Artist Jonathan Yeo, Britain’s leading contemporary portraitist, has created his first three dimensional work: the world’s first sculptural self-portrait, designed by hand in virtual reality and cast in bronze.
Yeo has become known for his figurative portraits that explore a plethora of themes and narratives. The artist's experimental approach to traditional portraiture has led to commissions of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, fellow artists Damien Hirst and Grayson Perry, and peace activist Malala Yousafzai, among many others.
Here, Yeo talks about his creative process and how combining physical and virtual creation could open up a world of possibilities for other artists to experiment with.
Can you describe the piece you’ve created as part of this project?
The artwork is called Homage to Paolozzi, and is a sculpture that was painted by hand in virtual reality, 3D printed and cast in bronze. The project was a world first, and was exhibited as part of the exhibition From Life at the Royal Academy, an exhibition exploring how artists’ practice is evolving as technology opens up new ways to create.
What was it inspired by?
I am interested in the potential of VR as an art tool and I agreed to experiment with how it would be further developed. While experimenting, I kept being struck by how easy and intuitive it was to use, and for someone like me, who had done very little in three dimensions before and never made sculpture before, it seemed to be a great instrument for designing in three dimensions.
Apart from the execution, does the piece differ from your usual work?
The software allowed me to make the same gestural brushstrokes and marks as I would make in an expressive painting, yet in a three-dimensional space. However, I’m used to making paintings where I know how it is looking as I go along. With this project I instead had to take all sorts of gambles on processes and materials and I only got to see the final sculpture for the first time as it was just cast in bronze at the foundry.
What’s really exciting is how the final bronze structure precisely captures the free, expressive movements that were previously only possible in paintings. The result is a hybrid of painting and virtual creation, and could open up a world of possibilities for other artists to experiment and take this new medium much further.
What were your first thoughts about working on this project, seeing as you’d not previously worked three dimensionally before?
Amazing as the software was, I initially couldn’t see it fit into my work, both because I was completely cut off from reality and at first there was no way of exporting the artwork, as the software wasn’t designed to actually replicate something in the real world. The eureka moment came when we found a way of importing a three-dimensional scan of me into the program and then it occurred to me that it would be interesting to try and make a sculpture that would reflect the abstract gestural method I use to make paintings. Using virtual reality, I could explore sculpting using the skills developed in my painting practice and within my own studio environment, which would have never been possible without this technology.
What is your creative process? And how did it change incorporating this new technology into your approach?
My method of work is very traditional, I use oil paint on canvas and I paint ‘from life’. Like many other artists, I’ve always been interested in self-portraits and their history. Initially, artists were only able to make self-portraits using a mirror, and later with the advent of photography they could use photos, but even then the images were only two-dimensional. This technology marks a new approach to creating self-portraits since, for the first time, I was able to produce works deriving from three-dimensional scans in virtual reality rather than looking in a mirror or working from photographs.
What part did Tilt Brush play in the creation of this artwork?
Tilt Brush technology allowed me to virtually sculpt 'from life'. Having scanned my head using Light Stage facial-scanning technology, I imported the 3D scan into Tilt Brush, which allowed me to use it as a reference to paint a self-portrait with a virtual brush.
This is one of the great advantages of Tilt Brush, that you can import pictures and 3D renders. To use this to virtually ‘work from life’ and sculpt a self-portrait entirely within virtual reality was particularly exciting. It allowed me to directly use my experience and techniques, which have more in common with painting than any traditional sculpture methods, in an entirely new way.
Why did you want to cast the sculpture in bronze? What does it bring to the artwork?
By casting the finished piece in a permanent material such as bronze, it hopefully underlines the potential to translate ideas from the digital to the real world. Furthermore, bronze captures that sense of permanence, which contrasts so beautifully with the ethereal and almost non-existing quality of the virtual drawing. By this means, it has a much more powerful and permanent feel than most 3D printed objects alone have.
What were the challenges of creating this piece?
One of the biggest challenges was to find a way of turning a virtual drawing into a real physical object. To find the right result we had to experiment with several prototype 3D prints to work out just how thick the paint stroke in VR needed to be to find the perfect balance between solidity and a lightness and fluidity that was able to stay true to the virtual sculpting process.
What are the benefits of using Tilt Brush, 3D printing and other modern technologies in art?
Tilt Brush can release an artist from the limitations of medium. By making solid structures based precisely on the kind of gestural marks that painters would normally use on canvas, this tool opens the door to an entirely new process, both for artists already working in three dimensions and those, like me, with little or no previous experience of sculpture.