Engineering is Art: Q&A with Artist and Engineer Shane McKenna

Shane McKenna has more than 30 years of experience in mechanical engineering, manufacturing, and product design. In that time he’s established a reputation as a CAD expert, valuable design resource, and a problem solver. A cursory scan of his LinkedIn profile conveys his strong standing in his craft. However, you might need to dig a little deeper to become familiar with his other passion: Art.

western-entertainment-centeFrom furniture and mantles to decorative art and abstract works, McKenna uses SOLIDWORKS to bring many different creative projects to life. Hiswork blends Old World craftsmanship and techniques with advanced technology, such as SOLIDWORKS. During his creative process, McKenna combines materials and textures that are hand-worked, with contemporary lines and modern computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) into finished products that bridge the gap between our past and the modern world.

His desire to forge quality, inventiveness, and resourcefulness into projects began at a young age on his grandfather’s ranch. As a boy, McKenna learned from his grandfather, who was a utilitarian craftsman, to build and create using hand tools, joinery techniques, and interlocking joints – all with a focus on uncompromising workmanship and a desire for excellence in everyday tasks. These projects provided him with the opportunity to learn and problem solve for himself, which greatly contributed to McKenna’s future.

I recently had the opportunity to connect with McKenna to discuss his passion for design, engineering, art, and, of course, SOLIDWORKS. In the below Questions and Answer section you will hear his opinions on topics like engineering as an art form and learn creative bits that will hopefully inspire your work.


SOLIDWORKS: What first inspired you to use SOLIDWORKS as an artistic tool?

McKenna: I was rendering a client’s part for presentation. I had rendered a zoomed-in detail and I noticed that it was similar to the way a photographer zooms into an everyday object to create an artistic photograph. Suddenly I could see how I could create art by creating a scene and rendering it. I am a huge fan of abstract art; I love the way colors blend, the accidental little miracles of paint lodging into texture, the focus on line and textures, with little or no regard for subject. I could imagine that by playing with shapes, projected images, light, color, camera position, etc., I could create abstracts in a way that I have never experienced them before. SOLIDWORKS has exceeded my expectations. Each attempt has unexpected elements that surface as reflections, shadows, highlights, and contrasts. SOLIDWORKS helps create the subtleties that I love in abstract art in ways that I rarely predict. This creates a joyous discovery that keeps it engaging.

“The fact, that as an artist, I was able to get that kind of personal/professional satisfaction from SOLIDWORKS, says a lot about how amazing an artistic tool it is.” – Shane McKenna

SOLIDWORKS: How would you compare designing a product in SOLIDWORKS to designing art in SOLIDWORKS?Vital Verde

McKenna: For me, art and engineering come from the same place. They are intertwined. Both have elements that are easily arrived at. Both have elements that are hard fought for. Both have those “ah ha” moments. Both build from your experiences, knowledge, and ability to think deeply about the subject. The biggest difference is, art has more latitude for creativity. When I design a consumer product, or a manufacturing process, I have the pragmatics, the function, and the user experience more heavily weighted in the development process. However, when a client hires me to create an artistic creation, even something as utilitarian as a door, I have a lot of artistic license. Frequently that allows pushing the shape development much further than I do in consumer products. My abstract art gives me complete freedom from pragmatic constraints. I have zero concern about things like ergonomics, manufacturability, cost of production, etc. This is very liberating, and you can use the feature creation tools in ways that you might not in product design. In that regard, I feel I am building skills that are moving me beyond most designers, as I experiment with SOLIDWORKS.

SOLIDWORKS: How does your artistic talent find its way into your “more traditional” SOLIDWORKS projects?

McKenna: As mentioned, art and engineering come from the same place for me. I would say the most significant contribution art plays in my traditional design is both a learned skill and a natural talent. That would be the ability to imagine an outcome. This is often distilled down to the singular term “vision.” From a very early age, I could see ideas, solutions, and outcomes in my mind. However, I believe everyone can develop and improve this ability. Practice with thought experiments or day dreaming. See your hands on your product or see the material you are shaping moving through your manufacturing process. Imagine the bends, flow, movement… whatever applies. Most the time I can see in my mind what I want to create, so it is simply a matter of finding the right tool and procedure that will net that result in my models.


SOLIDWORKS: How do you approach designing in SOLIDWORKS that can inspire others to think of new approaches to their work?

McKenna: Every project is different, but the one thing they have in common is an intended goal. Even though that goal will frequently evolve, there is still today’s vision of that product. I focus more energy with the end goal in mind, than the current challenge. While I do lean on my experience, I am naturally an explorer. If a reader takes only one thing away from this, I hope this is that one thing. DO NOT RELY ON WHAT YOU KNOW. What you know tomorrow is going to be different than what you know today. Be willing to try new things. Be willing to trust that solutions will come. Be willing to fail. I love the saying, “A bird does not worry if the branch will break, the bird trusts in its ability to fly.” You have the capacity to do next, what you cannot do now, push yourself, find your next horizon and keep going.

To browse McKenna’s work, please visit his website here:

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Mike Fearon

Mike Fearon

Senior Manager Brand Offer Marketing, Dassault Systemes SOLIDWORKS. Video game world champion and whisky advocate. I like turtles.