Can 3D Art Be Taught? A Reflection on Challenges and Strategies

Summer 2011: v.07 n.01: Under Fire: 3D Animation Pedagogy

Claudia Herbst-Tait
Department of Digital Arts, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY

This paper addresses some of the challenges of 3D art education and includes examples of my 3D-based artworks which make use of materials such as bronze, fiber and chocolate.

Whereas fine arts majors often have modest financial expectations post-graduation, students majoring in 3D disciplines often strive for lucrative jobs in multi-billon dollar industries, such as animation and gaming. Job placement is a growing concern among students and the schools competing for them [1], especially in the increasingly popular creative disciplines. Incidentally, the MFA reportedly is the new MBA. [2]

In my twelve years of teaching 3D technologies, the close association of 3D tools with industry and commercial pursuit has consistently influenced what happens in the classroom. 3D majors are frequently eager to emulate mainstream content, which can impinge on 3D curricula by sheer force of ubiquity. Students also regularly demand instruction on tools and methodologies that are considered industry standard but do not necessarily facilitate creative exploration, much less critical thinking. It is worthwhile to review if, and how, the seemingly limitless potential of 3D tools is utilized in 3D art education and what role pedagogy plays. As I will argue, when industry trends too closely inform curricula, the 3D classroom can emerge as regressive. And yet, ironically, it may well be the industry’s dominance that can liberate the 3D classroom from technology-centric instruction and make room for more creative experimentation.

In Why Art Cannot Be Taught, James Elkins briefly reviews the history of art education, from ancient art workshops in Greece and Rome, to medieval universities and Renaissance Art Academies, to modern art schools.[3] Elkins notes that, attending university, the medieval apprentice was “cut off from the intellectual life of their time,”[4] missing out on the opportunity to partake in academics that included music, physics, rhetoric, philosophy, et al. When 3D students today tailor their portfolios to individual company requirements and deliberately avoid content that could be offensive or deemed too critical by the hiring agents of production houses,[5] one feels reminded of the medieval apprentice whose philosophical capacity falls short of their technical aptitude. Literature, history and science rank secondary in the minds of students who hope that software skills will translate into a career and who have yet to grasp that software-specific knowledge has a built-in expiration date.

The medieval model of education was followed by Renaissance art academies; the first public Florentine Academy of Design dates back to 1560 and, initially, offered an informal setting that facilitated lectures, debates and anatomy lessons. Students also learned mathematics, perspective, and Euclidean geometry. Renaissance as well as Baroque academies put forth a canon that harked back to the Pythagoreans, and later Plato, according to which painting and sculpture should reflect no deviations but exhibit an awareness of an ideal, or perfected, form. Physiognomy, the assessment of a person’s facial expressions as an indicator for his or her mental state, was an integral part of anatomy lessons of Renaissance and Baroque art academies. Or, as Elkins summarizes, “Proportions, articulation, and bodily movement were thought to be both expressive and divine.”[6]

Elkins argues that, today, “art anatomy is a dusty relic of old-fashioned teaching practices.”[7] While, in general, that may be the case, quite the opposite holds true for many 3D curricula. Great attention is paid to hyper-realistic anatomy and physiognomy. 3D fields such as Character and Creature Design fetishize anatomies, real and imagined, and in animation classes, motion is studied carefully. Mathematics is central to all 3D software: 3D modelers and animators benefit from a solid grasp of mathematical concepts and their uses in the description of virtual spaces. Outside the 3D classroom, few arts students are likely to encounter anatomy, physiognomy and mathematics—the “relics” of art education—as core components of their curriculum. Moreover, remarkably little conceptualism, which started over half a century ago in art education, has penetrated the uses of 3D technology. Ernesto Pujol’s contention holds true for 3D majors as well; he states:

Students should receive training in Conceptualism, such as scholarly research and literary writing, as applied to traditional painting, sculpture, printmaking, glass, ceramics, and photographic processes, making muscled and poetic gestures more conscious and articulate and balancing craft with thought, while also gazing selectively at other disciplines.[8]

A little pleasantry can also act as a vital component in the approach to 3D art as well as pedagogy. Following industry lead, my often overwhelmingly male student body regularly shows a penchant for modeling idealized, hyper-sexual female characters (a trend deliberately encouraged by some schools until several years ago) [9]. In response to this objectification of the female body and notions of disembodied knowledge, I created a 3D model of the famous Venus of Willendorf (figure 1), a stone figurine dating back over 20,000 years. While, at times, my art practice serves as an inspiration in my classroom, with this project, conversely, it was my students’ work that informed my practice.

Using a 3D printer, I output an ABS plastic model (figure 2) from which I subsequently created a food-grade silicon mold (figure 3), which in turn I used to create chocolate replicas of the figurine. During a graduate student reception, I offered faculty and students my 3D chocolate Venuses: Eat 3D, She Is Delicious!

 Figure 1: Original Venus of Willendorf and 3D Model

Figure 1: Original Venus of Willendorf and 3D Model

 Figure 2: 3D ABS plastic print and food-grade silicon mold

Figure 2: 3D ABS plastic print and food-grade silicon mold

 Figure 3: Eat 3D: She is Delicious! Chocolate (2009)

Figure 3: Eat 3D: She is Delicious! Chocolate (2009)

The copying of originals is nothing new in art education. Whereas Renaissance pupils sat for our hours faithfully copying drawings and plaster reproductions of sculptures, 3D students may well find themselves sitting in a similar manner, tacitly adhering to a uniformity of approach, technique and content in their work. Especially undergraduate 3D animation students are besotted with the Pixar model of production and the creation of spectatorship for the masses. Paul Wells argues that the embrace of industrial production models leads to formulaic creative practices and outcomes.(10) As a consequence, art that critiques cultural trends, takes a political stance, or aims to improve society, as well as multi-disciplinary approaches, are not entirely missing from 3D classrooms but are overshadowed by the vapid glitz of effects and techniques.

Of course, it is important that students encounter 3D practitioners among their faculty who demonstrate non-mainstream uses of technology in their own work lest it be inadvertently confirmed that a stern focus on technology constitutes a form of worthwhile cultural production in and of itself. Thus, role models and departmental philosophies that validate and facilitate innovative uses of technology, are essential in supporting conceptually rich 3D art education.

Our department’s acquisition of new technologies, including the aforementioned 3D printer, has helped facilitate multi-disciplinary approaches to 3D. In addition to working with edible materials, I have produced a series of figurines in bronze that is loosely modeled on German Hummel figurines (figure 4), and comment on the sexualization of children, notions of childhood innocence and kitsch (figure 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14).

 Figure 4: Hummel figurine

Figure 4: Hummel figurine

 Figure 5: Goose Girl, 3D model and ABS plastic print

Figure 5: Goose Girl, 3D model and ABS plastic print

 Figure 6: Hummel figurine

Figure 6: Hummel figurine

 Figure 7: Lamb Girl, 3D model and ABS plastic print (2009)

Figure 7: Lamb Girl, 3D model and ABS plastic print (2009)

 Figure 8: Bird Girl, 3D model (2009)

Figure 8: Bird Girl, 3D model (2009)

 Figure 9: Bunny Girl, 3D model (2009)

Figure 9: Bunny Girl, 3D model (2009)

 Figure 10: Dance Girls, 3D model (2009)

Figure 10: Dance Girls, 3D model (2009)

 Figure 11: Goose Girl, bronze, unfinished

Figure 11: Goose Girl, bronze, unfinished

 Figure 12: Goose Girl, bronze, unfinished

Figure 12: Goose Girl, bronze, unfinished

 Figure 13: Goose Girl, bronze (2009)

Figure 13: Goose Girl, bronze (2009)

 Figure 14: Goose Girl, bronze (detail)

Figure 14: Goose Girl, bronze (detail)

In my classroom, this work elucidates that is possible to demonstrate technical proficiency, a pre-occupation of the majority of my students on the undergraduate and graduate levels, while also creating concept-driven works. The key point I try to get across is that successful portfolios demonstrate skill and convey original ideas, creativity, and the ability to think independently.

Two centuries before Hummel figurines gained popularity in Germany, an important development took root in Europe’s art education system. At the tail end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Romantic Movement rebelled against prescribed approaches to art, resisting rigid structures in art education and thus paving the way for greater freedom and individuality in the practice of art. [11] Today we take for granted that art education involves the development of an individual’s creative vision; formulaic approaches to evaluating and studying art have been largely abandoned. We advocate and find beauty in creative difference and originality, not uniformity. But arguably, these principles only marginally hold true in many 3D classrooms. Why?

The reasons are myriad and, as is commonly pointed out, are in part due to 3D technology’s exceptionally steep learning curve. The need to demonstrate complex functionality regularly eats up precious time and can take precedent over content-centric discussions and critiques. However, of late, students have increasingly gained access to new learning tools, such as online discussion forums and tutorials. Companies such
as Smart Flix rent DVDs with in-depth instruction for 3D artists on a wide range of topics. Similarly, Digital Tutors and Gnomon Workshop offer up-to-date instructional DVDs with high-quality step-by-step instructions for 3D artists by experts in the field and, as of 2009, provide online access to their entire training library containing thousands of lessons at a reasonable fee. The question arises: why cover information in class that is available online any time of day and at a fraction of the cost of a 3D course at any art school?

For a single instructor, it would be impossible to compete with the breadth and depth of these 3D knowledge repositories; it is virtually impossible to be an expert in all areas of 3D, not to mention to prepare quality, in-depth teaching materials. Unlike earlier 3D learning tools, the bulk of these online resources is exceptionally well-structured. One could bemoan the fact that these learning resources, too, are without exception commercial in nature, adhering to mainstream production models that trade imaginative uses of tools for efficiency. Yet, the availability of these sophisticated learning tools also frees class time from the minutia of step-by-step technical instruction to discuss content, context and multi-disciplinary approaches to technology. With the dominance of the mainstream production model so clearly established, resistance can be equally clearly formulated, and the developments that have taken place in art education over the past two centuries—and that fine arts majors may take for granted—can enter the 3D classroom.

While this development marks a pivotal point in 3D arts education, I believe we will have to exercise patience when we expect an influx of conceptually rich 3D works to emerge from classrooms. I would like to offer one last example of my work—this one from the realm of Fiber Art—to illustrate my point. In a recent series of Jacquard weavings, I have used 3D software’s ability to simulate hair to explore the quality of fibers in movement on soft surfaces (figure 15).

 Figure 15: Screenshot of 3D model (Maya software)

Figure 15: Screenshot of 3D model (Maya software)

I converted 3D files so that a loom could read them. Once woven on a Jacquard loom at the Oriole Mill, I sewed the resulting Damasks into tapestries (figure 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25).

 Figure 16: Jacquard weaving in progress at the Oriole Mill, Hendersonville, NC

Figure 16: Jacquard weaving in progress at the Oriole Mill, Hendersonville, NC

 Figure 17: 3D Fiber #10, Damask 56”x56” (2009)

Figure 17: 3D Fiber #10, Damask 56”x56” (2009)

 Figure 18: 3D Fiber #10 (detail)

Figure 18: 3D Fiber #10 (detail)

 Figure 19: 3D Fiber #9, Damask 56”x56” (2009)

Figure 19: 3D Fiber #9, Damask 56”x56” (2009)

 Figure 20: 3D Fiber #9 (detail)

Figure 20: 3D Fiber #9 (detail)

 Figure 21: 3D Fiber #11, Damask 56”x56” (2009)

Figure 21: 3D Fiber #11, Damask 56”x56” (2009)

 Figure 22: 3D Fiber #11 (detail)

Figure 22: 3D Fiber #11 (detail)

 Figure 23: 3D Fiber #4, Damask 58”x58” (2009)

Figure 23: 3D Fiber #4, Damask 58”x58” (2009)

 Figure 24: 3D Fiber #5, Damask 27”x56” (2009)

Figure 24: 3D Fiber #5, Damask 27”x56” (2009)

 Figure 25: 3D Fiber #5 (detail)

Figure 25: 3D Fiber #5 (detail)

This cross-over from 3D technology to Fiber Art led to the design of a new course intended to allow students to explore the formal aspects of 2D and 3D surfaces, real and virtual. Unfortunately, this course has yet to run due to under-enrollment. Other such “special topics courses,” which offer room for play and discovery but little by way of production-relevant skills, are dropped regularly from the roster because of a lack of interest, leaving creatively adventurous students with a schedule that does not cater to their needs. A setback of sorts but one that, I believe, will be remedied in the near future.

In conclusion, I’d like to submit that fine arts education as we know it today has spanned centuries of development, whereas 3D arts education is a recent phenomena. Change that will promote 3D technologies as a tool for individual perspectives rather than mass consumption among students is imminent but this change will challenge the world of technology’s infatuation with speed, and will be a gradual process.

Endnotes
1. For a related discussion, see Kate Zernike, “Making College Relevant,” New York Times, Education Life, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/education/edlife/03careerism-t.html?ref=edlife, extracted January 11, 2010.
2. The statement, “The Master of Fine Arts is the new MBA,” was made by the author Daniel Pink in a New York Times article about the new creative economy, http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2008/04/the_mfa_is_the_new_mba.html, extracted January 11, 2010.
3. Elkins, James, Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.)
4. Elkins, 8.
5. For example, I have watched a talented undergraduate student change her creative senior projects into a series of realistic 3D portraits of Julia Roberts after a representative of a visiting gaming company suggested she do so.
6. Elkins, 13.
7. Elkins, 13.
8. Ernesto Pujol, “On the Ground: Practical Observations for Regenerating Art Education,” in Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.)
9. In 2001, Expression Center, a media art school in Emeryville, California, promotes its Bachelor program with an advertisement depicting a virtual female character, scantily clad in a leather bikini and a pair of boots resting mid-thigh. The caption reads, “If you don’t have a girlfriend at our school you can always make one.” The advertisement appeared in DV Magazine, December 2001.
10. Paul Wells, Animation: Genre and Authorship, (London: Wallflower Press, 2002), 15-40.
11. Elkins, 27.