Author: Parker Stafford


Art 204 Breaking Cognitive Biases

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Part of the course I teach at a local university is helping my students to realize what issues hold them back from thinking and feeling differently.  The following article and exercise is part of Art 204, a course in sculpture and will be used to begin to help students to, as I call it, “self illuminate” and begin the process of reflecting on their most cherished creative tool; their minds. So with that in mind, a brief introduction to the concept of cognitive bias.

Our brains are amazing biological machines.  They are known to record perfectly the events that happen around them.  It is known that underlying our cognitive function is a perfect record of what has taken place in our lives.  The only problem, though, is that we aren’t merely recording machines.  We have all kinds of filters that are thrown into the mix and many of these resolve around unresolved emotional issues that serve to direct or distort memory.  We wind up seeing or experiencing things differently than perhaps they are.

The writer Anais Nin once said that we do not see the world as it is but as we are, and this helps to explain the concept of cognitive bias very well.  The effect is that of carrying material from our past into new events in the present and then either reacting to them with the old bias in place or remembering events differently then how they actually happened.  Its a process of seeing the world through tinted glasses or blinders.  What blinds is is most often unresolved emotional material and we have a very hard time often even admitting that these blinders are in place.  It’s probably pretty obvious how such blinders can effect you as an artist.  When so much of making art involves questioning what has come before or seeing the world in a new way, addressing these cognitive biases in your own life can lead to new ways of seeing and feeling as well as impacting your creative life.  Most of the movements in art would not have been possible were it not for artists who were willing to see and think different, to ask hard questions not only of their culture or world, but also of themselves.

The article I am including a link for that will help to provide the bulk of the information on cognitive bias has about 100 different types of biases listed. Click on THIS to go to the article.  As a student of Art 204, you will need to read through the list to familiarize yourself with the material.

In this exercise I want you to look through the following article on Cognitive Bias and find four biases that you have found yourself falling for or suffering from, and then work through some strategies for overcoming them. Knowing what you now know, how do you avoid the issue in the future?  Think about times when you may have been affected by this cognitive bias. It may take you some time to realize that a given bias is one that has affected you.  It might be helpful to read through the list and then spend a few days just thinking about them in order to gain a clearer picture of how it has had an impact on your life. Then think about strategies that will help you to avoid this cognitive bias in the future and record them.  These will be shared in class and I will be taking them up after the class in order to grade them.  Be complete and descriptive in your response, although you could easily use bulleted responses that get directly to the point.  Offering more than one strategy for overcoming a given bias will be graded more favorably.

Creative thinking is influenced by the patterns that we  fall into. Learning to be both aware of and able to work out of those patterns is part of seeing, thinking, and feeling differently.  This will naturally have an effect on your own creative process.


How To Effectively Sell Your Work

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Selling your work is one of the most critical aspects of making it as an artist, and yet it is also the one element in many artist’s professional lives  that is the most fraught with challenges and frustration.  Even when you have an agent or galleries that do the selling for you, you still have to be able to be the person who presents the face for the product, and that means selling.  While this may seem distasteful to some artists, it is a reality.  The trouble I often have seen both in myself and in other artists is that there is a cognitive bias about what selling ones self is all about.  It doesn’t automatically mean that you are somehow compromising your principles, or selling out.  Selling is a multifaceted activity that achieves many goals, the last of which is selling your work so that you may support yourself so that you can go on to make still more work.  When someone wants to buy your work, most often, they aren’t JUST buying the object, they are buying YOU.  They are buying your skills, your effort, your love and grace.  they are buying the idea that there is someone who is brave enough to step out into and put their work out there so that it can be shared.  I learned this when I began selling my work at art shows and craft fairs all across the country when I began my business in 1997.  People wanted to know how it was made, how I got into the field, and anything else I cared to share.  Were my pieces a big surprise when I got done?  How did I achieve those layers of color and how DO you get something suspended in the center of the glass like that?  Many liked to put their work on show in their homes and it was a point of pride and conversation for them to be in the know about this artist instead of it being a faceless name whose work they found online.  Many of my customers are buying more than just a piece of art glass, they are buying a story as well as a way of life.  They are also participating in an effort that is more than the artist alone but makes up galleries and customers who all take part in an effort that makes it possible for an artist to do what she or he does.  It is not so unusual for art afficianados to actually care about more than JUST the work, but the spirit and the human touch of the person who laid paint to canvas, or sculpted a delicate figure out of porcelain.  At its best, the industry is about love. When I go into a craft gallery who sells nothing but handmade, it is very rare that I ever come across sales staff and owners who seem aloof.  they are all excited to be living this kind of life and selling work that they feels makes the world a better place.  They get to see people coming into their gallery on a daily basis who are amazed at all the things that are on display that were made by hand.  Sure, those in the industry are shrewd business people, but they have learned that you have to be in order to survive and thrive in the world of art and craft.  That goes for the artist as well, at least in some measure.

How you present yourself is crucial to creating a look and a feel that will help support your business. You will attract different kinds of people as customers and clients based on how you present yourself. If you can convey your own sense of style and taste in how you dress, how you design your booth or studio gallery, these things all help to convey who you are in little and big ways (and this is not always easy for everyone).  This is a fine art in presentation and communication. It all works best when it makes intuitive sense to the public that you are attracting. This is why being yourself is so important. You don’t have to pretend to be anything that you are not, but you certainly have to come across as comfortable and confident. This does not mean that you do the hard sell.  In fact, most selling of yourself is best done when you are simply you. Its in understanding the psychology of selling that makes all the difference, and you do not have to be a great salesperson in order to find your way.  you just need to understand what goes through everyone’s head when they go into a retail outlet, a store, mall, or gallery, or booth at an art or craft fair.

Artists can be horrible at selling their work. I say this because I was in this camp. I was always curious about the psychology of selling as I was growing up as an artist  because this is one aspect that we were simply never taught about.  Most of the material on the bookshelves about selling had to do with  mainstream forms of merchandising like selling cars or clothing.  So how was I going to make a story about selling a shirt apply to selling a sculpture or a piece of decorative blown glass?  When I graduated from college I decided I didn’t want to do any art for a while.  Instead, I decided to do something I had never done; I took a job selling  water treatment equipment!  What this experience did was it revealed one side of the sales industry with its own ideas about how things are bought and sold.  I quickly grew jaded because it was a formulaic approach;  there is an average number of times that a person will say no, make sure you make eye contact during a certain part of the presentation, you need to make sure that you emphasize certain words at the right time, etc.  After a certain number of no’s,  they will tend to give up and start saying yes. The strategy was to get them to say no even if it wasn’t even a resistance to what you were trying to sell them. There were certain presentation methods that were based on making assumptions in the hopes of selling some option or service in order to increase the bottom line for the company. It all felt like so much manipulation!  It just didn’t feel honest to me.  The only problem, though, was this was how so many in the sales field sold things from vacuum cleaners to siding. Remember the movie Tin Men with Richard Dreyfus and Danny DeVito?  If you do, you have a pretty good idea what kind of environment I had walked into.  Don’t get me wrong, it did teach me some things, but after a while I found I just could no longer sell,  and I moved on to other things.  Its not surprising that we all could be soured on the idea of selling when we only think about unscrupulous tin men…..but as it turned out, there was a whole other world to selling, and none of it had anything at ALL to do with sneaky tricks, manipulation, or pressure in the least!

The big a-ha moment came for me when I bought a very unlikely book while attending the Buyers Market In Philadelphia.  Outside the exhibit hall there were vendors for things like boxes and bags, as well as books on how to promote and make yourself into a more effective business person. The artisans were located in the hall adjacent to these vendors, so I would walk past them as I came into and out of the conference hall each day.  The book I picked up was entitled No Thanks, I’m Just Looking!  by Harry J. Friedman (ISBN 0-7872-5350-2).  It was when I read this book that I was able to draw comparisons between the world of merchandising and the world of my own form of merchandising.  I forgot that the author was talking about a shirt, or furniture and started to consider the psychology of buying itself, which of course was what the book was all about. I found that instead of picking up tricks or techniques, all I had to do was to think about what it is like for me whenever I walk into a store. that really was the very crux of the book, and my reactions in a store turn out to be just like everyone else’s!  It became a simple way to simply put myself in my customers shoes as they browsed my booth or gallery.  This wasn’t selling; this was empathy!  Big light bulb moment.

What the book was so effective at underlining was the psychology of buying.  What was so interesting to me was how it did not provide tricks or formulas;  this book was about stepping back and thinking what its like when you first enter a store and the phases that most people go through when shopping.  To understand this, you need only to think about how you feel when you go into a store.  What happens?  Most people don’t pause to reflect that there are very definite states that they enter when just browsing and when they are ready to BUY.  You might be a lot like I was when I first started reading the book, which was that I never paused to consider what those different phases or states of mind were whenever I went into a store.  The book was presenting the idea that if you understand these clues as they are being presented in store guests, you could become a more effective sales person  not because you are going in for the kill or that you are using pressure tactics but that you can then become a facilitator for what the person may need or want.  Its interesting how this all happens, and it makes all the difference between your buying and not buying. I put myself in those shoes and only then did it make sense why I was doing all the wrong things when I was trying to sell my work.

First of all, when you enter a store or a booth or gallery, its an adventure.  You might go in for a shirt, but you really don’t know what you will find. The world is open to you, and your mind is in that wide open kind of space.  I just went shopping for clothes and all I knew was that I needed shirts and some jeans and some slacks and socks.  I just had no idea what I would find, but if I found what I LIKED, I was going to buy it most likely if the price and look was right for me.  You MIGHT wind up buying a different shirt than the one you originally had in mind, but you have to see what there is to see just to make a decision.  At this early stage, you are excited with all the new sights and sounds.  You have to get oriented, you have to look around some.  You are in browsing mode.  You need to be left alone.  For a little while.

You are not in buying mode yet, and if someone walks up to you and starts peppering you right away with questions about what it is you need or want to buy, it will simply turn you off.  The desire to buy simply has not been aroused just yet, and all of this helpfulness so soon can often wind up being a turn off or irritation.  this is where you allow your imagination freer rein.  “Hmmm….that shirt sure looks nice…I wonder how I would look in it….it doesn’t really match anything I have…..maybe I will keep that one in mind as I go look at those other shirts…”  You see what I mean?

The first lesson  is to let people walk around and look, and dream. Give them the room to do this because it will only be as a result of seeing all the possibilities that the desire will arise to buy anything.  You have to see thirty polo shirts all on a wall in thirty different colors in order to buy just one.  Being able to sit back and imagine how that shirt will look on you, or how that piece of glass or sculpture or painting will look in your home is critical to entering the next phase.  Most people simply have to be let alone in order to do this.  By approaching people too soon, you make them more self conscious and being self conscious is a killer for desire.  People have to want or desire your work.   People need the room to be seduced by what they see and then to get excited enough to buy.  When you are sufficiently aware of how this all works and plays out in the real world, you can quite literally feel the shift from dream mode to buying mode. Something heats up and the energy changes in a noticeable way. People move from a very passive activity and body language to much more “aggressive” behavior.  All of this is very subtle and you need to know what to look for. I have never been able to discern if it was just a “vibe” or if I was picking up on a stream of small body language signals, but I have learned to be tuned in to it. Knowing when this is happening is crucial because this step can wane without support from the clerk or artist in the booth or gallery. Everyone is different, though and I can tell you  that I have also  had people who walk right into the booth and pick up a piece, present it to me for buying and leave quickly and quietly.  Others need to browse, daydream, chat, and talk with their friends.

Its true. But just as important is having a good sense of timing as the seller of your work.  You can’t simply leave someone to drift through the store or booth or gallery. This is where your own instincts for knowing when to walk up to the person for the next phase of the process.  If you come on too strong, you can scare them away or just turn them off. People may have questions but they may not want to ask you these questions.  They want to be served, and this is where you have to be ready to answer their questions and help them with knowing the many options available so they can make an informed decision.  So instead of going for the hard sell, you ask questions which also help steer them in the right direction.  This often began, for me, in asking how they are doing first.  Sometimes its as simple as saying hello, a signal that you know they are there, and that you do are not acting in a presumptuous way, but that you are simply there for them. Your body language can help when you stand off to the side, ready, but not too ready. You let them know in a very simple way that whenever THEY are ready, so are you. You are there to serve them.

This is why I was able to see that there were certain things I said would always be a sale killer in my work.  I had this tendency to say “Let me know if you have any questions” because I thought this was the best way. No sales EVER resulted form this approach. Why?  I was in a very subtle way letting them know I was ready to sell them work. It was a very very subtle form of trying to make the sale.  I changed all of this when I observed people looking at my work and would ask “Which is your favorite?”  Sometimes I would pick up a piece that they were looking at and I would say in an off hand way the different ways it could be lighted.  I had pieces that looked great even in low light, something people had a hard time believing.  One of the problems people had was that they KNEW I was displaying the work to its fullest potential.  Of course it would look worse in their home.  This is the first kind of refusal for buying the work.  I often would take work out of the booth to show just how well the work would look in less than ideal situations.  This was a major hurdle for them without their realizing I was in truth beginning to sell the work.  I learned to do it in such a casual way that it didn’t read as any form of pressure.  I totally understood how you wanted the work to look as good as it did in the booth.  People will not buy in a perception of remorse.  By removing that and showing unequivocally that this isn’t a big concern, one less hurdle existed for them.

In the end, all buying comes down to how relaxed someone feels during buying and how excited they are about buying it.  Part of this is how you present yourself.  People aren’t just buying a product, they are also buying into the fact that it is hand made and made by someone they met.  Many of my buyers will tell stories to their guests who see my work about the conversation they had with the artist. Most often I know someone is closer to buying when they ask how its made. This is not a guarantee, but its a sign.  Sometimes people with the most questions also do the least buying.  I have seen the same person come to my booth over several years only to chat with me to find out how the work is made. The less someone knows about a medium, the more they will tend to ask. They cannot appreciate what goes into the making of a piece until they reach this understanding or level of education. it is corny and very true that the gateway to appreciation is through education. So I knew that I had to educate all the time.  It was like an investment, and I did this with no expectation of ever selling a single piece.  Those would would reach the requisite level of appreciation would buy and some would not.  I gave of my time freely and without expectation.  It was hands off. But I was in the process friendly affable, and easy to talk to. I did not bludgeon my guests with information, but would always given them a positive experience in our talking together.  They had to feel comfortable with me.  They had to know I was the real deal.  They had to feel into all of this to know it was right for them. I managed to go from being quite inept at selling my work to selling my work not through pressure or gimmicks but by simply understanding how people wanted to be treated.  it wasn’t foolproof, but it worked far better than any other method I had tried.

All of this culminated in one of the single best shows I had ever had.  I was simply doing what I did best, which was to engage my guests and potential customers without seeming the least bit desperate to sell.  In fact, I was completely relaxed and at ease.  I felt confident.  I had stopped worrying about having a good show and this let my own uniqueness shine through. A veteran of these shows whose booth was across from me came over the second to last day of the show and said “You know, I have been watching you with your customers and I have to tell you that you are so good with them!  You seem so natural.  I know so many exhibitors who allow themselves to get frustrated when they don’t make a sale and it winds up effecting the rest of their day….”  This was perhaps the single best compliment I could have gotten from a colleague.  I considered myself something of an amateur at all of this in so many ways and here someone who had been at it for over 20 years was so kind enough to point out what she thought was effective in how I did what I did.

The thing about this is that selling yourself in ANY situation is a lot like this, whether you are selling directly to the public or to a gallery.  I have always been the most effective when I let all of my anxiety about whatever it was I was doing go and let myself be me. I found that my promotional materials like web site, letter head and work itself all needed to have a sense like they all came from me.  This is what many in the industry call branding, and the problem with most branding is that the WAY in which you present your work and your business can be at odds with who you really are.  If a logo or design was made by someone else who has a poor ability to fit your own style with the branding, something will simply read as being a little off. Here, there are no hard and fast rules because all of this tends to be very intuitive and somewhat under the radar. You have to make sure that branding, however it is done, fits who you are.  If you do not have an investment in it, how can you expect others to plug into it?

If you make work that is abstract, spare, and quiet in its visual impact, it doesn’t make much sense to splash your web site with wild colors and forms when your own work does not do this. Somehow it all has to make sense.  It all expresses worlds of things that some people do not immediately pick up on but that all play a part in creating an overall impression.  This impression can make the difference between attracting a certain customer or client or not. Are you a quiet retiring type, or are you gregarious and really out there?  Are you loud and edgy?  Are you a nuanced renaissance person with many different qualities?  How you present yourself in print and on-line will help to support this. If it doesn’t, it could be a small glitch in the road to your door where something just doesn’t seem or feel right.  Again, this is all pretty subtle, but everything is important.  The font is important, the color and feel of the paper your catalog is printed on, the images used on your business card, and how your web site is designed to tell the story of who you are.

One very important part of selling is pricing your work, and this is where you send a strong message to the buying public.  It also determines how you sell your work.  If you sell inexpensive work below $300.00, for example, you will naturally have to position yourself in a market where you can sell a lot of work and often.  If you sell work that is in the $10,000.00 range, then what you do to make the sale will be very different from what you do to sell one print.  I once stopped selling Christmas ornaments at shows because there was a glassblower who sold almost nothing BUT ornaments.  He also sold them cheaper than anybody else.  When I stopped trying to compete with this guy and stopped selling ornaments, I found an interesting thing had happened.  I found that there was no discernible difference in my bottom line by dropping the ornaments.  Every year I always made a different figure for my income for that year, but there was nothing that suggested to me that I had somehow suffered from dropping the bottom end of my market.  in fact, this gave me more time to focus on selling pieces that were $75.00 and up instead of $15.00 or less.  If you price your work too high, you will suffer from slow sales.  However, you can suffer in different ways if you under price your work.  In an effort to make sure their work sells, many artists tend to devalue the potential of their work to support them by keeping prices low so that they will have plenty of sales.  The only problem is that if you do not value your work enough to give it a fair price, then how is anyone else going to value your work as well?

In 2006 me and my siblings sold land to a local government that had been in our family through two generations.  We formed a corporation in order to manage a large farm that was big enough to warrant forming the corporation. For years, we knew that the value of this land was significant, but the market just wasn’t there.  It was a farm, but it was a farm in an area of the market that was near D.C., so near in fact that to sell it as farmland would have meant that we would have to sell it cheap.  We weren’t ready to do that.  We knew the value was much higher.  The local government had not assessed property yet, but when they did, they placed it more in the area of value where we felt it should be.  Before that, offers from the customer, or this government body, were all low-ball.  Once the assessment was made, it helped to support our feeling that this was a valuable piece of land.  It had location, it had development potential.  Once the assessment came through, the government acted.  they realized that the only place for the value of this property now was up.  Developers could easily come along and offer us more than assessed value.  Houses were going up, malls and supermarkets were being built.  It was only a matter of time.  We knew the value and we held fast and did not sell until our market was there.  Once this happened, we were in a very good position to negotiate a very good price and we did.  On behalf of this corporation, I had to make sure that in each negotiation with the government, with attorneys, with CPA’s and with real estate agents, that we preserved the value for ourselves.  Everyone had their own interests, which was to either get the property as cheaply as they could, or to get a piece of the pie that was as big as they could get.  What this experience taught me is that you have to realize what the value is of whatever it is you have to offer snd believe in what that value is and then find your market.  This sometimes means waiting until you find that market.  Sometimes it means sticking to your guns.  Eventually, if your sense is on the mark, others will see the same.  The lesson is you have to believe in what it is you are doing or else no one else is going to.  You have to find your buyers and market the property correctly, and you also have to have something that other people want.  If you create value and demand, this is the very force that will draw customers and will hep support the right prices.  If market issues change, so will the price, which means you also have to be realistic, but not hasty.  You need to be shrewd.

if you price your work too high, you can have trouble moving work quickly enough.  If you price it too low, you can starve yourself of the resources that you need.  there are plenty of businesses that are busy making work hand over fist and making a very thin margin by the end of the year.  it may all look good from the outside, but it is like someone climbing a great mountain while breathing air that is so thin that they are about to pass out.  the trick is in finding the right balance.  This is always a judgement call and it is why judgement is so important.  it is true that some things may only take a small amount of money to make, but the value of that object made is so high that the price has to be adjusted to match the value involved.  If you are the only person making something completely unique, who is to say what price should be set?  If no one is making anything like your own and you can develop a market and create demand, the price that is involved in creating the object is often besides the point.  I can probably learn to pain like Monet and yet, what I make wont BE a Monet.  What is the difference?  The difference is the fact that the people are buying into the PERSON.  They want more than just a picture of a Monet.  If that were the case, they could buy a calendar with Monet reproductions and they’d be happy.  for those buying art, the reasons are very different.  Knowing how to first pricing your work where you get paid AND so the price reflects the value that you bring in your work is the combination of elements that need to go into pricing work.  Price it too low and you may never attract the better galleries and buyers because a low price often signals your need to sell at whatever cost.  Price it too high, and you could outstrip the perception of value that does exist and sales slow or stop.  Knowing how to do this requires some experimentation and observation.  When I doubled my prices, I found I no longer had people wanting to haggle with me over prices.  My price point was still fair but it eliminated those people who could only afford a small amount, thus the haggling. But what I did not realize was that most people who were looking for quality didn’t believe they saw quality with my prices so low. It is a little funny, but it is true.  If something look like a Mercedes, then the price tag should match, otherwise there is a lingering doubt.  The truth is, you are not just selling work, you are selling an idea.  And unlike paint and canvas, an idea is immaterial and thus does not adhere to plain black and white figures.

You may not like the idea that YOU are a product, but the truth is, you cannot fully disentangle yourself from this reality because you will always be the person who created that installation, that sculpture, the pot, the weaving or print.  Because of this, people will naturally be interested in you and show their friends “This is my painting by Richardson,” while beaming with pride.  Perhaps the problem is only in how you are choosing to relate to this.  If you are yourself, then what is there to worry about?  People want to know who you are and they wont get this unless you are.  If you are comfortable in how all of this happens, it isn’t like you are some object, you are an experience that many people seem to need to help fill in the cracks in their perception of you.  The more confident you are in yourself, the more natural and the more comfortable people will be around you, its just that simple. People buy the product, but they also buy the sizzle because there is real excitement in finally reaching the decision to splurge and buy something like art.

If you can bear these things in mind, you will become a much more effective and natural promoter of your work.  Its hard enough as it is sometimes to put yourself “out there” so being able to know what is good about your work is an important aspect in being able to present yourself in your best light.

Art and Design

The Third Great Revolution

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The Economist in a recent article has declared digital manufacturing a Third Industrial Revolution stating

The first began in Britain in the late 18th century with the mechanisation of the textile industry. In the following decades the use of machines to make things, instead of crafting them by hand, spread around the world. The second industrial revolution began in America in the early 20th century with the assembly line, which ushered in the era of mass production. As manufacturing goes digital, a third great change is now gathering pace. It will allow things to be made economically in much smaller numbers, more flexibly and with a much lower input of labour, thanks to new materials, completely new processes such as 3D printing, easy-to-use robots and new collaborative manufacturing services available online.

Why this is so important, and critical to understand is just how big all of this will be, how fast it is growing, and how educational institutions can help guide and grow this effort into a worldwide industrial phenomenon that is the ultimate in the democratization of manufacturing.  This industry will involve the individual in the manufacture of objects from start to finish, from desktop to mailbox. It is an industry that has broad applications, and exciting possibilities.  Take the current rise of China as a manufacturing power; this has the capacity to shift the balance of power.

While 3-D printing technology has been used primarily for creating prototypes, often referred to as the “one off,” the industry is swiftly moving through this phase and into broader territory that includes everything from making organs that wont be rejected  to artists and artisans being able to either create their work in a broader mass produced way or to have their designs available for download much as we use i-Tunes to download music, which is itself a radical, even revolutionary approach to object making.  By broadening the tool kit for the manufacturers of tomorrow, we need first to prepare the students of today for the next big revolution that is coming. Well, in truth, its already here.

I will say that at first all of this was difficult for me to swallow.  I am a maker of objects, and while I am by no means a purist, the idea that I merely design an object in a CAD or 3-D software program was a bigger leap than I was used to. What I realized, though, is that it has always been the shock of the new that has always turned our stomachs, that made each new development in art or manufacturing that at first was rejected due to its newness but soon was embraced by the majority in due time.  In discussing the concept of 3-D printing with my students those who find the idea difficult to swallow are those who find being able to make things with their hands and not being manufactured, to be of prime importance.  Surely this is not something that would be displaced, but will open a new avenue for artists to make some artwork and craft objects.  Consider how great it would be to take a design you find online for a pendant that you can have in your hands later tonight by simply going to your computer room to have it printed.

A Quick Overview

Digital modeling is the next big thing. It grew out of a rather novel idea that you could substitute thermal setting polymers for ink, add two more directions in which the printer head could move (backwards and up and down), and you could have a simple device that would go from printing on paper to creating objects one “layer” or “slice” at a time.  All of this emerged out of the shops and labs of engineers eager to try something new.

For years, 3-D printers were entirely home made affairs, and the industry as it grows still retains a high reliance of self reliance and innovation.  In fact, many people still do make their own printers from scratch.  Some printers are made to create the parts for more of their own kind, which includes rubber, plastic, and even metal parts such as Prusa Mendell’s open source community project that has produced the Rep Rap, a device that easily creates three dimensional objects using an affordable footprint.  When you think about it, the possibilities aren’t just exciting, they are revolutionary in scope.  This is because 3-D printing puts the power of manufacturing in the hands of anyone with a printer and the know-how to design objects in virtual space that will wind up existing in the real world.  It is possible for the person with the right set of skills to be a virtual manufacturing resource for business both large and small as well as a source to the community at large who are now snatching up work being produced in this way.

The ability not just to model three dimensional looking objects on a computer, but to output a three dimensional artifact has far reaching consequences. Digital modeling tools have exploded in recent years alongside new devices that make it possible to actually PRINT an ever-broadening array of objects in more and more materials.  This process is called rapid prototyping, or RT for short,  and it has gone from extruding using a printer head filled with a thermal setting plastic to include printing molds for casting, organs for the human body, and intricate jewelry out of silver, gold, platinum and bronze.  This technology can make shoes, sculpture, car parts, and glass objects.  What’s more, with a few of the right digital tools on your computer, you could design your own cell phone cover  or create a lampshade the same way you might buy a song on i-Tunes.  The other leg of this type of manufacting does not include printing but a subtractive process using a milling machine which makes possible a broad range of objects to be made that are beyond the current scope of 3-D printers.  You will be able to  browse furniture designs just as you might browse for real furniture online except you can go pick up your newly made furniture from a local CNC shop just around the corner, and all of this is courtesy of a form of rapid prototyping.  Its safe to say that rapid prototyping isn’t about making prototypes anymore, but stand alone products out of the material of choice, be it metals, ceramics, plastics, or wood. The concept of mass production is being changed by this technology which creates objects one at a time but with incredible flexibility to the customer who might want very specific changes or design elements (such as color, shape, size, or material choice) as part of the product.  Now, instead of having to depend on the whim of designers to create an object in the right color or pattern, customers can simply order a single object with the options built into these individual objects.  This turns traditional manufacturing on its head and blends old world crafting with modern technology.  From where I sit, I cannot see for the life of me why this model wouldn’t work.  But the idea is new in its present form, so it can sometimes be hard to see the future from such a place.

Christopher Mims at MIT Technology Review , isn’t convinced.  He has said that:

This isn’t just premature, it’s absurd. 3-D printing, like VR before it, is one of those technologies that suggest a trend of long and steep adoption driven by rapid advances on the systems we have now. And granted, some of what’s going on at present is pretty cool—whether it’s in rapid prototyping, solid-fuel rockets, bio-assembly or just giant plastic showpieces.

But the notion that 3-D printing will on any reasonable time scale become a “mature” technology that can reproduce all the goods on which we rely is to engage in a complete denial of the complexities of modern manufacturing, and, more to the point, the challenges of working with matter.

Every revolution has its detractors, but rapid prototyping shows no signs of slowing down.  Its catching on in large part because it is fueling a democratization in manufacturing.  Yes, you can steal a pattern in the digital realm and make your own batman toy, but so too can you have the opportunity  to have your design purchased numerous times by individuals who would like to print their own version of your sculpture or jewelry, for example, even though they are in Hong Kong while you work in, say, Newport, Virginia. If you have a sense of collaboration in you as a designer, being able to build flexibility into your designs may well provide customers the option of creating alterations that you, the artist or designer, might never have considered but that offer a new level of usability and value to your customer base.   The applications are broad, and the implications, for the arts, are huge.  Precisely how this will all play out is hard to predict.

Many small companies now utilize rapid prototyping as a way to get a design to market faster and more cheaply. A design company can print its own pattern or prototype and have their artist or digital designer make the object ready for manufacture in another country.  Eventually, even the need for the prototype may well evaporate as the technology develops so that a manufacturer can print their own object or create the mold from a digital file absent even having a physical prototype. This is already being done in the casting industry, and it is significant because it effectively removes a very large step in a process that is thousands of years old. For small companies, this is a boon because it means that one artist can do the work of an entire division, which keeps the small company more nimble and more able to compete against companies ten times their size.

The idea that this is all just a flash in the pan or absurd is short sighted in my view.  The industry continues to broaden and shows no signs of letting up.  It is now possible to scan objects using a 3-d laser scanner, input them into software programs and modify them with great ease.  This is an application that has been used extensively by the movie and gaming industry in a way that merges both traditional and cutting edge technology to speed up the process of creating objects.    George Lucas in his second to last movie in the Star Wars trilogy revealed how he decided on a given character for the part of Dax, a four-armed creature whom Obi-wan Kenobi went to for some advice.  Lucas had his modelers who were trained sculptors, to create a series of models out of a material called sculpey.   Once Lucas decided which model he wanted, it was scanned using a 3-d scanner, and it was from this model that they then animated the figure while using all of the scan data as the foundation for the creature.  Granted, this was a reverse method, but a method that relies on a range of techniques both new and old school.  From this scanned object, Lucas Arts would have been able to send the file to a manufacturer in China to have the figure made as a Star Wars figurine.  It could have also been printed using a rapid prototyping machine to any scale the printer was capable of producing.  This is a process that alos allows artists with no skill or knowledge in the digital modeling tools to create a model in the same way that Henry Moore did just a generation ago and have it scaled up to any size the foundry is capable of handling.  The only difference between what Henry Moore had done and what is happening today is that if the artist has access to a 3-d scanner, s/he does not even need to ship the model.  It can simply be sent via ftp to the server for the foundry and the file opened and work begun on creating the patterns necessary to begin making something that was five inches tall into a fifty foot tall sculpture.

How does a 3-D printer work, and who makes them? The 3-D printer has emerged very much out of labs with people who have been interesting in tinkering.  While you can purchase a growing number of these printers at very broad price points, many choose to make their own. Printers, though, are now available for the same price as a laser printer.  Prusa Mendell, whom I have been following for a while now has developed open source software and the plans for making your own rapid prototyping machine or 3-D printer called a Rep Rap.  These cost about $350.00 to build from scratch, all parts and circuit boards, nozzles, control arms, and all the rest. I like this model because of how it puts the power of building the unit and using yourself in your hands; it has the great benefit of having an operator who understands how everything works because they put it together.  This is a great teaching tool. A broad range of materials can be used in these printers, from plastics, corn starch-based polymers, metals, as well as ceramic!  Below I include a video of a printer called a RepMan.

Not everything in this realm is printed, necessarily, and to understand its broad applications and implications, one needs to understand the machines used to manufacture in this “one-off” world.

For example, one very practical application of this technology involves a device known as a CNC machine, which stands for computer numerical controlled router.  Imagine a spinning cutter head that is mounted to an arm, like a robotic arm you often see in commercials where cars are going down the assembly line and are being welded.  This arm has the capability to move along three axis’s: X, Y, and Z (height width and depth).  This cutter can take a block of foam, or wood, or just about any other material that the cutter can cut, and it will follow the digital file perfectly, sculpting the material based on the data in the file used to do the cutting.  In sculpture, this is currently being done at foundries.  An artist’s model or maquette is scanned using a 3-D laser scanner.  This is done by slowly turning the model until all points are scanned in.  It is then loaded and the file prepped and sent to the foundry. There, using the same type of CNC machine, the technicians  cut the model faithfully out of a block of monolithic foam. Thus, a model that is only inches tall can be easily scaled to any size that the foundry can accommodate.  From there, molds are made in a refractory material that can stand up to the temperatures of molten metal.

The process of this type of industry is not limited to an additive process, but it can be subtractive, just as in the case of the CNC machine.  A printer adds material while a CNC machine takes it away. Both are computer aided machines that are using the data output from a program that was used to generate a 3-d model of an object.  Thus, not all rapid prototyping is just from a printer.  With several different processes in its toolkit, the RP industry is set to explode.

The thing to bear in mind with all of this is that a lot of this has been driven by a very different approach and philosophy of how to make things.  What has driven this have been small entities, individuals who, instead of profiting on the sale of millions of widgets,  profit from the sale of a small device that can make millions of widgets.  There is also a very strong tide of what is called community projects infusing the industry.  A “community project” means Open Source computer software and the hardware driven by these systems where nothing is proprietary and anyone can make changes to the code and are free to change or improve code or hardware in order to make it more useful for their purposes.  This has led to an industry where a rapid prototyping machine can actually be used to make another of its kind and users share their changes openly amongst their peers online in the interest of benefiting everyone.  This is huge.  Its huge because of how it democratizes industry.  Think about it;  you download plans for a piece of furniture that you like and you send it to the CNC machine at CNC R Us and it cuts out your pieces for you.  This is in the next town, and perhaps in your own basement or at Kinkos (or something very much LIKE Kinkos). You pick them up and assemble them using instructions attached to the file you uploaded a few days before, or you can have the shop assemble it for you and have the piece delivered.  Studios and shops like this can just make what they sell instead of keeping inventory on hand.  You do not have to wait for the product to be in stores.  You don’t have to wait for it to be shipped to the store.  You also do not have to rely on the efficiency of scale to be any part of your business model. Your furniture is also made by a company in your own community and chances are the money you spend will thus stay in your own community. Or, if it is not in your own community, you have the choice of who to have your new bicycle manufactured by.

Because of how the process takes place, entirely new kinds of objects that were nearly impossible to make using traditional methods are now emerging.  This will have some exciting results as new materials are utilized in the manufacturing process.  Materials that were not practical to use for certain applications may now find new use with this technology. What exactly happens will largely be up to those in the industry to determine.  With every new development in a technology there are always some surprises and interesting turns that happen.  For example, I use a material in my furnaces  that allows me to have very thin insulating walls in the equipment in my glass studio.  This was made possible by the technology developed for the space shuttle program.  I also use glass in a decorative way in my glass work that was developed by a company that was a subcontractor to NASA that wanted to create a filter for its lunar rover camera to protect the film from full sunlight.  I also use mittens to place hot glass into kilns using a material that was used initially in space suits and in the cabins of the space capsules during the Apollo program.  It is not always easy to know exactly what a new technology is going to yield us as results, but it is always exciting and usually a little surprising.

So what does the future look like?  What new innovations might come about as a result of this type of technology?  I think its a safe bet that nanotechnology will have a dovetail into this method of manufacture since materials developed for nanotech are so finely ground that they would make excellent printing material.  It will also mean that new materials can be used to make objects with exceptional strength.  A bicycle frame can be printed from the inside out which means that it might be made from a honeycomb material which is light weight but very strong.  What purpose might we have for a ceramic object doped with a magnetic material capable of surviving firing?  Could this fuel a new industry of smart objects capable of interacting with the machines that drive them for increased efficiency?  Perhaps, too, new materials that did not lend themselves to traditional manufacturing methods might work perfectly with a 3-D printer.  In truth, its very hard to say as the developments will be contingent on those free thinkers who are able to come up with new applications for such a technology. This is why the cutting edge of this technology fits in so well in the university setting.  This could lead to our seeing e a 3-D printer that can make glass objects without an external power source other than the sun, running in the deserts of Egypt, or Mars, using nothing but the local sand and a flux admixture.  In truth, this has already happened.

Markus Kayser has developed a solar sintering device that allows this very scenario to unfold.  You can forward the video to the 1:30 mark if you would like since it has a slow introduction, but the result is nothing short of  revolutionary.

With new developments in technology we can often be caught straining to imagine what the uses could be for the new process or material.  Just  ten years ago the thought of using a body scan and a 3-D printer to recreate the structure of a kidney in three dimensions would have sounded like science fiction,but this is exactly what is unfolding right now in the field.

The better positioned that we are to prepare as well as capitalize on this new technology, the better able we will be in carving out a niche for this growing industry that is right on our back door step.  The first step is to begin here in our universities and technical schools to build the toolbox for our students for the next phase of an exciting and burgeoning industry.  Those who are trained in this new technology will be like those people who received the training on how to work with the computer revolution that began gaining steam in the mid 1980’s.  We all know how important that period has proven itself to be, and now we are standing at the edge of another revolution in technology again.


UPDATE: 5/1/2014.  For those who are interested in the many printer models currently available for purchase and assembly, this site may help to give you a rounded review of the field currently:

Art and Design

The Art Of The Find


The following is a list of found art artists that I am using for a lecture with my sculpture students at Radford University. If interested, feel free to look through some of the images for how we have developed the art of appropriation in the development of what art is.  All work is sculpture.  Enjoy!

—Parker Stafford

Marcel Duchamp invented the concept of the found object in art and was followed by other artists such as Man Ray’s sculpture “the gift” which was an iron with small nails down its face, a very simple way to render two objects of utility into a non-utilitarian object that expressed a different “use” in the world of humans…..

The object below, titled “Fountain” was more about Duchamp’s insistence that the locus of art is not in the gallery, or museum, or in the minds of jurors who “judge” artwork, but rather in the INTENT of the artist.  Since Duchamp entered this piece in a show that was advertised as not refusing any work entered into it, he did not put his name on the piece, but used “R. Mutt” instead. The piece was refused.  Duchamp stepped forward and explained it was art because he SAID it was art.  This was a powerful statement when you consider that for a very long time artists have been subject to an elitist social and political structure that liked to say what was good and not good, what WAS art and what was NOT art.  Once Duchamp came along and said those famous words, the world of art changed significantly.  Picasso and Braque followed suit along with a long long list of artists who have put the art of the “find” into their way of working.

“Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp

The idea was that it wasn’t the object that determined whether something was art or not, but rather it was the INTENT of the person to make art.  This opened the door to ordinary objects being used like collage had been used prior to this, in creating artwork.

“Bicycle” by Marcel Duchamp
Picasso “Bull”

Found object can be very immediate and simple. It can also be more complex, more worked, or fabricated, as following images will show…..

Anthony Heywood “Broken Family”

Note the pairing of two very different materials to create a new context and message: is creating an elephant out of consumer objects saying something about the impact of our society and activities on wild nature?  Is our consumption the “elephant in the room”?  Found object can often pair two very different types of objects (the found object and the object they are creating) to create a new synthesis of meaning, of visual relationships.

Brian Marshall
Doris Salcedo


Eduard Martinet


Jean Shin “Sound Wave”

Consider if this wave was made from different materials.  How would other objects change the message?

What if you made a heart made out of glass objects.  What would that say to the viewer.  Now take it another step forward and what if those glass objects were wine bottles? Would that suggest romance?  How about bottles of bourbon and cheap booze?  How would the use of those objects change the message?  What if you took ordinary glass objects that were indistinct in their association and had them encrusted in dirt? What would THAT convey? What if you made a heart out of lead?  A heart out of wood?  A heart out of plastic?  A heart out of crushed auto parts?  What associations would we have with each material?  How would those materials change how the image was read?  What if you found a valentine tin in the shape of a heart. What would that say?  What would it say if you took a rifle and shot holes through it and painted it black?  Or red?  Or plaid?  What if you covered it in wallpaper and shot holes in it?  Would that suggest some kind of domesticity or connection to home?  And what would THAT be saying to your viewer?  You see, ALL of these choices and options will impart a different narrative or suggestion to push your work into a given content area, imbuing it with a very different message one from the other.

Jud Turner “Wired”


Black and white cords?  Is our world all connected?  Is the result black and white?  What do you think the artist is saying here?


Tom Deininger “Shell Cigs”


Shell made of cigarettes.  Everyday object transformed into a pointalist object.

Tom Denininger “Self”


Leo Sewell


Sue Webster & Tom Noble
Donald Edwards “Scissors”
Jim Raven
Tracy Emin “My Bed” (Purchased by Satchii for 150,00 Euros)


Just the artist’s bed.  Controversial but the artist leaned on Duchamp’s concept of found object; it was her INTENT to make art that made this piece art.


Carolien Adriannsche




Robson “Auroro”

All plastic trash….look her up online…amazing work…

Video of Aurora talking about her work HERE.

Jamie Pitrarch “Cyclops”
Tadashi Kawamata

Youtube video of found object artist Matt Drysdale, Australia HERE.


Joseph Cornell



John Chamberlain





A video on the sculptor John Chamberlain HERE

Louise Nevelson





Lee Bonticou










Lee Bonticou today







Artist Unknown


Jud Turner “Copa”


Max Knight “Walking Bike”


“Flip Flop Monkey” Artist Not Known



Amanda Rae “Consumption”

What would have happened if shoe strings were used, or artificial eyeballs?  What if rocks were used?  How would each object give a different message?  How does pairing different objects to create a new message work?

Jud “Obey T.V.”


“Big Bang”


Terry Kreiter


Artist Not Known


Mathew Northridge “Pushpin Laserbeam”




Found Object Project “Cobra” Art204, Spring 2011