Metal Alchemy

by Edward Quintero


In the past few years we've seen 3D printing evolve into a manufacturing technology that allows production of final products. Now it's possible to produce faster prints, in larger scales, with greater fidelity and in a wider range of materials than ever before. As a result, more artists are choosing 3D printing as an alternative to traditional methods. 

Such is the case of San Francisco based artist, Tareq Mirza who uses metal 3D printing technology to produce beautiful fine art. Tareq’s current medium of choice is 3D printing with infused metal based compounds, a material that produces the look and feel of cast iron.

His subject matter is based in spirituality, representing organic and human forms that are arranged in abstract, rhythmic patterns that evoke a sense of calm.

Recently we had the honor of interviewing Tareq to find out more about his artwork and his unique process.

Mold3D:  Is there a perceived difference or reception to your artwork because it was 3D printed, as opposed to sculpted with traditional methods? 

 Early concept sculpt of Angel & Demon in Zbrush.

Tareq: I’ve been thinking about this for some time myself. Since the technology is still relatively new, it will take some time before there is widespread acceptance of sculptures created with 3D printing. Which is why it is important to have hand fabricated elements or a finishing process that is administered by the artist before the sculpture is finished.

I’ve been creating art in the digital world for over twenty years now. So, it’s very natural for me to create on the computer, sometimes more so than drawing on paper. What 3D printing has done is finally bring the art I’ve been creating inside a box that was only visible on a screen, back into the real world as a tangible object. And that I think really changed how I looked at what I was doing with my art.

Oh, I think the topic of science vs. art is a big one. I’ll just touch on the basics as they relate to me and my work though. I think the two go hand in hand. Artists have always been improving their tools of the trade. From cave paintings 35,000 years ago to the modern digital artist working on a tablet with a stylus, the method and medium will continue to evolve. I just hope that I am able to keep up as the technology shifts ever onward.

Mold3D: Tell us about your latest sculpture.

Tareq: I named it Awareness. The idea came from the meditation concept of the thinker and the thought. You see, the point of meditation is to get to a place where you collapse the thinker and the thought together, and then you are floating in pure awareness. The flower spiraling out of the center of the forehead symbolizes the balancing of opposites at the third eye and how that altered state of perception is reached.

Mold3D: Who are your influences?

Tareq: For this series I was mostly influenced by ancient works of art. I’ve always had an affinity for ancient history, archaeology and religious artifacts. At the start of working on this series, I was in New York and spent an entire day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art studying all the ancient works from around the world. In addition, I’ve always had an interest in esoteric-ism and mysticism and the iconography of the various internal Alchemical systems of different cultures.

And a more modern influence is the work of Gil Bruvel, who is an amazing painter and sculptor. I saw his work at the 3D Printer World show two years ago, and was fortunate to meet him the following year at the same show. His 3D printed sculpture work inspired me and showed me the possibilities of the medium.

Mold3D: You are currently focused on using metallic materials for your sculpture. How has the technology improved in the past several years? 

Tareq: While there have been advances in metal printing, what has been most important for making sculptures, is that cost has come down. And it makes it a viable alternative to traditional bronze casting. I think if I had started this seven or eight years ago, it wouldn’t have been feasible.

Shadow Self sculpture.

There are two printing technologies that are used for metal printing. The first is Selective-Laser Sintering, which uses a high powered laser to sinter various types of metal powder together to create an object, but it’s cost makes it highly prohibitive to use for artwork. It’s mostly used for high end manufacturing and bio-mechanical enhancement, since it can print in titanium. The second method, is a proprietary method created by ExOne, which uses a binder to adhere the metal powder together. At this point the print is highly brittle and needs to be put in a kiln, to fire out the binder and infuse bronze for strengthening the piece. ExOne’s results are great and much more cost effective than SLS. That’s why I get my prints done with them.


Mold3D: What are the reactions from people when they see your work?

Tareq: One moment stands out to me. I was in a metalwork class working on my final assignment, which had a 3D printed brass head I had gotten through Shapeways. The rest of the sculpture was hand fabricated with sheets of brass and copper. A student looked at it curiously and asked if I had hand fabricated it? That's when I knew I was on to something with blending the digital with the traditional.


Mold3D: What kind of opportunities do you think 3D printing offers an artist? 

Tareq: 3D printing frees you to create anything you imagine without worrying about whether it could be physically created or not through traditional methods. The technology is ideal for complex geometries that would not have been possible through mold-making and casting methods. That’s why it was important for my work to have intertwining shapes that connected from the inside out on each piece that I made. Otherwise, traditional casting would have been a cheaper option.

Mold3D: Is it possible to charge the same for a 3D printed work of art vs. artwork created traditionally?

Tareq: I’ve had this conversation with many artists, both digital and traditional. The consensus seems to be, sending a digital file away to get printed in metal is similar to getting a clay sculpture cast in bronze at a foundry.

Not all artists make their own molds and cast their own pieces. It would be similar for a printed piece. There will always be post process work to be done on a piece, whether it is welding, grinding or polishing and the guys over at ExOne do an amazing job taking the digital file through to the final piece I receive.

My first few sculptures have elements that were directly printed in steel, but, in addition, there are parts that were cast in brass or bronze that I soldered together. I have even included a few bezels with semi-precious stones.

These hand-made elements in addition to the printed part of the sculpture create a unique piece. With my most recent sculpture, I decided to make the entire sculpture one intricate piece that is completely printed in stainless steel. After I received the piece, I went through and selectively polished parts of the sculpture as the final touch of the process. I think some level of hand work is necessary to give each piece uniqueness. Another possibility that I have been considering is changing each iteration of the model digitally before another one is made, this way, every file only gets printed once.


Mold3D: How long do you spend on a typical piece? 

Tareq: It takes anywhere from a month to two months to go from concept to print. And then, depending on how much hand crafted work is involved after, possibly another week or two. I usually start with drawings in my sketchbook. I get a rough idea of what the sculpture will look like from multiple views and then I jump right into ZBrush. It's important for the sketch to be loose, so I can keep exploring the look and feel of the piece when I get to sculpting it. It takes a day or two to block in the basic idea of the sculpture. Once that is done, then the real work begins.

With this series it was important each piece had internal structure which would be visible and those internal forms intertwined and spiraled in and out of the exterior forms. I wanted an intricate level of complexity which would be difficult to create through traditional casting techniques. This made the sculptures more challenging to create.

With most modeling and sculpting, we are concerned with the outer surface and form of a sculpture, as soon as you add internal structure that blends in and over the outer forms, it becomes difficult to visualize. And then, I had to figure out the best technique to use for creating the look without sacrificing the looseness of the style I was trying to achieve. Much of the time spent on each piece really became about artistic choices, and needing to get away from the work to get some perspective and then coming back with fresh eyes.

Mold3D: What’s the most indispensable tool in your primary software package?

Tareq: I would have to say, Dynamesh in Zbrush. Without Dynamesh, creating, iterating, and slicing up organic forms for 3D printing would be impossible for me. It's how I start each sculpture and I am usually in Dynamesh till the very end. I also love concepting in it. Firing up Zbrush, putting on some music, and starting with a Dynamesh sphere for a design is my favorite place to be. I'm in heaven right there. It's just bliss.


Mold3D:What was your 3D printing “AHA” moment where you felt, “ I need to get into this!” ?

Tareq: It was my first print from Shapeways. I had this product design idea for wrapping iPhone earbuds, because they get a bit unruly and tangled all the time. It was a lion's head flattened out, with openings for the ears that allowed me to put the earbuds through them, and then wrap the cord at the back. Of course, since it was my first print, it was too big, because I hadn't measured right. The holes for the earbuds were almost twice as big as they should have been. But, besides all the mistakes I made, I was holding a 3D model I had made for the first time in the real world. That was the moment. I was hooked.

Mold3D: What suggestion would you give to inspiring artists and sculptors?

Tareq: I'm glad you asked this. First, I think it is important for every artist to hone their skills in the fundamentals, such as form, structure, proportion and an in-depth understanding of Anatomy. They should draw and sculpt as often as they can. And whatever form their artwork will take they should study the source material. For example, if their work will have butterflies in it, they should gather all the butterfly reference they can find. They should read about butterflies and immerse themselves in the reference. They should draw butterflies and sculpt them as much as possible. Before they start on their work, they should know butterflies inside and out. When you understand a thing, you no longer are tied to its reference, you are free to explore, modify and exaggerate as you like.

Second, they should figure out what they want to say as an artist. What speaks to them? What's important to them? I feel this is as important if not more so than honing your craft. Complexity and perfection of form is great, but, what are you saying with your work? If you don't have an answer to that as an artist, then it's time to go off and figure out who you are first. That's the real journey of an artist and it's not an easy task.


Mold3D: Thanks Tareq for your time and for sharing your thoughts. Very inspiring work!

The Printing Process

Ex One is a 3D printing technology company that was contracted to create the metal 3D prints seen in Tareq's portfolio. Using a proprietary "Binder Jetting" process, their printers are able to create functional parts with metal finishes. Check out the video below to see the process behind the creation of Tareq's latest sculpture "Awareness" using Ex One technology.

Check out Tareq Mizra's site for more information about the artist.