3D Printing Art: Complicated Opportunities


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3D printing is being used by artists, curators, museums and galleries worldwide to create works. Designers, sculptors, digital artists, painters and people new to the art world are using 3D printing as a medium to create works. This headfirst rush into the technology is to be applauded as is their courage and foresight to be ahead of the coming crowds. There are, however, some complexities when dealing with 3D printed art that have been ill considered so far.

Flowalistik offers all of his files as free downloads, he only makes money from being contracted as a designer.

What is the Work Exactly?

If an artist produces a 3D printed artwork then what constitutes as the piece exactly? From an expression point of view but also for legal reasons this will have profound implications. When the work is sold to a gallery or collector, what are they buying exactly? Is it the 3D printed piece itself? The file to make it? A license to make unlimited copies of it? Do you buy the Gcode? The STL? A license for the Gcode or STL? Or the original CAD file? This needs to be better defined in order for the 3D printed art market to grow. If the file is part of the transaction, how can this file be used?

Isn’t All Art Open Source?

Artists need to start thinking about licenses for their works or ways through which they can be distributed. Can anyone take pictures of it, copy your work, remix it? Whereas many artists encourage copying and being copied artist’s estates, museums and other rights holders have been clamping down on the reproduction of art pieces and using them in other forms. Artists now have the opportunity to ensure that their works can be copied and spread far and wide. Or they could lock them down so future owners will be buying more exclusive rights along with the piece so that in the future the artist and the piece’s owners will have more control. Should art be for sharing and remixing? Shouldn’t art be open source? Isn’t that how it has always been? Copy, imitate, steal but above all else consume it. Individual artists can take a stand here in order to make sure that the part of our collective culture that they can create can be remixed and spread. If they do nothing then their works too will be subsumed into the copyright everything manner by which most Intellectual Property is guarded.  


Digital Rights Management may become more commonplace in 3D printing. One the one hand one could say without DRM, Disney would never get involved with our market. We could accept DRM as a fait accompli or something necessary for markets. Artists could also embrace DRM as a way to safeguard their rights. Or artists could take a principled stance that once a person owns a thing they can do everything they want with it. Their objects could be flung into an accepting world into open arms and DRM-free futures. Buy it, own it, break it, it is yours. Rather than the restrict-your-rights-to-the-things-you-own approach of DRM.

Dizingof sells licenses for his designs.


If an artist signs a canvas we can be sure that it is attributed. Curators can then make catalogues and trace work back and check its authenticity. How will we attribute works and declare them authentic in the 3D printed world?

  1. If Jeff Koons 3D prints a work on an EOS P110 using PA 2200 and particular settings and I 3D print the same work with the same material and same settings on the same machine it may be indistinguishable. How can we physically watermark products without turning to the restrictive lunacy that is DRM?
  2. If Flowalistik makes the first low polygon Nintendo characters how can we trace this back to him?
  3. How do we know when someone published something before anyone else?
  4. If a thing is reverse engineered or copied how can we know who the originator of the idea was?

Decay of 3D Printed Works

3D printing materials often have problems with heat deflection temperatures or becoming more brittle over time. UV degradation is harmful to 3D printed parts (especially stereolithography/SLA parts) and will cause them to decay. How does one restore a photopolymer resin print? Rub more liquid photopolymer on some parts? This may work but no one knows at the moment. A polyamide powder Selective Laser Sintering part may yellow over time due to UV degradation; how does one refresh this part? If SLS parts become dirty you can put them in your washing machine to clean them. Will the MOMA do this with its 3D printed pieces? If an SLA part becomes brittle and yellow is that just part of the piece aging? Should we not try to repair that? We don’t remove all of the patina from paintings. If we look back restorers have often over restored things in the past.

Virtox offers his designs for free download.

Or is the Part Irrelevant and Should We Focus on the Design?

If the part itself is not relevant and just a manifestation of the design then you can reprint it (Or can you?). This has some interesting implications. If van Gogh makes a drawing with a brush then maybe my computer plus Rhino and my 3D printer are just my brush? More complicated technology but a technology just as the paintbrush is one. Or is the position of the artist fundamentally changed because she is removed from the work, does not touch it? At what point then does it become an artwork? When it is printed? When it is designed? If an artist works with a 3D modeller to model the artwork and a service bureau to print it these questions become complex. Who made this thing exactly? When? It is important for artists to know that if a person 3D models it for them rights of the thing must be transferred to the artist properly.

Meanwhile Virtox also sells some 3D printed objects on Shapeways and hires himself out as a designer.


So if an artwork decays, should we just reprint it? Well this may be easier said than done. If it was done on a Prusa i3 in 2015 should we then 30 years later try to find the same model Prusa to print it? What if we can’t find it? What if it was printed in a particular color PLA from a particular PLA vendor and we can’t find that either? If 3D printers improve over the next 30 years can we 3D print out the 30-year-old piece on the newest technology? Will it then be the same piece? If there is a certain iconic sculpture made with mid-2000s SLS technology and this looks a bit off white cream colored what should we do 30 years later once SLS improves and makes less porous whiter smoother objects? Should we print something to make it look like it once was? Or just 3D print it?  


3D printing is a triad, an interplay of 3D printing material, software and 3D printer playing together to produce a part. An artwork could be the artist’s expression translated to a 3D model. But, the work will not look the same and not be the same piece without the settings being included. When recreating a work, sharing a work or selling it these settings would have to be required in order to give a person (owner, curator, museum) the ability to recreate that work. Did you remember to save your Cura settings for the piece? Remember to write down the actual bed and nozzle temperature somewhere? Again, what constitutes as the digital file of the piece? The CAD file? The STL? Gcode? Slices? If Cura is updated it may slice files differently and interpret meshes differently. This will mean that as the software updates the slicer will interpret the same file in different ways and the 3D printing result will change, as will the final object.


Eric van Straaten sells the objects from his edgy artwork.

3D printing materials are not well codified and standardised at this moment. The market does use RAL colors (on the whole) to get standard colors. Different colored material will give you different results on the 3D printer. Different additives and plasticizers will also change the printed result. In the coming years significant strides need to be made by material vendors in improving the surface quality of 3D prints on the material front. Tests have shown that individual materials from vendors change all the time with additives and compounds being replaced. If one wants to recreate a sculpture or indeed keep producing series of it years later, can you do it? I don’t think this will be possible for most materials as they are currently in flux.  



Many artists use algorithms to create sculptures. This is a really hip thing at the moment. They have the effect of making a very diverse set of expressions all look the same. The same waveform, the same type of shape, it is all replicated and expelled from algorithms and Grasshopper. This kind of approach is the fast way to make your object look “3D printingy” and is a low effort approach. It does have the effect of creating a 3D printed aesthetic. But, given the wide open plains we have to explore must everything be a bio-inspired algorithmic design? We find ourselves at the midpoint of the huge growth in bio-inspired algorithmic design and it will get worse before it gets better. We have so many opportunities to create new shapes and new ways of interacting, why must we all flock like sheep to the same algorithms?  

Stop with the Voronoi Already

Same with the voronoi. Yes, I know how to use MeshMixer as well. I too can take a thing and make it all voronoi in two minutes. With all the options in mesh mixing and manipulation available why the huge voronoi trend? Are we in a kind of Toyota Prius stage where we have to come up with a kind of identifiable look, however ugly?

As we can see, there are a lot of challenges and opportunities to face as an art world when engaging 3D printing. I don’t see a lot of problems here, I see a conference.


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