Connecting 3-D Printing and Nature: Andrew Werby
by Paul Weiner
Andrew Werby is a sculptor and the founder of United Artworks. Werby has worked with a host of tools throughout his career, from traditional lost-wax casting processes to cutting-edge 3D printers. Further images of his artwork and information about his business can be found at juxtamorph.com.
Explain your idea of a “juxtamorphic” style.
While I love art history, particularly the artifacts of ancient and distant civilizations, I felt the need to create a form of art that derived directly from nature, without reliance on my – or any human’s – cultural background. To me, anyway, natural objects speak a language of their own, which is independent of any artistic style developed by man. People have certainly used natural forms to develop styles of ornamentation before, generally abstracting and conventionalizing them. The Greek acanthus leaf is an example – in art history, one can see it progressively degenerate through generations of copying and reuse until its original vitality is entirely dissipated.
By capturing natural forms directly and using them in combination with each other to concentrate their innate power, I’m trying to build an aesthetic system like a mathematical proof, starting from what can be considered axioms: the natural forms that have surrounded mankind since its beginning. If we have any clue about what beauty might consist of, it seems to me, it has to be based on them. By carefully considering these forms, searching for affinities, mating one with another, and building up a work of art based on respect for their formal values, I’m trying to circumvent the unfortunate human tendency to identify, classify, and dismiss all this beauty without really seeing it for what it is.
Would you say that this attempt to build a “system like a mathematical proof” has in any way determined your affinity for computer printing over less accurate casting methods?
I didn’t mean to imply that making a piece of art in the Juxtamorphic style was as automatic and predetermined as going through a mathematical procedure. What I meant was that in constructing an aesthetic system from first principles, using the works of nature as “givens”, I felt I was building on a firm foundation, in the style of a theorem. The actual process of making art this way is very much a matter of trial and error.
In opting for this digital method of constructing sculpture, I’ve actually had to relax my standards of accuracy a bit. The traditional casting process will accurately reproduce everything one can capture in a rubber mold, which includes detail finer than a fingerprint. But no 3D scanner I have access to can capture detail like that; there’s always some loss in translation. And while detail is concentrated when one starts with a large object and scales it down, often I’m going in the other direction, with a consequent loss of detail. There’s also some detail lost in 3D printing itself,depending on the part’s scale and the type of printer used. I think this is justifiable in view of the flexibility afforded by a digitally-mediated process, but it’s still a sacrifice.
Could you explain the process you employ for a 3D printer?
Different 3D printers require somewhat different inputs and are suitable for different purposes. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, which have to be considered when choosing one for a particular project. For instance, the color printer I use allows me to use photographs on the surface of my pieces, much like projecting them onto a blank form, except that the color on the surface is an integral part of the piece, and is built along with the rest of it. I have another one that prints in clear plastic. These prints are a lot more durable than my color prints, but the detail on the surface, which is better, is harder to see because of the clarity, although that does produce some interesting visual effects. Another printer I’ve been using prints small objects with extremely high detail in a resin that’s suitable for investment casting, so I can transform these prints into jewelry or other parts in a range of metals.
What kind of programs do you use in order to tell the printer what to make?
There are a few different steps to my process. The first is 3D scanning, to create a library of forms that become my primary source material. Each scanning system consists of the hardware that actually captures the scans, and the software that enables it to work. I use a variety of these, ranging from simple touch-probes that record a single point at a time to laser scanners that can capture a whole object in great detail.
Once I have some scans to work with, I use one of a series of programs to combine, mirror, duplicate, scale and distort them in various ways, and to subtract one from another. My favorite program for doing this is called Geomagic Freeform. It’s a hardware/software system that has the unique ability to convey a tactile impression of the objects one is working on by varying the resistance of an articulated arm that’s used to manipulate them, so it’s a lot like using a real tool on a physical material, and is excellent for making subtle transitions from one surface to another. I also use more traditional CAD (Computer Aided Design) software for tasks which require hard geometric forms and measured relationships between them. Often I’ll use a combination of different software programs on a single piece to deal with different aspects of its intended function and appearance.
How did you make the transition from bronze casting to 3D printing?
The techniques of “lost wax” bronze casting traditionally were something that was left to foundry technicians to execute, based on a clay or plaster model that an artist would deliver, often at a much smaller scale than the large metal sculpture they’d produce. This led to a certain level of disengagement on the part of the sculptors, and to sculptures that lost something in translation. Fortunately, I was taught bronze casting by some sculptors who had revived foundry practice as a hands-on skill that artists could master themselves. One of the things we learned was mold-making. This was a revelation to me; I loved the idea that I could capture the surface information from one object and create another one in a different material, like wax or bronze, that still displayed the exact configuration of the original. I became particularly fascinated with doing this to natural objects, since they display such a mysterious richness of texture and detail. Soon I’d amassed the beginnings of what would become a formidable mold library, initially drawing on the resources of my school’s departmental collections, and had begun casting sculptures that combined all sorts of different animals, minerals, and vegetables.
I carried on with this for a long time after graduation, building a foundry of my own and expanding this basic technique into various other media. When personal computers started becoming powerful enough to combine photographic images, I delved into that a bit, but as a sculptor I was unsatisfied with making only 2D images, although I was intrigued by the ease and seamlessness of the transitions I could achieve in digital photo-collage. I started wondering if I could do the same thing in 3D and create actual sculpture from virtual models of natural forms. But everyone I spoke to about it at the time told me it was impossible, at least for an individual artist without corporate backing. I kept researching this, however, and my timing was right, because companies making CAD software and hardware peripherals were waking up to the mass market that was created with the spread of powerful personal computers, and making products available at much lower prices than before. I discovered some relatively inexpensive tools that allowed me to prove the concept, capturing a seashell in 3D, importing and manipulating it in a software environment, and then using a small CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) milling machine to carve it into a piece of wood.
I really like the CNC process, since it allowed me to expand what I could previously only do with casting and approach carving in much the same way. One is fairly unconstrained in the materials that can be used, and the scale of a part can be as large as the machine allows, while the level of detail is largely dependent on the time one is willing to spend carving it. I could use it to create models for casting in other materials, or create a final part in a permanent material like wood. The machines that do it are relatively simple, and I was able to build some for myself that extended the size range of the parts I could make. I’d found some 3D scanning equipment that was faster and produced models with better detail, and discovered software that let my imagination loose on them. But to carve something with a CNC mill, the tool has to be able to reach every area of the part’s surface, and there are some constraints on the designs one can accomplish. I found myself constructing things I couldn’t carve, and thinking about 3D printers.
There are quite a few different varieties of 3D printers. At the low end, they are basically just CNC machines with a hot-glue gun instead of a spindle, although they use more rigid plastic as a feedstock. The layers of material they deposit are individually visible on the surface and tend to obliterate all but the strongest surface textures. And the forms they can make are not unconstrained; the hot plastic, if not completely supported, will droop to the bottom of the build platform. I couldn’t see any particular advantage to using them instead of CNC carving.
However, there are some other technologies, like powder-bed printing, where a layer of powder is consolidated selectively and another is added on top, that allow the piece to be supported by the unconsolidated powder as it’s built up layer by layer. This allows a lot more freedom in design. Another method involves shining a laser into a vat of liquid photo-reactive polymer. This requires support from the bottom of the vat, but not nearly as much as the hot extruded filament, so the supports that are used can be easily detached.
A third technique also uses photoreactive resin, but cures it using a projector from underneath, which allows it to build particularly fast, since a whole slice is exposed at a time. By making each slice very thin, it can produce very fine detail fairly quickly. This resin is suitable for “lost wax” casting, since it burns out cleanly in a mold, so I’m able to cast it in bronze, just like the wax I started out with.
Would you consider your work fine art sculpture, design, or somewhere between the two?
My work can be arranged on a continuum between purely artistic sculptures and completely functional designs. I don’t make a big distinction between art and craft; my most influential teachers were among those artists of the 20th century who worked hard to obliterate that divide and I basically agree with them about the uselessness of segregating the two. I might make something that has no earthly use except as an object for contemplation; in that case there’s nothing else to call it but fine art. I also make things which can be put to some kind of use – a vessel, for instance, or a piece of jewelry. Its functional aspects may not be such as to overshadow its basically decorative nature, so it would rank somewhere in the middle. But I don’t forbid myself from acting as a designer first and an artist second, if the task warrants it, and in that case the intended function will largely dictate the form I produce to accommodate it. That would be placed on the other end of the spectrum.
Do you enjoy making work that functions as a tool more, less, or equally to making work purely for aesthetic pleasure?
I like doing both things. I don’t feel any compulsion to be purely an artist or exclusively a designer. Perhaps these different things are satisfying in different ways, so I do one or the other as the mood strikes me or the need for it presents itself. It’s good to identify an unmet need and fulfill it, so for instance I’ve launched into a project of designing the ultimate electric cello, which is more or less a pure design effort, where the goal is to achieve as good a sound quality as possible while preserving the ergonomics of the acoustic instrument. In the course of making a piece I often find I need some tool or machine that doesn’t exist, so in order to do something I’ve set my mind on, I’m obliged to shift gears and go into tool-making mode.
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