3D-Printed Figures

By Annemarie Baldauf, posted on Sep 11, 2023

The 3D printer is an exciting technology, adding to your art program possibilities of sculpture, jewelry design, pottery, and more. In recent years, these printers have become more affordable and user-friendly, so I was eager to incorporate them into my curriculum. For our final 3D printing project, students drew figures on paper and transformed them into 3D designs. This project required the students to adopt a new way of thinking and planning for the resulting 3D print.

SchoolArts magazine, The Language Issue, October 2023, Middle School Art Lesson, Three-Dimensional Printed Figures
3D-printed miniature figure, 3D model created with CAD program, and the inspiration drawing.
SchoolArts magazine, The Language Issue, October 2023, Middle School Art Lesson, Three-Dimensional Printed Figures
3D-printed miniature figure and the inspiration drawing.
SchoolArts magazine, The Language Issue, October 2023, Middle School Art Lesson, Three-Dimensional Printed Figures
Left: These 3D miniature figures are designed to stack together. Right: 3D-printed miniature figure.

Practice Projects
During the school year, I introduced students to 3D printing through four practice projects using a CAD (computer-aided design) program. Students made heart rings, a shamrock necklace featuring their initials, 3D printed business cards, and a flowerpot. Through these projects, students became comfortable with 3D modeling and thinking. They learned through a process of trial and error, ending with a 3D object they modeled on their Chromebooks. Students learned how to place, move, view, size, align, group, copy, duplicate, rotate, and connect in the CAD program.

Moving to Miniature Figures
The final project of the school year was a miniature 3D figure of a person, anime character, or avatar. Figures were to be small; this was important because the detail one can achieve with 3D printing really stands out with miniature art. It was also practical because the material for 3D printing is expensive.

Students had plenty of choice for how their figures would look, but they had to consult with me once they planned their designs so I could anticipate any functional problems with printing.

Digital Languages
Multiple programming languages are used to create a 3D print from a student’s drawing. Students start with picture language, drawing their figures, then use CAD program language to build their drawings into 3D models, creating STL language on their Chromebooks.

Students send their STL files to a Slicer that chops their 3D model into hundreds of 2D layers, writing G-code language that is read by the printer. The printer follows the instructions, creating the 3D-printed model from layers of filament.

The Process
Referring to their original drawing, students created their 3D model in the CAD program. (In hindsight, next time I’ll require side- and back-view drawings.) Students used the shape tools to make their character and details such as clothing and accessories. Their models needed to look as much like their original drawing as possible and be situated on a platform so the final piece would stand.

Sending the STL file of their figure to the slicing program was the next step. The class used a MakerBot printer with a large platform. Six figures can usually be printed and sliced at once. The STL file (Standard Triangle Language) is sent to the slicer. Slicing translates the STL file of the student’s 3D drawing into G-code, a language that contains instructions for the 3D printer.

Once their figures were printed, students hand-painted them based on their original drawings. Finally, they photographed their figure for their digital portfolio and took their treasures home.

Through this project, every student was successful in making a 3D figure. One student who only wanted to draw anime all year turned her anime drawing of herself into a 3D print. I asked her if she imagined she could ever do that, and she happily replied no.

3D modeling software: CAD or computer graphics software program used to produce 3D models. For our Chromebooks, we used Tinkercad and iPads.

STL file: The surface geometry of a 3D object created in a CAD program. STL is the most commonly used file format for 3D printing.

Slicer: Software that converts digital 3D models into printing instructions (G-code) for your 3D printer. The slicer calculates how much material your printer will need to extrude.

G-code: The computer numerical control programming language that provides instructions to a 3D printer, telling the motors what path to follow.

Annemarie Baldauf is an art teacher at Riverview Middle School in the Mount Diablo Unified School District, California.

National Standard
Producing: Develop and refine artistic techniques and work for presentation.

STL Format Explained
3D Printing Tutorial

View this article in the digital edition.