Replication of fine surface details through 3D scanning and printing: Current capabilities and limitations

Robert Price


Many of the techniques used to conserve works of art have their roots in art making itself. Loss-compensation through filling and inpainting, for example, is directly rooted in the methods of painting and sculpture. Similarly, just as 3D scanning and printing have taken on an increasingly important role in the artist’s studio, conservators have begun utilizing it for our own goals. Until now, much of the discussion around 3D scanning and printing has focused on the preservation of 3D printed artworks, rather than the use of these methods in conservation. Although there are numerous case-studies where 3D modeling and automated additive or subtractive manufacturing techniques have been incorporated into conservation treatments, the use of these techniques for replication or restorative purposes whereby the 3D printed model is intended to convincingly represent the object of conservation itself, either partially or entirely, has been limited.

Likely the result of high costs, limited access, and insufficient understanding of the technologies, as well as an understandable assumption that most conservation interventions can be done faster, less expensively, and to a higher standard by a trained conservator, 3D technologies remain underutilized and understudied. Setting aside the ethical and philosophical issues related to larger discussions of “replicas,” “copies,” and “refabrications,” what does 3D scanning and printing make possible now? What level of surface detail can be accurately replicated and how much does it cost? Inescapable ethical questions included, what do these techniques mean for conservation and for art, and how do they fit into evolving philosophical frameworks supporting the conservation of time-based media and conceptual art, as well as the more traditional frameworks supporting the reception of multiples and works of art produced in series? Pushing the limits of 3D scanning and printing, a recent project at the National Gallery of Art, Washington has been seeking answers to these questions and exploring what might be possible in the future.

2022 | Los Angeles | Volume 29