New imaging technology to shed a realistic light on art

June 16, 2006

Digitally archiving and reproducing artwork as it would be seen in a museum is a mathematical conundrum of light and geometry.

Rochester Institute of Technology and color scientist Roy Berns have been awarded $855,000 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop a practical approach museum photographers can use to eliminate subjective lighting decisions when imaging artwork.

Museum photographers try to capture the complex interplay between lighting, a painting and an observer in images of a museum's collections. Reducing the experience of viewing artwork in real life to a flat image -- a two-dimensional representation such as a poster or an image in a book or on a website -- relies on subjective and aesthetic decision making.

"Ultimately, there are decisions made in lighting and where you would stand. Realistic rendering is often limited by a lack of information about the object's shape and how incidental light is absorbed and scattered at each position on the object," says Berns, the Richard S. Hunter Professor of Color Science, Appearance and Technology in RIT's Munsell Color Science Laboratory in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science.

The solution sought during this project will involve building an instrument to capture the geometric and spectral information of artwork. It requires reducing a painting to its most basic optical blueprint to bypass the subjective influences of light source and environment. Once the information is gathered, mathematical models used in computer graphics will create different viewing experiences of the artwork in a specific environment.

The five-year project has two phases. The first, supported by this award, will develop instrumentation that measures the spatial and geometrical properties of artistic materials as a function of lighting geometry, creating an important database, Berns says. Three-dimensional mathematical models will be tested that best predict these properties.

The anticipated second phase will simplify the process and equipment for museum photographers to use on site.

"It will include additional instrumentation to measure the art's and the specific gallery's shape," Berns says. "This all combines with computer graphics software to render the art as experienced in real life."

Capturing the optical information of important paintings in a collection will aid museums as guardians of cultural heritage and will benefit historians, scholars and conservators, as well.

Berns is currently wrapping up an earlier companion project, also funded by the Mellon Foundation, in which he built an imaging system that will help museums ensure color accuracy of reproductions and archival images.

Source: Rochester Institute of Technology

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