October 8, 2012
Hi, I’m a digital artist and I live in a small town in the south of Germany. I’m fascinated by the 3D tools and techniques available these days, and above all the possibilities that open up for an artist using them.
There are many applications out there—some even available for free—that offer endless options for creating high-end digital content. I’m a longtime Maya user, and as I started learning it fifteen years ago, I was blown away when I realized what can be done with it. But some time later, I stumbled upon a program called Zbrush from the company Pixologic. The first time I tried out this software, I instantly knew it was the perfect tool for me. It is no animation package, but is very focused on sculpting and painting directly onto 3D models, and you can do this with an high amount of detail without losing track of brushstrokes. It’s simply amazing. You can get a free trial version from their website and try it for yourself. There is a huge community and a lot of free tutorials, ranging from beginning to very advanced, that take you by the hand.
As I said, you can do incredibly detailed models and sculptures for video games, movies, concept art, or matte paintings with Zbrush. But as much as I like doing this kind of work, I always missed something: the ability to touch my 3D creations in the real world. If a traditional painter or sculptor creates a piece of art, you can walk around it and really see that it was handmade by a human being. Most people have the belief that if you create works with computers that it’s easy, and computer art doesn’t have the valence of work done “in the real world”. But we demosceners all know that it is not the computer that does the work for you, but the person sitting behind it. I think the problem was the same when people first connected their guitars to electrical power. I don’t want to have to use clay or paint to create my works to get respect as an artist. I want to use digital tools with all the benefits of the digital realm to do the same as a traditional artist does, but I also want the same fame and respect for my work as well. Not an easy task :)
So I stumbled upon a technique called rapid prototyping. It’s nothing really new and is used in the automotive industry, for example. If an engineer designs a blinker enclosure for a car, he actually prints out a plastic version of the 3D data set and places it on the car. If it fits well, the object goes into production. But in the art field I’ve seen very few people using this technique to bring their works to the real world. In the last few years this expensive technique has gotten more and more popular, and above all—affordable. There are many 3D printing services out there that can print out your works for a fair price. For the past four months, I was working on a big project I did on my own. Everyone I told about this was just blown away—there was no one who said “Meh, that’s boring and not real”—they even strengthened my idea that I have to show people what is possible and what you can create if you’re just willing to learn how sculpting on a computer works.
So I started thinking about what to create. I wanted to address a broad audience, but I didn’t want my work reduced to a mass production. I wanted to make something accepted by both younger and older generations of people, and improve my traditional anatomical sculpting skills, but I also wanted to make something which is hip so younger people could say “Hey, that’s cool.”
So I thought about it for a very long time, and I came to the conclusion to fuse the style of traditional sculpture you see in churches with something like street art—like graffiti—and I started to arrange some rough blocks on the digital canvas. I wanted to have the scene set on a huge graffiti background —but as some sort of mountain or rocky massive thing. I decided to create some sort of diorama where the scene takes place, and I wanted to tell a story. I planned to have a loving couple in it, and a threat like the Devil.
So the days went by and the creation evolved. I wanted to get more weight in it because of the Devil’s power, so I added an angel in front of the couple to give them some protection. In many sculptures and paintings you see Death placed in the highest position, but I didn’t want to present him that way. In my sculpture Death is placed at the lowest position—I disarm him. He got old—he’s using a cane. I turned him into a harlequin by adding flowing clothes and a hat with dice on it, but he is still dangerous and holds an ace of spades in his hand as a sign of seduction. The Devil is not the guy who seduces in my scene, but Death. The scene got too imbalanced by having only this small angel protecting the lovers against Death and the Devil. So another two elements went into the composition: a seraph flying high above the scene, and a guard on a horse watching the events from a distance and bringing balance to everything. Modeling everything took a very long time. I had to improve my knowledge of anatomy at the same time.
I took anatomy courses from the artist Ryan Kingslien, who runs Zbrush workshops and founded the Visualarium. I had to rearrange and throw away lots of work in finding the right composition. There were many technical matters to keep in mind, because with the 3D printing technique you have to follow several rules and conventions so the art can actually be printed.
I wanted the Devil to hold a mace with a long chain on it. For the chain, there were many long pieces hanging loose in the air so they could break if it got too long, so I had the idea to align the thin chain in regular gaps like the structure of pieces of fabric or cloth, so that they strengthened and held the delicate structure.
Another obstacle that had to be overcome: sculpting cloth that looks right is really hard to do. So I opened up Blender to do initial dynamic simulations to create what I was after. That was a really hard and very tedious. A lot of trial and error. The fabric didn’t float the way I wanted it to, but in the end, with a lot of tweaking the elements by hand in Zbrush, I finally made it. The structure of the cloth was created with a plugin called NoiseMaker. The “only” thing you have to do is to have a clean UV layout for the cloth. The object was done after four months of work—I think it looks cool, although I’m aware that I still have to improve my anatomy skills.
When it came to printing the sculpture, another shock was inevitable. I searched for a company to do the printing and found Shapeways in the Netherlands. They are cool, but their pipeline only alows a 1 million poly count. My model had 26 million polys at that time. Oh my. Ok, there’s a plugin which ships with Zbrush called Decimation Master, and
it does a really awesome job reducing the number of polys in the object without losing its details and overall shape. But I had to do it for every single subtool each by each, and there were many of them :)
Ok. I reduced my model to a poly count of about 1 million, sent it to Shapeways, and wanted it to be printed in stainless steel. Yes, you heard right. Stainless steel. To 3D print in metal, a printer places fine layers of particles in cross sections on top of each other and then the whole thing goes into an oven where it is sintered. Just like a motor block.
Ok, I’m an artist, and my budget is in some ways very limited. I found out that if I wanted to print it in steel, I could only afford a print that’s around 14 cm in height. C’mon, I thought—that’s not fair. 1200 euro for a sculpture I worked so hard on, and I only get this size? I went through a very frustrating process to make all this, trust me, but I am a bullhead and wanted to have this sculpture I worked so hard for. Furthermore, Shapeways told me that this model could not be printed 14 cm high because the smallest parts in it would get so tiny that the printer couldn’t do it. So I powered up my calculator and did some arithmetic to find out what it would cost if I sized up the model to fit the specifications. The formula is easy: 1 cubic centimeter of stainless steel costs 20 dollars. If you double the size of it, you multiply by a factor of 8 and you get 160 dollars. The whole model resized so that the smallest elements could be printed would have cost me around 9000 dollars. So I thought about hollowing the object to save material. Days went by in doing this properly. The price didn’t change very much. After all of these calculations, I decided to print it out in a lower priced material. I chose nylon. Two weeks later the box arrived, and I could hold the sculpture in my hands, which were shaking from happiness when I did the unboxing :)
Guys, it is cool to create something like this on the computer —but seeing it as a physical object in the real world is breathtaking. Even the photos I took for this article can’t nearly show how amazing it looks in reality. I also did a lot of renderings from the scene and edited them in Photoshop. I created a photo book from all the prints, and I also wanted this book to be something special. There are so many providers out there offering photo book printing, but I wanted something really classy. So I found a company called Cinebook. They make high-end photo books which are a bit pricey, but the quality you get justifies the price. I’ve never seen any print that looks as sharp and crisp as what the guys from this company can produce.
I still wanted to see and feel how a metal version would look. So I designed an two finger ring in tiki style and printed it in stainless steel. Guys, this is so amazing. The details are all there and I can wear it and have it with me to show everybody what I’m doing. I wanted to take photos of someone wearing this ring, so a good friend of mine put it on and even cleaned his fingernails for the photoshoot, but I told him: “erm, this doesn’t look right— that’s not the look I’m after”. So I went to the local Harley Davidson guy and asked him if he could wear it for a picture.
At first he was a little bit annoyed, but the grumpy look on his face vanished and we made some cool photos. Thank you Mammut!—that´s his name—for your help. He also was fascinated by the technique and can imagine ordering steel skulls with flames for his next custom bike. :)
I want to show people my work and I’m hoping for a great audience, so I also did a free ebook available for the Ipad. I did lots of editing and added lots of movies and keynotes to it. At this point I want to say thank you to Marc Ewald from the Netherlands. He’s a composer and he created the music for the intro movie of the sculpture. Please download your free copy here:
I’m aware of the fact that there are lots of Android users out there, and people using other ebook formats. Exporting the book to PDF is technically possible, but it would be like printing out a movie on paper. I’m sorry for that, but there won’t be a format supporting other devices. If you want to take a look at the renderings you can do this without the book at my website under the gallery tab, or you can just look at my Facebook page to keep up to date with what I am working on.
See, I want to do art—I want to create things with value. And I really love what I’m doing. I don’t want to do stuff for mass production, but things that individual people like. Just like they do when they go to the tattoo artist they trust to get THE special kind of artwork they want. I can create belt buckles, busts of your children, emblems, pendants, sculptures, rings, earrings, canes, custom figures for tabletop role playing games, and so on and so forth.
The possibilities of this technique combined with good sculpting skills are endless. This is a brand new market and in the future everyone will have a 3D printer at home. Remember paying lots of money for a simple CD burner? Now you get them for almost nothing. And as easy and comfortable as the modelling tools might be, the skills you need to do really great work—sculpting, knowledge of human anatomy, style, and artistic ability—will still be in great demand because it is not the machine doing the work, but the person behind it.