From 2D to 3D to 2D

By | Tuesday, July 02, 2024 Leave a Comment
The image at the right is an illustration of Dr. Doom by John Buscema. More accurately, it's a 3D print of a scan of an illustration by John Buscema. The metal plate you see it resting on is actually the print bed from my 3D printer. What exactly is going on here?

As I've noted on my blog before, I got a 3D printer back in late 2021. I've run thousands of hours' worth of prints, roughly split equally between practical items to use around the house and more fun toy stuff. From simple backgrond accessories to useable action figures. But I'd seen a number of designs online for "wall art" where you could print out a flat image of some line art or perhaps a silhouette in whatever size/scale/color worked for you.

Designing those is a relatively simple process, really. You just take a scan of the art you want, extrude in along the z-axis a few millimeters, and you're got a piece of plastic based on someone's illustration that you can stick to a wall or hang from the ceiling or whatever.

More recently, I've come across color versions. Where you not only have the illustrated outline, but the broad colors are filled in as well. I'd initially assumed these were meant for higher-end printers that can handle multiple colors of filament simultaneously. But upon more recent closer inspection, I see that they can actually be handled relatively easily by even basic mono-filament printers like mine.

Take a look at this extreme angle of the same Dr. Doom figure, looking down so you can see the top edge. What you might first notice is that the black outline of the figure doesn't run all the way down the side. The black looks as if it almost sits on top of the everything. That's because it does. If you look more closely, you can see there are actually several layers to the image -- green on the very bottom, with grey sitting on top of that, and black sitting on top of that. Each layer of the print, as the printer slowly rises up the z-axis, has a single color tied to it. The entire base layer is just green; I just loaded green filament in my printer and hit "print." The entire second layer is printed in grey; I paused the printer to remove the green filament and replaced it with grey. But the second layer of the art file doesn't include the full silhouette -- only the parts that I do not want to keep green. When the printer finished with the grey layer, I paused it again and replaced the grey filament with black. The printer then printed everything that I didn't want to keep green or grey. I could theoretically do this for any number of colors, so long as I kept each color on its own distinct layer.

Of course, each color adds an additional layer and additional thickness to the overall piece. The more layers you have, the greater the difference you'll find between the bottom and top layers, and the more unintended dimensionality the final piece will have. So it's probably not a great setup for more than four or five colors. There was Thor design I came across that used seven colors, and the photos other people had posted looked to me to be too drastic of a difference to look decent. YMMV. But it definitely works very well for two- and three-color designs like Silver Surfer and Moon Knight.

The question, then, becomes: why would you even want to do this? After all, the resulting image has a lower fidelity than the original and you're more limited in terms of both color palette and size (most commercial 3D printers only get up to about 8-9" square). For me, at least, permanence is a not insignificant factor. Printing an image onto posterboard or even foamcore is going result in something that's subject to damage pretty quickly; frequently, even it's own weight will cause some minor damage resting against a pushpin or similar, not to mention being more susceptible to moisture and UV light. The 3D printed version, being entirely plastic, has inherently more longevity and durability. If you're looking for a simple background decoration of some kind -- I'm using mine as part of some bookends -- I think they can make for a fun addition to your personal library or comic shop. And while you might not find your favorite artist's version of your favorite character, it wouldn't be all that difficult to create your own from scratch. You can see that even with the poor scanning around Dr. Doom's eyes, the piece as a whole still pops pretty nicely.
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