3D sculpture captures life-like detail, but is it art?

Lili Engelhardt’s miniature schnauzer, Elvis, stands next to his sandstone replica.
Lili Engelhardt’s miniature schnauzer, Elvis, stands next to his sandstone replica. courtesy of Lili Engelhardt

Elvis stood still at the center of the scanner, his paws planted, panting happily.

His job as a model was complete within a second, as 125 tiny cameras captured his every detail.

Minutes later, a 3D image of the miniature schnauzer was being projected onto a computer screen – the first steps of a process that would create a small silver statue that now hangs across Lili Engelhardt’s chest.

As the Engelhardt family dog, Elvis was one of the first models for the new 3D scanner at Lili Engelhardt’s Fine Arts, a Chapel Hill portrait studio at 630 Weaver Dairy Road.

The scanner, which stands roughly 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide, is one of few available on the East Coast. Engelhardt purchased the scanner from a German company, as it is not readily available in the United States.

With the subject standing in the middle of the cameras, the scanner takes 250 photos – firing once for color and a second time for contour – to complete a digitally rendered, 360-degree image. Once rendered, the image is then 3D printed and sculpted for a chosen material and size the customer orders.

Engelhardt, an artist focused on portraiture, sees 3D-printed sculptures as a natural progression from a portrait on a wall.

“They are an awe-inspiring way to capture the spirit of those we love,” she said.

The details of these sculptures, which are cast in bronze and silver by a separate foundry, are chiseled down by the foundry’s sculptors for extreme accuracy. Sandstone and plastic filament sculptures are printed and colored simultaneously in a powder bed 3D printer.

Sandstone sculptures start around $95, while bronze statues and sterling silver jewelry start around $400. Engelhardt has sold a few sculptures, most notably of a set of three siblings standing back-to-back and several dogs.

The sculptures, which take two to four weeks to complete, are so detailed that one dog that was printed in sandstone revealed a bump above its right leg.

The boxer’s owners called the studio afterward to say the bump on the statue was a tumor that was later removed, Engelhardt said. They had noticed the difference between the statue and their dog after its removal.

Silicon Valley

A former executive for several technology companies, Engelhardt launched her studio in 2012.

After spending most of her career in Silicon Valley, Engelhardt says she became intrigued by the ability to make something 3D from a digital file and the growing significance of the technology.

“Three-dimensional technology is the first technology since the advent of the internet that I think will impact our lives in profound ways, ways that we cannot even imagine yet,” she said.

But not everyone endorses the technology’s use in art.

Carl Billingsley, president of Tri-State Sculptors Educational Association, says he does not believe 3D technology enables “any degree of imaginative or expressive capability” not already available to any sculptor.

“They represent advantages in terms of speeding up certain processes … but they have many limitations and restrictions in terms of materials, scale, surface qualities and cost,” he said.

The Tri-State Sculptors Educational Association, formed in 1978 to support and promote sculpture and those interested in sculpture, offers scholarships to students in high school that focus on the art.

Billingsley, a former professor of sculpture at East Carolina University, suggests introducing 3D technology at the high school level will “probably do more harm than good” and will allow students to avoid basic sculpture fundamentals.

“When students don’t know how to read a ruler, don’t understand what a ratio is and have never made anything with their own hands, the last thing they need is a 3D scanner,” he said.

A starting point

While Billingsley defends traditional sculpting, Engelhardt maintains 3D scanning provides a starting point to create objects that sculptors might not able to make or make as easily using other methods.

“If the initial 3D model is a scan, the student starts with a realistic version of themselves,” she said. “Then comes the creative process in which they may use 3D technology and software to transform themselves into a superhero or even an abstract sculpture. This is where creativity is unleashed.”

Engelhardt also compares 3D technology and sculpting to the introduction of electronic instruments in music. The technology helped create new sounds and new music, she said, but the foundation stayed the same.

“I could see this capability revolutionizing art,” she said. “To be a true sculptor, artists will still have to understand sculpting and art. Only now they have more tools to draw from.”