Sculpture is the art of creating three-dimensional work—be it representative or abstract. Stone, wood, clay, metal, glass, plaster, fiber, and plastic are the materials commonly associated with sculpture. These materials may be manipulated using techniques including carving, modeling, firing, welding, weaving, casting, or assembly. Sculptural processes include the addition of material (as in building up lumps of clay) or the removal of material (as in carving stone using a chisel). This artistry was traditionally done by hand with the assistance of specialized tools.
In Digital Sculpture, the materials and techniques are the same as traditional sculpture, except digital sculptors use computers to control special machines that manage the process of adding or removing material. Similar to their traditional counterparts, digital systems are classified as “additive” and “subtractive,” simply providing a new set of tools to the sculptor.
Additive fabrication technology includes 3D printing, in which successive, very thin layers of material are laid down and fused together to create a three-dimensional object. For example, the most commonly available desktop 3D printers use a technique that ejects molten plastic in thin strings—much like a hot glue gun—one on top of the other, which cool into a three-dimensional form. There are many different types of 3D printing using various materials (including nylon, paper, metal, wax, glass, and concrete) that sometimes require the use of lasers, but they all operate under this same principle of building up successive layers.
Conversely, subtractive fabrication removes layers of material from a solid block of material (such as stone, wood, acrylic, or metal) to reveal a form. This system utilizes computer numerical control (CNC) to direct machines with tools such as chisels, drills, or lasers that cut away material, much like traditional carving.
Every work of Digital Sculpture begins as a 3D model. Instead of physically sculpting the object using traditional tools, the artist uses the computer to create a virtual model. Special software provides a means to manipulate the digital object by pushing, pulling, and stretching as if it possessed real properties such as clay. More recently, 3D scanners have also been used to create 3D models of existing objects and people. The virtual model is then “sliced” into thin sections by other software and sent incrementally as data to the fabrication machine, directing it to either build up layers of material or carve away layers from a solid block. In this manner, a virtual model becomes a tangible object.
The 21st century has witnessed an explosion in extraordinary creativity engendered by the use of digital technologies in sculpture. The first artistic practitioners began to experiment in the late 1980s with computer-controlled machining and in the early 2000s with 3D printing. Part of the novelty lies in the possibility of creating new, complex forms that were once extremely difficult or even impossible to make, but are now easily realized. In most cases, the use of these digital technologies is only one step in a larger creative process. Artists are integrating them into their existing studio practice in highly individual ways, oftentimes in combination with more traditional techniques.
In the world of art and design, discourse is no longer preoccupied with the technology in and of itself. Rather, interest lies in how they may be creatively applied in the interplay between digital and traditional, natural and man-made, biological and cultural, virtual and real. While some artists combine detailed handcraftsmanship with computer-controlled fabrication to compose unique sculptural forms, others formulate systems in which visitor interaction and/or individualized production are vital aspects of their art process. Together, they demonstrate an explosive, unprecedented scope of creative expression—a pluralistic vision that extends from sculptural fantasy to functional beauty and conceptual idiosyncrasy. New levels of expression achieved through Digital Sculpture demonstrate the reciprocal relationship between art and innovation and between materials and techniques, as seen through the lens of emerging 21st-century aesthetics.