The 3D Printed Lithophane - Combining Art History and 3D Printing

Published 02/02/2015

By: Cyndy Moniz | Controller/Office Manager

3D Lithophane PictureAs an art lover and an amateur photographer, I’m always looking for inspiration. One would think accounting wouldn’t provide much artistic inspiration, though in my case - the opposite is true. Working for a Stratasys Reseller exposes me to examples of innovation and creativity every day!

Recently, I read an article about a photographer who is using 3D printing to create lithophanes.  The lithophane dates back to the 1820’s in Europe, although some historians believe the concept may have originated centuries earlier in China in the Tang Dynasty. The Chinese created delicate porcelain bowls with intricate carved scenes using varying levels of translucency.  Light shining through the porcelain revealed the images.   Much later in the 1800’s, European craftsmen created lithophanes using a similar process.  An image was etched in wax and then used to create a mold to cast the image in translucent porcelain.  Lithophanes were used as decorative plaques in windows, candle shields, fireplace screens or in lamps.

The current day photographer, Sandra Canning, created 3D printed lithophanes with the help of a company called Prototyping Solutions.  They converted her fine art photographs into lithophane files and then printed them on a Stratasys Objet260 Connex 3D printer. They were printed in VeroWhitePlus at a 16 micron layer height. The printing process took less than an hour and the results were exquisite! (Read an interview by Richard Curtis with Sandra Canning about this process here

After reading what Sandra had done, I decided to try it out.  To save time, I used a web application created by Mark Durbin that can be downloaded for free. Using Mark’s application I easily converted my photograph to an STL file. Then R & D’s in-house service bureau printed it on our Objet 24 printer. Through trial and error, I learned that for best results the photograph should have lots of contrast and not too much detail. My first attempt was a mysterious swamp scene that looked fine in print but didn’t translate well.  The beauty of 3D printing is that it’s fast.  When I saw the problem, I simply chose another photograph and tried again.

My second choice was a photo of a father and son at the Point Judith Lighthouse in Narragansett, RI. The composition was simple. The land, figures and lighthouse stood out nicely against the light sky. Check it out above - the original photograph, the lithophane printed in VeroWhite Plus and the backlit lithophane.  It’s amazing how the image emerges when illuminated.

 3D Lithophane Picture 3D Lithophane Picture

This project was great fun – I even tried out the waterjet to clean my lithophane!  It was cool to see how quickly the support material fell away.  I’d love to fine tune the process for more advanced results and print a high quality lithophane of one of my photographs.   I also came up with a fun idea for a future project.  How about a company picture of the R & D team converted to a lithophane?  


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