Synaesthetic Syntax – Sensate Sculpting – In Praise of The Hand in Digital Sculpting and 3D Modeling

The title of this paper is an adaptation of, and homage to Henri Focillon’s In Praise of Hands (1989), wherein the author explains that the hands of the artist are not the mind’s ‘docile slave’, but rather have a life of their own, a ‘sensate presence’ that foregrounds the hands within an epistemology of mind. The sensitivity and sensory ability of the hands working in conjunction with the physicality of the world makes them central in our tacit knowledge of objects. And yet the most advanced ‘object’ making interfaces developed by humans – computer graphics – have arrived only recently and imperfectly to the notion of the critical role of the hand and its knowledge through the development of gestural interfaces.

A range of historical 3D modeling conventions have evolved in concert with the evolution of the technologies within which these practices take place, including modeling by defining surfaces as polygons, with vertex positions recorded in 3D coordinate space or modeling through the assembly of surfaces defined by mathematical curve functions (such as NURBS modeling). As described by Aylish Wood (2015), 3D modeling technologies require practitioners to integrate their behaviors with the operational logic of software. The structure of the software operations therefore structures the operations and behaviors of the artist. To execute a project successfully, we begin to unconsciously ‘meet the software half-way’, a process Heidegger referred to as ‘gestell’, or ‘enframing’ (Heidegger, 1954).

Displacement sculpting and volumetric sculpting take a different approach to integrating user inputs into the logic structure of the software. Rather than applying careful selections and movements to model components, digital sculpture platforms allow artists to apply gesture based changes to the virtual object and in so doing, distinguish “digital craft from mere mechanical machine operation” (MacCullough, 1998). Tools for these digital sculpting practices enrich the veridical premise of digital objects in the moment of creation, presenting them as real, three-dimensional objects just beyond the screen. These software solutions allow the creator to express changes to the surface through gestural interfaces such as pen/tablet devices or VR input tracking. These gestural interfaces create the possibility for improvisation in 3D object production which is in contrast with the engineering approach typical to polygon and spline modeling.

The current status of gestural interface and digital sculpting practice as the emerging standard for the creation of 3D models and digital objects provokes this critical analysis across the entire production chain; creator, tool relations, and object; issues for creators discussed include the industrial categorization of practitioners, their cognitive and physical orientations to these practices and the cultural contexts for creation. The paper includes the artists lamentations on the limitations of tactility, texture and depth, the problematic use of the digital as a proxy for the real and the perils of visual abstraction in this context. I provide analysis of virtual surfaces, which as well as their defining properties have specific behaviors, allowing us to subject digital materials to ergonomic assessment in the context of sculpture. The status of digital objects is considered from the perspective of ontology (after Hui, 2016) and philosophies of digital creation as epistemology.



Focillon, H. (1989). In praise of Hands. In The life of forms in art. Zone Books.

Heidegger, M. (1954). The question concerning technology. Technology and Values: Essential Readings, 99–113.

Hui, Y. (2016). On the existence of digital objects. University of Minnesota Press.

MacCullough, M. (1998). Abstracting craft: The practiced digital hand (1. paperback ed). MIT Press.

Wood, A. (2015). Software, animation and the moving image: What’s in the box? Palgrave Macmillan