Last week, I got the opportunity to take my research into 3D Scanning and printing portraits to the next level, when I took part in a 3 day workshop at college with expert 3D printer and artist, Jonathan Keep.
Jonathan has developed and made a name for himself by sharing his design for a self-build ceramic printer that prints by extruding normal wet clay. It is automated coiling, done via a large syringe of clay, pushed out using an electric compressor and controlled digitally. Talking about his practice, the fascinating thing is how Jonathan creates his work from its very code that he then prints out. Like manipulating the dna of the designs, he works from first principles and enjoys the impact of, for example sound, waves as a randomising algorithm on how the form is generated.
Meanwhile, I took the opportunity to print the scan of my head, that I had had done at the Royal Academy in the Veronica Scanner last September. I was able to print in buff clay as well as porcelain and I achieved my aim to to produce hybrid work, part 3 D Printed part hand made. The heads stand about 12cm high, and took about 35mins to print out. It was fascinating to watch as the printer whirled continuously but struggled to print out the chin, nose, top of the heads, anywhere that was unsupported and gravity exerted the full force on the damp clay. Jonathan stepped in and place his paintbrush under the chin to provide extra support, and we used a hair dryer to dry the clay as quickly as possible, so that it could strengthen the clay before it imploded.
The end results were interesting. Everyone loved the stratified layering of the clay. It made the pieces look like they might be part of the rock face of a canyon. But I was quietly delighted that the machines were not really able to produce a facsimile of the scans.
On the second day, after the clay had slightly hardened, I decided to intervene by hand in the heads and introduce a hand-made element. On the porcelain head, I took my traditional ceramic tools and got stuck in modelling more detail to the facial expressions, and trying to right the chin and nose that had got elongated as gravity distorted the print. The heads had looked like Bruce Forsyth might have been my uncle. Working by hand was fun but nerve wracking. The clay was still quite soft, and as I manipulated the clay, the neck began to sag somewhat. I did not feel like I could do too much in case the head collapsed completely, but the contrast between the facial detail compared with the slightly blurred layering of the printed clay was interesting.
On the second head, printed in darker buff clay, I borrowed Jonathan’s medical syringe filled with clay, and amplified the ‘errors’ that had occurred during the printing by adding extra worms of clay, to areas of the print that had come out slightly wrong. So the top of the head, shoulders, and eyebrow and along the front all have a slightly bonkers appendages.
I also had a go at creating a form in Tinkercad, to test my basic CAD skills and to see how they behaved when 3D printed. Not bad for someone knocking on 50!
For me, I would call this technique automated coiling. It is achieved pretty quickly, but as all ceramicists know, clay does not really appreciate being hurried, and coping with gravity on wet clay is one of the principal challenges of ceramics. Using a 3D printer was no exception, but the haste and impossibility of pausing the act of coiling, and in my view makes it a major drawback as a technique for portraiture.
Below is the celadon glazed portrait that I had printed ‘professionally’ by Shapeways in the Netherlands using SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) and thanks to the digital manipulation of a wonderful digital Kurt at Conceptual Vision Studio who touched up the original file from the Veronica Scanner at the RA to make it water tight. None the less, this was the biggest print that could be achieved, and when compared to the detail on the original scan, I was disappointed by the lack of details achieved. Kurt tried to made concave details for the pupils, but the glazing blurred this, and the head looks like that of a blind person with white eyes.
It is always revealing to try new techniques/ways of approach, being a student can be a life’s work.The challenge comes when personal expression enters the equation. Sometimes a new method will open new doors, sometimes it is entirely unsuitable…the first is exciting, the second can be a complete waste of time. Portraiture is demanding….either to produce a likeness or to express a personality…or both! The artist must decide which of many techniques offers the best method. In the case of the ceramicist, clay modelling is a slow developing procedure where the rhythms of wetness and air-drying allow for artistic expression and subtle details.
Regarding 3D printing, Bravo for experimenting in this technique and attempting to apply it to clay! Your own comments high-light the draw-backs.