Black / White Sculpture




Introduction: Black / White Sculpture

About: artist based in San Francisco, CA

In the spring of 2014, I was selected for an artist residency at Tech Shop in San Francisco, CA. This is what I made over the course of the 2-month residency:


Acrylic on Hardboard

Each letter: 16”x16”x16”

Installation dimensions variable

Additional information about my art practice can be found here: WEBSITE

Step 1: Origin of the Project

Inspired by the early writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, I wanted to create a sculpture that illustrated as clearly as possible, some of the concepts surrounding the limitations of language. The use of antonyms (in this case: black and white) is intentional as they both symbolize and embody linguistic boundaries; asserting a finite universe within their confines, but requiring silence concerning anything that might lie beyond their borders.

Step 2: Final Form

The resulting five letter/sculptures sit upon their own individual pedestals, promoting site specific installations while maintaining three rules: (1) they be arranged so each word is legibly formed and (2) with enough space in-between to allow movement around each letter and (3) they divide the space they occupy.

The image above is a rendering from Rhino; the computer modeling software I used to design the sculpture and to extract the final CNC cut files for the sculpture.

Step 3: Computer Model to DWG Export

These are screenshots illustrating how I went from a continuous surface computer model (in Rhino) to a CNC cut sculpture. In order for the computer model to be cut using a CNC router, I needed to convert the smooth surface to a topographical 3-d map. Each topographical layer became a single coplaner polyline that I exported as a DWG file, which eventually went on to be further converted to g-code at the CNC router station. For the final sculpture, I selected 1/4" smooth double-sided hardboard in order to have a smooth painting surface. Thus, each topographical plane is spaced 1/4" from the next. For a 16" deep sculpture, I needed sixty-four 1/4" layers of hardboard. Ultimately I ended up with 320 individual cut files for all five letter/sculptures.

Step 4: CNC Cutting

It took approximately six weeks to cut 320 pieces of hardboard at Tech Shop...

Step 5: Sanding Prep

Each CNC-cut shape came of the machine requiring sanding and cleanup and this step took approximately one to two weeks to complete. I used sandpaper to smooth out the edges and surfaces of each letter and some of the shapes also required the use of wood paste to fill in gaps and holes that were created during the cutting process. This is a photograph of a sanding station I set up in my apartment using a ventilation fan to remove dust and debris.

Step 6: Gesso

In order for the acrylic paint to adhere to the sanded hardboard, a layer of gesso was applied to only the areas of each shape that would be visible.

Step 7: Mix Black/White Gradient

Each 1/4" hardboard layer is painted in a unique mix of black and white acrylic paint. It took many hours of experimentation to achieve a "natural" gradient that resulted in the 50% grey point being located at the center of each sculpture. FYI: Mixing 1 part WHITE with 1 part BLACK does not yield a 50% grey. I found 50% grey to be closer to 2 parts WHITE and 1 part BLACK.

Step 8: Painting > Drying > Glueing

Each hardboard layer was numbered in order to ensure that each unique shape was painted with the correct mix of black/white paint relative to its layer position. As mentioned previously, I only painted those parts of the sculpture that would be visible. After the paint dried, I began stacking them on top of each other. To ensure that each shape/layer was lined up in the correct location, I would stack them using a 1/4" dowel as a guide (I added two dowel cut locations to each CNC cut files).

After I painted all 64 layers, I re-stacked and glued them together. In fact, only the first three to four layers and last layers are glued to the dowels. The rest of the layers are simply sandwiched together and held in place by the dowels. I did this in order to have the ability to rotate and adjust the middle portion of the sculpture as needed to ensure that the first and last layers would sit flat upon the pedestal.

This was a very labor intensive step and took approximately six weeks to complete.

Step 9: Exhibition

After spot painting and adding a protective clear-coat, the letter sculptures were ready for the closing exhibition at Asterisk Gallery in San Francisco, CA on March 29th, 2014.

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    6 Discussions

    Woah that's so cool looking. It reminds me a lot of Escher's work, only in three dimensions which kind of just makes it more impressive.


    5 years ago on Step 9

    Nice work Jon! - we should catch up again some time....


    Reply 5 years ago on Step 9

    ​Thanks! how'd you find me on here? Would love to - lets make it happen. beers in December?


    Reply 5 years ago on Step 9

    Pretty random, but I'm doing a residency at Autodesk Pier9 and we have to post instructables of our work.....I was looking through some instructables by fellow residents and yours popped up in the 'related' column!

    Fission Chips

    Wow! You are very determined and artistic. I love the streamlined shapes, and the fact that you used a CNC router! Incredible job, keep it up.


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks SnakoM! I really appreciate the compliments and encouragement.