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The Tactile Technology That's Helping Blind People Experience Priceless Paintings

This Canadian company creates reproductions of famous paintings that are designed to be touched.

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"I can ID the leaves and the little ripples, the buds and the flower up at the top," Ellen Rubin, an accessibility consultant, tells me over the phone from the library of CUNY's Baruch College in New York. "For me, it seems quite busy because of all the background dots."

Rubin, who has been legally blind since the age of 17, is describing Van Gogh's Irises as she runs her fingers over a reproduction of the masterpiece. Created by Verus Art, a company that specializes in 3-D scanning and digital reproduction technology for fine art painting, the painting was made using the company's 3-D scanning technology and an elevated color printing process. In collaboration with the National Gallery in Canada, the company is recreating a select group of paintings that will be used by the museum to make its collection more accessible to the vision impaired.

It's part of a larger effort in recent years from museums that want to make their art accessible to the visually impaired. The Louvre was one of the first museums to set up a permanent gallery specifically for the visually impaired, opening its Tactile Gallery, where visitors can touch reproductions of art from its collection, in 1995. Since then, other museums have made accessibility for the blind a priority, too: the Denver Art Museum, Madrid's Museo del Prado, and Florence's Uffizi Gallery all have exhibitions that include touchable artworks. Meanwhile, the Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City also pioneered a concept of using collage to reproduce paintings that can be touched, according to the New York Times.

Though Rubin has been a frequent museum visitor all her life and now often works as a consultant to museums for their vision impaired programs, this is the first opportunity she's had to experience Irises. When I asked her for her initial reaction, she said that it's hard to get a sense of the painting as a whole. "I started from the top and moved to the bottom, so it takes a while before you can understand the whole thing," she says. In general, paintings with a sharper contrast between the background and the subject, or distinct outlines around various features of the painting, are easier to take in. "But it wasn't a drawback to the experience," she says even-handedly. "It's very impressive to touch a Van Gogh."

Verus creates the reproductions by carefully scanning the original artwork using a 3-D scanning technology they developed in-house. In Vancouver, where Verus is based, preservation specialists working for the company review the digital copy to ensure the reproduction accurately represents the color, texture, and brushstrokes of the original. The digital file is then sent to Holland, where Océ, a printing company owned by Canon, prints the painting in hundreds of layers to create a 3-D replica.

Rubin says she has touched tactile paintings like Verus’s before, but has never experienced the same painting made with two different technologies, making it hard to compare. Generally, she says, more detailed paintings are a bit harder to make out, and an accurate representation of color is important, since most people who are legally blind can perceive some color. In New York, she’s been to the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney, and MoMA, among others, for activities or exhibitions for blind visitors, including guided tours and "touch" workshops, in which they can can feel sculptures—usually with gloves on. She wants to visit Madrid's Museo del Prado, which has created 3-D reproductions of six famous paintings—including Goya’s "The Parasol" and "Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan" by Velázquez—in collaboration with the Spanish 3-D printing company Estudios Durero.

Like Verus Art, Estudios Durero uses sophisticated 3-D scanning technology and a relief painting method to create extremely precise copies of paintings that can be experienced through touch. The accuracy that these companies offer is a major step forward technologically, but it's also a costly investment for museums. Verus Art's copy of Irises, for example, goes for $3,495 on its website (through its partnership with the National Gallery, the company will create reproductions of select paintings in the museums collection, both for exhibit in the museum and to sell commercially).

Though the expense means museums have to be selective about which works they reproduce, there's reason to believe 3-D copies of paintings will become more widespread—Verus Art is currently in talks with other museums about the possibility of using the technology as a part of more educational programs in the future.

All Images: via Verus Art

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