The E-Sylum:  Volume 11, Number 18, May 4, 2008, Article 9


[Inspired by a recent article Dick Johnson submitted the
following thoughts on computers and engraving. -Editor]

Sculptor-medallist Jim Licaretz, president of the American
Medallic Sculpture Association) wrote in AMSA's newsletter,
received this week, a review of his use of the new technology,
computer engraving. He was enthusiastic about the time it
saved, but more so about how he could modify a design, to
test a new concept, to alter the design, to hone the image
until he had a satisfactory relief. He could even save it
digitally at any stage to come back to rework it again from
that point forward.

I am reminded how St-Gaudens and his assistants did the same
thing a century ago, but in clay, quickly forming the mass
of the design and the position of the lettering on clay discs.
The mass would be a lump of clay formed to the outline of the
device, say, a portrait, and the lettering quickly incised
in the clay with the end of a sculptor's boaster. Both student
and master would make these, modifying, perfecting, moving on
until St-Gaudens was satisfied it could be improved no further.
They may have processed a dozen such stages of clay images
before his acceptance was expressed.

"That's it!" he would exclaim. The student-assistant then
had his work cut out, knowing exactly what to do next. He
would spend a week or more adding detail, developing the
design, forming crisp-edge relief with finely crafted lettering,
some areas with significant texture. Jim does the same thing
in hours (what took days before) on his computer with ZBrush

Computer engraving is the latest attempt to alleviate the
tedium of engraving, by hand at first (2,600 years ago) and
still in use today, by machine with the development  of the
transfer lathe throughout the 19th century -- culminating in
Janvier's perfected version of the die-engraving pantograph
patented in 1899 -- still in use today. Another innovation
was developed a century ago, the tracer-controlled pantograph
(notably the Gorton) with manual, hand controlled milling
from a pattern to cut a die, also still in use today.

Will computer engraving replace all this? I doubt it. The
computer cannot design a coin or medal. It cannot create a
concept. An artist still must do this. The new computer
technology is simply a tool in the hand of the artist, to
be used by the sculptor-medallist much like the burin is a
tool for hand engraving dies by the engraver.

An outline of the intended design is entered on the computer.
At every point in the design the computer automatically
determines the X and Y co-ordinates. The operator determines
how deep the relief should be in the negative -- or how high
in the positive -- this is called the Z co-ordinate (where
ZBrush gets its name). The technology is a spinoff from
computer games, developed to add more realism to their images.

The operator fixes every sculptural or dimensional point
(called a "pixol"), in effect creating a "bitmap" which can
be stored in the software. A visual image is shown on the
computer screen as the operator moves through the design
indicating the form, the modulated relief and the lettering.

The advantages of computer engraving, as noted by Jim Licaretz,
are its speed and versatility. As such it is ideal for simple
images, as graphic designs, most trademarks or logos, and
images of buildings. Where it falls short are very complex or
highly detailed designs, but most notably, with portraits!

There is one word that describes what a sculptor working in
clay or wax can accomplish that a computer cannot: VIVIFY,
"to animate or make lifelike." A sculptor can give life to a
portrait, make an image of a person seem so real, that it
looks like an actual person staring back at the viewer. In
contrast, computer-generated portraits are stiff, frozen
and lifeless.

Mints and medalmakers around the world were eager to accept
the new computer technology. They embraced the technology
but have come to learn its limitations. Can it aid in creating
coin and medal models?

Yes, it can create coin and medal designs faster, cheaper in
a form that can be manipulated. But not necessarily better.
We still need coin and medal artists. And they must definitely
retain some age-old modeling technology. The computer can
never replace the artist.

[Dick adds: "I know pixel is spelled PIXEL, but in this
technology it is spelled PIXOL."  I think he's spot-on in
noting that that computer is merely another tool in the hands
of the artist.  The artist's eye and creativity are indispensible.
Id love to visit someday and see the software in action.

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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