cultural heritage. Increasing numbers of museums are buying into this movement, including the Egyptian Museum in Turin.


Similar combination techniques of 3D scanning and 3D printing are permitting restoration across the globe in war torn Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Headlines of the destruction caused by ISIS have been well documented in the last few years, as has the ability to digitally recreate the pieces destroyed using photogrammetry and 3D printing, as exemplified by the viral images of the destruction at the museum in Mosul.

And that brings us to reincarnation (or replica) art works. 3D printing allows for (relatively) easy replication of works of art — by way of 3D scanning and 3D printing. One of the most recent examples came from Stratasys who has collaborated directly with Atlanta’s Millennium Gate Museum and the 3DCenter at Kennesaw State University to “resurrect one of the rarest pieces of art in Ancient Greece.” The project has resulted in the cross-discipline team unveiling a near-exact 3D printed replica of the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, which is deemed to be one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.

Zeus - Stratasys et al

However, while this project, endorsed by the museum, is an unmitigated success that puts this historical art work into the public domain, replication can also raise less positive issues, as exemplified last year by the experience of Jerry Fisher. Fisher used 3D scanning techniques to capture and publish 3D data for two bronze casts of famous works by Michelangelo housed at Augustana College in South Dakota, US. The two statues are themselves replicas of the originals, but the college claimed they are private property and therefore any reproduction of them infringes copyright.

This is an extreme case, not to mention a tad ridiculous IMHO, but it does raise the issue of where and how historic works of art — and replicas thereof — fit in the public domain and who they belong to. Yet another philosophical debate with many layers (pun intended!)


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Source: grabcad The impact of 3D printing on the art world

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