Do computers understand art?

Dec 23, 2009
Do computers understand art?
This a painting of a seated woman with bent knee by Egon Schiele (1917). Credit: Egon Schiele

A team of researchers from the University of Girona and the Max Planck Institute in Germany has shown that some mathematical algorithms provide clues about the artistic style of a painting. The composition of colours or certain aesthetic measurements can already be quantified by a computer, but machines are still far from being able to interpret art in the way that people do.

How does one place an artwork in a particular artistic period? This is the question raised by scientists from the Laboratory of Graphics and Image in the University of Girona and the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, in Germany. The researchers have shown that certain algorithms mean a computer can be programmed to "understand" an image and differentiate between artistic styles based on low-level pictorial information. Human classification strategies, however, include medium and high-level concepts.

Low-level pictorial information encompasses aspects such as brush thickness, the type of material and the composition of the palette of colours. Medium-level information differentiates between certain objects and scenes appearing in a picture, as well as the type of painting (landscape, portrait, still life, etc.). High-level information takes into account the historical context and knowledge of the artists and artistic trends.

"It will never be possible to precisely determine mathematically an artistic period nor to measure the human response to a work of art, but we can look for trends", Miquel Feixas, one of the authors of the study, published in the journal Computers and Graphics, tells SINC.

The researchers analysed various artificial vision algorithms used to classify art, and found that certain aesthetic measurements (calculating "the order" of the image based on analysing pixels and colour distribution), as well as the composition and diversity of the palette of colours, can be useful.

The team also worked with people with little knowledge of art, showing them more than 500 paintings done by artists from 11 artistic periods. The participants were "surprisingly good" at linking the artworks with their corresponding artistic period, showing the high capacity of human perception.

Beyond the implications for philosophy and art, the scientists want to apply their research in developing image viewing and analysis tools, classifying and searching for collections in museums, creating public informative and entertainment equipment, and in order to better understand the interactions between people, computers and works of art.

Beauty, order and complexity

The earliest work of this kind was done in 1933, when the mathematician George D. Birkhoff tried to formalise the notion of beauty with an aesthetic measurement defined as the relationship between order and complexity. After this, the philosopher Max Bense converted this into a measurement of information based on entropy (disorder or diversity).

According to Bense, the creative process is a selective process ("to create is to select"), within a range of elements (a palette of colours, sounds, phonemes, etc.). The creative process can be seen as channel for transmitting information between the palette and the artist and the objects or features of an image. This concept provides a powerful tool for analysing composition and the visual attention ("saliency") of a painting.

Explore further: Computer scientists can predict the price of Bitcoin

More information: Christian Wallraven, Roland Fleming, Douglas Cunningham, Jaume Rigau, Miquel Feixas, Mateu Sbert. "Categorizing art: comparing humans and computers". Computers & Graphics 33 (4): 484-495, 2009.

Provided by Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology

3.5 /5 (2 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Computer identifies authentic Van Gogh

Dec 21, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Dutch researcher Igor Berezhnoy has developed computer algorithms to support art historians and other art experts in their visual assessment of paintings. His digital technology is capable ...

Probing Question: Are artists born or taught?

Aug 17, 2007

In 17th century Rome, the Baroque painter Orazio Gentileschi gave all his children the finest art education available. But only one of them -- his daughter Artemisia -- developed into an artist. In fact, Artemisia matched ...

A bird's eye view of art

Jun 30, 2009

Pigeons could be art critics yet, according to a new study which shows that like humans, pigeons can be trained to tell the difference between 'good' and 'bad' paintings. According to Professor Shigeru Watanabe from Keio ...

Evolution of the visual system is key to abstract art

Nov 17, 2008

Famous works of abstract art achieve popularity by using shapes that resonate with the neural mechanisms in the brain linked to visual information, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool has discovered.

How Do We Perceive Art?

Sep 14, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Neuroscientists at the University of Leicester are to work with a renowned international artist in order to gain new insights into perception.

Recommended for you

Ericsson profit down 10 pct despite higher sales

1 hour ago

Wireless equipment maker Ericsson says its third-quarter earnings slumped 10 percent despite higher sales due to increased operating costs and negative effects from currency hedging.

UK wind power share shows record rise

2 hours ago

The United Kingdom wind power production has been enjoying an upward trajectory, and on Tuesday wind power achieved a significant energy production milestone, reported Brooks Hays for UPI. High winds from Hurricane Gonzalo were the force behind wind turbines outproducing nuclear power ...

Glass maker deals to exit Apple, Arizona plant

4 hours ago

Nearly 2,000 furnaces installed in a factory to make synthetic sapphire glass for Apple Inc. will be removed and sold under a deal between the tech giant and the company that had been gearing up to produce huge amounts of ...

Global boom in hydropower expected this decade

6 hours ago

An unprecedented boom in hydropower dam construction is underway, primarily in developing countries and emerging economies. While this is expected to double the global electricity production from hydropower, it could reduce ...

User comments : 0