If you want to engage students with an exciting hook, 3D printing will do the trick. They can create a two-dimensional drawing of an object and print it three-dimensionally. Today, companies use 3D printing to make prototypes, prosthetic devices, modular houses, and just about anything that is made with other materials. A painting like the Mona Lisa can be 3D-printed for a visually impaired person to experience through touch. Where this fascinating technology will go in the future is up to the students we currently teach in our art rooms.
Left: Annemarie Baldauf, New York coronavirus sculpture, June 2020. Right: Bowls printed with one extruder that changed filament colors while printing.Left: Sculpture created with a dual extruder printer. Right: 3D solar-powered car with stained-glass windows created in Tinkercad.3D-printed ballerina vases.
While 3D printers are becoming more affordable and user-friendly, the lessons that we can teach using this tool is just as creative and inspiring as what is taught in technology or engineering classes. The goals of these classes have always been the goals of an art class: thinking outside of the box and using your mind to achieve results with creativity; seeing what isn’t there and what is possible.
Combining Art Skills with Technology
Art teachers in the twenty-first century are obliged to give students a baseline of knowledge and experience in the skills they will need in the future. Combining art skills with technology helps students learn how to collaborate, think critically, and solve problems inside and outside the art room. Learning to make art with a 3D printer is a skill that students will need when they enter the job market. I have seen million-dollar 3D printers in use at Lawrence Livermore Lab, and companies are buying 3D printers so employees can each have one at their workstation.
3D Printing Basics
To print a drawing with a 3D printer, you need to create an STL file with a software program and then use a slicing program to send the file to the printer. There are plenty of free programs available for this, such as Morphi or Tinkercad. Many of these programs feature tutorials so students can learn how they work before beginning to create. It’s a different way of thinking, creating three dimensions on a drawing plane, but once students become fluent with the program, transforming their creations into a 3D model becomes instinctive.
Starting with 3D-Printed Bas-Relief
With the Morphi or Tinkercad app for the iPad, students can take their drawing, photograph it with an iPad or tablet, import it to the app, and make a 3D-printed bas-relief. This is the first 3D-printing project I do with students because it’s easier than 3D modeling. Students can start by designing a simple name tag, business card, or luggage tag.
After students become familiar with the apps, we proceed to 3D modeling. Each program has its own benefits and disadvantages that students need to work with as they transform a pencil drawing into three dimensions.
3D Modeling Step 1: Students complete tutorials to learn the program they are going to use (Morphi or Tinkercad) to create the STL file to 3D-print their drawings. Step 2: Students create the model/sculpture of their drawing in the 3D program. Step 3: Students save their work as an STL file. Step 4: Students export the file to the slicing program that usually comes with the 3D printer. Step 5: Students send their file to the printer using Wi-Fi or a USB drive or SD card and print the file.
Whether the printer has one extruder or two, students can use it to create 3D art in multiple colors, working artfully to design a project with skill and imagination.
Art teachers share lessons that focus on media arts, digital processes, and new technologies. Students design and develop meaningful side-scrolling video games, learn light painting techniques to capture long-exposure photographs, turn 2D drawings into 3D-printed models, create a digital floral folk-art piece inspired by their heritage, and more.