New scanning technology helps to analyse works of art

By May 15, 2014

A European Union-supported consortium is developing an advanced scanner which looks set to revolutionise the analysis of older works of art and reveal their hidden secrets.

Older artworks can be analysed and understood much better when the work has undergone skilled restoration. Apart from knowhow – and patience! – restorers nowadays routinely call on advanced technologies. This is what the INSIDDE (INtegration of technological Solutions for Imaging, Detection, and Digitisation of hidden Elements in artworks) project launched in January 2013 under the EU-funded ICT initiative for Learning and Access to Cultural Resources, seeks to provide. In order to remedy the ravages of time, experts now increasingly use lasers and limestone-producing bacteria rather than the traditional solvents. Non-invasive technologies are also being developed and many museums have set up their own projects in collaboration with research centres, universities and private sector firms. The INSIDDE project, which uses pioneering terahertz scanning, is very much part of this trend. The consortium of European organisations working on the project includes the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, 3D Dynamics from Belgium, the Istituto Nazionale di Ottica in Italy, the Regionalen Istoricheski Muzei Stara Zagora in Bulgaria, and the Centro Regional de Bellas Artes de Oviedo in Spain. This new non-invasive approach provides a precise analysis of works of art using a graphene-based terahertz scanner. The technology will enable experts to distinguish each individual layer and thus obtain “an idea of the original sketches, how they were modified by the artist and the order in which the paint or brushstrokes were applied,” explains project coordinator Javier Gutiérrez Meana.

State-of-the-art scanning technology

Once the buried secrets have been revealed by the scanner, it will be possible to observe all the details of a painting, identifying the materials and pigments used, pinpointing the period when the work was painted and perhaps even to name the artist. The new scanning technique the consortium is developing works in the electromagnetic spectrum between that of X-rays and infrared. A traditional scanner can then be used to round out the picture and identify the upper layers of a given artwork. The raw data can then be collected and analysed. “Terahertz technologies can complete the information obtained by means of X-rays or infrared reflectography because, in general terms, their penetration depth is lower than the former but higher than the latter,” underlines Javier Gutiérrez Meana. Having devoted most of their efforts over the past year to building the scanner, during 2014 the consortium partners are planning to carry out a number of experiments, says Gutiérrez Meana. The first prototype is expected to be ready for testing on real works of art in 2015.

Seeing works in museums through new eyes

The partners do not however envisage the benefits of the INSIDDE project being solely available to curators, restorers and other experts from the art world, but insist that “this technology will also benefit the wider public.” First of all, digital models in both 2D and 3D will be uploaded to the European Europeana network ( so that the general public will have free access to these models through the Internet. In parallel the project partners are developing a mobile app for smartphones and tablets, which will be ″available at participating museums and will display, when pointed at the artwork and thanks to augmented reality (AR), the different layers of the painting, a scheme of overlapping brushstrokes, metadata and other interesting representations,” enthuses Gutiérrez Meana. Moreover, the team are planning to design the interface and functionalities using X-ray images from a Goya masterpiece that is permanently on display at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias in Spain. The INSIDDE app could well help to generate greater footfall at museums, but might also serve to engage with a new type of visitor who is attracted by the “intertwining of art and new technologies,” as the coordinator puts it. Lastly, although the partners are currently focusing on the Europeana material and the AR application, the technologies they are developing could also be used in other fields such as games and animation. Javier Gutiérrez Meana envisages that the technology “may be adapted to other scenarios, such as body scanners for security purposes, non-destructive tests for foodstuffs and in the health sector, e.g. for burns, skin cancers, etc.”


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