Using SketchUp to Create Geometric Art

When creating geometric art, using software is almost inevitable, since it can vastly simplify and speed up the calculations and repetitive tasks affiliated with creating precise geometric forms. There are literally dozens of software packages out there that could conceivably be used, including both generic drawing programs and those specific to creating geometry. Over time I hope to discuss many of them, and today I’m going to start with the one I use most frequently and most recently – Google SketchUp.

How to Get SketchUp

One of the reasons I love SketchUp is that it can be downloaded for FREE, and installation is a breeze. There is a “Pro” version (current price as of this writing $495), which has a few features that would definitely come in handy, but the free version is what I’ll be discussing today and as you’ll see it can do plenty.

Why I Like It

The main thing that hooked me on SketchUp was its balance of power and simplicity.

SketchUp is simple in the sense that:

  • Basic operations (move, scale, rotate, etc.) are easy to learn and use – and well documented!
  • The interface is clean and intuitive
  • All sorts of things happen automatically, like shapes closing themselves, things snapping to each other, axes, etc.

It is powerful because:

  • All operations can be carried out to a high degree of precision (many decimal places)
  • It is a full-fledged 3D modeling program including camera positions, perspective, limited rendering options, etc.
  • It can be extended using plug-ins written in the Ruby programming language

Other nice features include:

  • A vast warehouse of downloadable models contributed by other users
  • Ability to group objects (including nested groups) and make reusable components – invaluable for building up models out of repetitions of the same shape!
  • Ability to export to various 2D, 3D, and video formats (note, there are MANY more of these in the Pro version!)

Things That Bug Me

For all the things that I love about SketchUp, there are a few things the bother me, at least in the context of creating my geometric art:

  • Shapes automatically close themselves – i.e., any set of lines that are connected and fall in a plane will generate the face they bound. This can be really useful sometimes, but can also lead to extra, unwanted faces, especially if you are drawing something 2D and want just the lines, not the faces.
  • The free version cannot print to an exact scale! I was astounded to learn that this a feature reserved for the Pro version. Essentially, whatever is showing in your window at the moment you hit print is what you will get.  You can play with this to get something close to what you want (see tips below), but if you need your printouts to have exact measurements, this is not the tool for you!
  • Control of color and lighting is limited. For this reason, SketchUp is great as a design tool, but is probably not what you want to use to generate a final piece of art. Since I primarily use it just to generate patterns, this is not a big problem for me, but I wanted to mention lest you have ideas about generated actual 3D art directly out of SketchUp.

Examples of Output

To get an idea of the ways you can output your model, here a couple of different outputs from a particular model of mine:

A 2d image file (this one is .jpeg; .png and .tif are the other options):

ring lattice

Lattice of rings created in SketchUp (copyright 2011 Phil Webster)

A video animation (in QuickTime .mov format, the only true video option; the other options are to output the frames of a video in the three 2D formats listed above):

  •  Click this link to view; you’ll need the QuickTime plugin installed in your browser to see it

I also tried to upload a 3D model (in Google Earth (.kmz) format; the only other available option is .dae) – but it wasn’t allowed for some reason. :-(

Some Tips to Get Started

If what you’ve read has inspired you to try out SketchUp for your own geometric art, here are a few tips from me (learned the hard way!) to get you started:

  • Browse the 3d warehouse.  Chances are very good that someone else has modeled something similar to what you have in mind already, which can serve as a starting point.
  • However, when you download models, inspect them for accuracy, scale, etc. Not everyone out there works to the same standards. :-)
  • Learn to use groups – immediately! Not only are they easier to manipulate, but this is my best workaround for the “shape automatically close themselves” problem above. A new line will NOT create new faces with lines embedded in a group, and this fact can be used to save yourself lots of headaches!
  • Try creating a simple box near your model as an easy way to control the rotation tool. Right after invoking the rotate tool, you can easily snap the plane of rotation to one of the three xyz planes by floating over one of the three faces of the box and holding down shift.
  • Consider creating grids of guides on separate layers.  These can be made visible at moment where you want to snap to a point on the grid, and turned off when they’re in the way. I use this ALL THE TIME when designing 2D patterns.
That’s it! I encourage you to go explore this unique tool.  If you already use SketchUp, or start to use it, and would like to see future tips, tutorials, etc. please drop me a line and let me know!  This is something I’ll be happy to do if there is a demand for it. Also, if you’ve used SketchUp and have your own tips, questions, or ideas, please leave them in the comments below for everyone to share.

About Phil Webster

Phil is the creator of You can reach him on the Contact page.
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