Claire Stokoe July 5th, 2011

The Rise Of The Virtual Sculptor

Virtual sculpture artists are immersed in the digital world. They’re not to be confused with digital sculpture or info sculpture artists, who use computer-aided design (CAD) to create physical objects.

Sculpture is thought to be one of the truest forms of art, perhaps because it is tangible. You can see and feel the product; you can see where the artist used their hands or tools to fashion its shape. Sculpture seems to absorb energy in a way that a painting cannot, perhaps because the hands of the artist have shaped the materials or because there is power in sharing physical space with a solid form. Something about sculpture feels real.

The David (Image source)

A Change Of Medium

What happens to the power of sculpture when a piece does not occupy physical space? What happens when it exists entirely within a virtual environment? Is it still a sculpture if it’s not carved out of a material (wood, stone, clay or marble)? Does it still take on the same type of energy that something molded by human hands seems to take on?

I have been passionate about the great masters since I was just a few feet tall, and having artistic talent from an early age, I indulged in copying their works. The Vatican museum, which I visited, did not disappoint. It was a treasure trove for the eyes: from towering gods battling serpents in heaven to fat little cherubim pouring wine and picking fruit for angels.

Sharing space with marble that had been touched by the hands of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci was marvelous, truly breathtaking. My digital camera’s memory filled up in minutes as I clicked away, looking through the lens as I tried to keep up with our guide (who spoke very little English and held aloft a pink umbrella).

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Later, as my friend and I ate dinner near the Trevi Fountain, I began to flick through these images. I found myself noticing the light and shade of the pictures and enjoying the experience through the lens. I remember telling my friend about everything, and I enjoyed that interaction. It dawned on me that standing in the presence of these sculptures had been a fleeting experience, but my documentation of it was giving me lasting pleasure.

At our next stop, Rome, I wanted to record every second of the experience. By doing so, I was transferring the experience of Rome into another realm, which I labeled “my perception.” This got me thinking about the perception of art, and perception in general. My experience had been very different than my friend’s. She had taken few photos and had spent time standing next to the works of art, savoring their existence. Later, though, she had difficulty recounting details and visualizing specific pieces. This experience was what first stirred me to explore virtual artwork and, eventually, virtual sculpture.

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The Urge to Virtualize

Virtual art is the tentative beginnings of sculpture that can be controlled by the perception of the viewer. If I wanted to see the statue of Augustus of Prima Porta cast in bronze in a virtual environment, for example, it would be possible. Or perhaps I would like to see the restoration process of this piece, the changes made since the 18th century. This, too, would be possible in a virtual environment. The alternatives, at the moment, cannot go so far, but these pieces of artwork are still impressive. With the introduction of virtual lightboxes into galleries such as the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art (SGDA) or tours through Second Life, the artists I will discuss below could see their art exhibited widely… and the movement could grow.

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The other wonderful thing about virtual artwork is the detailed learning experience that it affords fans and gallery visitors. The David in Florence, for example, is a colossal statue that towers above visitors. The only view of David’s face that visitors can get is from under his chin or on a gift-shop postcard. A virtual companion to this sculpture would give visitors the chance to view the face close-up, track the furrow on his brow and gaze into his piercing eyes.

Virtual Sculpture’s Beginnings

Let’s review the history. Take a trip back to 1951, when the first digital images were displayed on the vector scope, and then race forward into the 1960s, when the virtual art movement began to gain momentum at the grassroots. William Fetter of Boeing coined the term “computer graphics” for his human factors cockpit drawings. The first computer art exhibition was held at Technische Hochschule in Stuttgart. And Adage launched its real-time 3D line-drawing system. The 1970s saw the publication and development of the magazine “Computer Graphics World.”

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In the 1960s, in the design department of car manufacturer Renault, a young engineer named Pierre Bezier went to his supervisor with a new idea for using a mathematical program to create a curve. His superior scoffed and said, “Monsieur Bezier, if your thing worked, the Americans would already be using it.” But they weren’t, of course, and the now-famous Bezier curve was born. The engineers at Renault suddenly became artists, creating visually pleasing shapes with a set of numerically controlled milling machines. It was a slow process at first, and many aspiring visual artists lost sight of the goal and reverted to old methods simply because of the amount of work involved.

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The movement had to wait until the 1970s—which saw the combining of micro-computing and rapid prototyping technologies—before it began to have a greater impact, and it was not until the early 1990s that it really started to make progress. Some of the first virtual sculpture artists of the 1990s (such as Dan Collins, Christian Lavigne, Michael Rees and Derrick Woodham) seem to have started as virtual artists who saw the virtual design site as a means to an end. They believed that the final outcome should and would naturally be the body experience of an actual object. These artists formed the digital sculpture movement, leaving the virtual movement to continue on its course without them.

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Showcasing Virtual Sculpture

The following collection features work from some early adopters of virtual sculpture as well as those who have shaken the art world in recent years.

Robert Michael Smith

Robert Michael Smith is considered a pioneer of digital sculpture and technology. He was the founding Web director of the International Sculpture Center and has recently built a collaborative digital art gallery in Beijing, China. He has translated his vision into virtual reality, 3-D animation and even giant polyurethane-coated foam and marble sculptures. Professor Smith said the following about his medium:

Art is alchemy. Alchemy is the magic, observation, process and ritual of life. My sculptures, both virtual and actual, are conversations regarding the archetypal forms that are the basic structures of nature. I build alien abstract worlds that become familiar through frequent immersion. These worlds are constructed to open exploration to the deepest regions of the human psyche for development within the landscape of the imagination.

“Urchanticede” (Image source)

“Fleurvalis” (Image source)

“ROB1MT” (Image source)

Corinne Whitaker

Corinne Whitaker says this about her attitude toward art:

There are those who feel that digital art is created by a machine. I suspect that the same discomfort was expressed about photography some 150 years ago. The computer is essentially a big dumb box with almost infinite potential. It takes the sensitivity of the artist to work magic with any tool, be it paintbrush, crayon or computer.

She also added, regarding the pioneers of the art:

In 1981 there were no menus and there was no mouse. We were able to communicate with each other through a primitive program called The Source, which had a “Chat” feature.

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“Sculpt 8.15.01B” (Image source)

“Sculpt 1.29.00G” (Image source)

Scott Eaton

Scott Eaton is an artist, technical director and anatomy consultant who resides in London, UK. Scott is currently working with Framestore (based in London) on upcoming film projects. He divides his remaining time between his art, freelance projects and anatomy courses. His clients include Pixar, LucasFilm, Sony, Microsoft Game Studios, The Mill, Disney and many other post-production houses and game studios.

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Nicolas Rieben

Rieben was born in Geneva in 1966. His main influences are flight simulators and video games, because they explore how reality is turned into an icon or some other representation. He says this about his work:

I began working with 3-D software ten years ago to facilitate my sculpting. It wasn’t until six years ago that I began confronting different types of reality with 3-D software.

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Murray Kruger

Murray Kruger was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1965. He did not become interested in 3-D animation until the late 1980s, which is when the technology finally started taking shape. He says:

In 1986 I became interested in 3-D computer animation. I find the technology exciting and came to understand that it is a viable medium for my art. I now use software designed for animation as my primary vehicle for my imagery. Invented spaces and the stories that can evolve from them fascinate me.

“Untitled” (Image source)

“Age of Reason” (Image source)

Hamish Marr

Hamish Marr was born in the Orkney Islands. He is a photographer and sculptor and also now a celebrated virtual sculptor. His commissions include Ailsa Magnus at the sculpture studio, Cygnus Works.

“ARM4” (Image source)

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Tim Borgman

Tim Borgman studied as a traditional painter and illustrator, but after getting his first computer in the early 1990s he began to experiment with CAD. He has been working as a freelancer since then, mainly in the area of 3-D art and animation. He has said this of his work:

While working on art projects, I see image creation as a dialogue between the nascent image and myself. Sometimes the image influences my work by itself, leads me in its own direction. Sometimes it’s just me, pushing the image into the form I want. Although I tend to be someone who must have total control of every aspect of the creation process, it’s very interesting to take a step back and let the image take some control.

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Thomas Mahler

This 26 year old artist also works as an independent games developer and shares many of his tips and tricks on YouTube to aid others become a versed in the techniques that make him a truely remarkable Virtual artist.

Unlike some of the other artists we have looked at Mahler's background lies in traditional sculpture giving him possibly more of a edge on the type of realism that critics expect. He now works with the likes of Blizzard and on major films.

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Artist Source

Thomas Broadfoot

Thomas is a self taught virtual artist who takes his inspiration from a mixture of sci-fi, politics and science. His passion for this medium is due to being able to create his own textures and design otherworldly terrains.

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Charlot Dickins

Charlot is a virtual sculptor who creates and exhibits within Secondlife, she spends most of her free time creating new sculptures and designs most of her other surrounding within the online world.

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Artist Sources

So, what virtual art will move from galleries to start selling as prints or digital copies? Which pieces will conquer galleries (which display the artwork as it was meant to be displayed)? The newly refurbished St. Pancras International train station already offers travelers access to the UK’s National Gallery paintings as they relax in the departure lounge. This could work everywhere.

I find something quite disturbing about a piece of virtual art that has been set onto canvas, in much the same way as I would feel disturbed by a Barbara Hepworth tea towel; it seems so lifeless. I hope that within my lifetime we will experience more of this artwork as it was made to be experienced—be it musically sculptured, CAD-created or living and breathing in real time, and whether updated by an invisible community or by those who experience it.

Further Reading


Software Ideas

Digital Sculpture Tutorials



  1. Very interesting. I love your point of view about virtual art: “It is the tentative beginnings of sculpture that can be controlled by the perception of the viewer”

  2. It’s amazing how much technology have allowed us to do creatively over the past few years. This is one of those many great things, 3D modeling.

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