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Among the most familiar faces in the world are those that belong to the leaders of world powers. More so than ever before, it is difficult to imagine a time when the vast majority of the world would have had no access to a ruler’s likeness. From marble busts to reliefs on coins to hand painted miniatures, there have been countless efforts to capture the face and bearing of leaders. In the history of Western art there is a continued fascination with the ability to accurately represent what somebody looked like as a method for studying his or her very person.

John Dillinger's Death Mask

John Dillinger’s Death Mask

Two masks created by laying plaster over the face of a living face of President Abraham Lincoln, the first in 1860 and the other in 1865, not only provide an amazing likeness but also bring to mind the living, breathing Lincoln during the process of their creation. Alternatively, death masks, such as the one created of Dante and recently made more famous by Dan Brown, or others such as John Dillinger’s or John Keats’, provide the opportunity to know what somebody really looked like… if that can be captured in only the topography of the face.

One of the uses of 3D technology that has captivated the public’s attention is its ability to create absolute likenesses in a sculptural form. People today are accustomed to the detailed reality captured by high-end cameras, and even consumer digital cameras can produce stunningly crisp images. The wow factor is still present, however, when those incredible images are transformed into a 3D printed sculpture.obama-scans

In a newly released video, the Smithsonian details the experience of capturing the data to create the current President’s decidedly modern portrait bust. The process was a great deal less time consuming than that undertaken to create the plaster masks of Lincoln – at least on the part of the President. It was also significantly more comfortable for Obama. When Lincoln’s plaster masks were made, his beard had to be greased to prevent sticking and he could breathe only through straws in his nose. All while holding perfectly still, a presidential feat if ever there was one. President Obama merely had to endure one second of flashing lights and sit still for 90 seconds in order to provide the data needed.obama3

In June, we covered the sitting for the creation of the 3D portrait bust but the video provides a particularly interesting look into the interaction between the President and the machinery, offering a portrait within a portrait. The realistic look of the artifice that converted marble into blowing folds of drapery in the hands of Bernini isn’t in competition with the realism of 3D printed sculptures; it’s a different game after all.

The question left on my mind after seeing the process and the finished portrait bust is one that no amount of realistic depiction or artistic license can ever truly portray: What is it like to carry around a face that means so much?

Let us know what you think about this process over at the Smithsonian 3D Bust of President Obama forum thread at 3DPB.com.

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