FAQ - Olivier Duhamel

How are the sliced sculptures made – FAQ – November 2014

Are these sculptures made with a 3D printer?
No. There are made of individual slices which have been laser cut and then manually reassembled.

So, they are not shaped by a router either?
Correct. The slices have been cut by a laser out of sheets of MDF or plywood or acrylic, not carved out of wood or plastic by a router.

But this is made on the computer, right?
Yes. I model the original shape in 3D, with what I call “digital clay”.

What exactly is this “digital clay”?
Think of a lump of modelling clay, except it is just an image displayed on your computer screen. This image can be spun around in any direction with the mouse to look at any side of the lump, zoomed in for close up examination, or zoomed out for a perspective view, exactly as one would do in a studio with a lump of clay sitting on a turntable. The file that represents the lump of clay is called a “mesh” because its surface is made of millions of tiny triangles assembled side by side to form a mesh.
The software presents you with a number of tools that will modify the action of the mouse pointer. Select the “stretch” tool for instance, point somewhere on you lump of clay, press down the mouse button and drag the mouse across the screen, some of your “clay” will stretch out as you drag the mouse. Stop dragging and release the mouse button, congratulation you have just shaped a neck or the start of a limb, or the tip of a nose. As you drag the mouse, the software adds more triangles to the mesh and creates more “clay”. Then there are tools to push, bulk, bulge, cut, pinch, rake, move, inflate, and much much more. Each of these tools has a number of settings and slider bars to modify their strength, dimension, depth etc…

This is not really “art” as you do not work with your hands?
Computers do not have a “make art” button that would make it quick and easy to sculpt something. As an analogy, having Microsoft Word installed on your computer will not make you an instant poet, novelist and talented writer. Think of the computer merely as a tool; the artist still needs to come up with the idea, master the craft, and in my case have a sense of anatomy, perspective, and harmony, an eye for what is visually pleasing. One can be certain that if Michelangelo or Da Vinci had had access to computers they would have use them, not that I am comparing myself to either of these artists.

Can you describe the whole process?
Step One. It all begins by spending sometimes with a model to find a pose. I rarely start with any preconceived ideas and the model often suggests a pose. This is very much a collaborative effort. I take several photos of the pose and print them for reference. I sometimes work from sketches instead of photos. I also sometimes work from my own imagination, without the assistance of a model.
Step Two. I then model the shape on the computer using the sketch or printed photos as references. This is the most difficult and most time-consuming part of the process but also the most rewarding.
Step Three. Once I am happy with the sculpture, I need to “slice” the “mesh”. This is where I decide of the scale of the final sculpture, the thickness of each slice and their orientation for the best effect. This process generates a drawing of the outline of each slice in a simple PDF file.
Step Four. The PDF file will drive a laser cutting machine. The slices are cut-out  from sheets of the chosen material. The laser will burn the edges of the MDF or plywood, creating the dark colour on the side of each slice while the surface retains its natural wood colour.
Step Five. The slices are delivered to me as a big puzzle of several hundred pieces of various sizes. They must now be manually reassembled to construct the final sculpture. This is meticulous and tedious work.
Step Six. Finishing, mounting and varnishing. For indoor pieces I use shellac which gives the pieces a nice satin finish. Shellac has also the advantage of repelling dust and the sculpture does not require any particular maintenance.
Step Seven. The sculpture is nicely displayed in a reputable art gallery.
Step Eight. You buy one. Congratulations.

How do you know in what order to glue all the slices?
A sequence number is added when generating the PDF drawing of each slice. These are engraved on each slice by the laser. This tells us in which order to assemble the slices. Such sequence numbers are sometimes still visible in the final piece, as a memento of the process. Four alignments pin holes are also made by the laser to help to find the proper offset position and align each slice correctly with the previous one.

What software do you use?
I use a great variety of tools. There is not one program that will do everything and I move the file back and forth from software to software.

I have never seen anything like it? Is this new?
Laminating timber has been done since the 1920’s. There is nothing new about it. Likewise laser cutting technology has been around since the 70’s. What seems to be new is the combination of the two applied to organic forms such as the human anatomy.

Still, your work is quite unique. Are you the only one doing this?
No. The tools I use are freely available to anyone and  I think that it is very likely that someone else is doing similar things somewhere else but so far I have not come across anything similar.

How long does it take to make one of your sculptures?
Depending on the size and complexity of the model, cutting the contour slices takes a few hours. Manually assembling the slices can take from one day and up to four days or more, adding a few hours for finishing, mounting and varnishing. The bulk of the time is spent shaping the original form, the creative part. I do not really know how much time is spent as I do not keep track of my time. I can work a whole day or days, then stop and resume several weeks’ later, work a couple hours here and there. As I progress and slowly master the art of modelling digitally, I get faster and faster.

Do you have your own laser cutting machine?
No. I outsource this part of the process. Having my own machine would significantly reduce my costs, but the machine also requires a large workshop with fume extractor, a large table saw to cut the panels to the dimension of the laser bed and of course some storage facility. I prefer to leave it to the experts.

Why MDF? This is such an inferior material?
I like the idea of using a humble industrial material and turning it into a work of art. The advantage of MDF is that its thickness is perfectly regular. Unlike timber it will not shrink, split nor warp and the sculptures are very durable. It does not like moisture however and the sculpture must be kept dry at all time. I use PVA glue to assemble the MDF slices.

What other materials do you use?
Plywood – Can be displayed outdoor. I finish the plywood sculpture with a marine grade varnish. I use Outdoor PVA and staples to construct the sculpture.
Acrylic – Brands such as Perspex or Plexiglass offer a wide range of translucent or opaque colours. It brings to the work a more contemporary and “edgy” aspect. The pieces are suitable for outdoor display. These products are sold as “UV resistant” but only time will tell.

How did you come up with the idea?
I was looking at ways to make quick, cheap and easy prototypes for my bronze figurines. I thought that gluing together a rough contour map of my design would make a solid armature on which to sculpt the surface details in wax or clay. As it turns out, my first experiments were not easy, not quick and not cheap but I thought that the effect was too interesting to be just a prototype. I spent a bit of time refining the process.

How strong and durable are these sculptures?
Glued MDF is very durable and very stable if kept dry. However, the surface can be easily damaged if banged, bumped or bashed. Small parts such as long limbs and fingers can be fragile and must be handled with care.

Are these pieces unique or multiple?
Multiple. Mostly edition of 5, sometimes open, unrestricted editions. Rarely unique except for commissioned work. Having a PDF file from which several sets of slices can be cut is a bit like having a mould from which several copies can be cast in bronze or a copper plate from which to print several reproductions of an etching.

Why the female nude?
For obvious reasons. There is no conceptual examination, symbolism, political message or intellectual proclamation in my work and I am not into innovation at all cost either, I am chiefly concerned with capturing the beauty and sensuality of my subject of study. Some people say that I am “objectifying” women’s body. This is a negative view; I prefer to think that I am celebrating the beauty of the female body.


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