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The role of computer technology in analysing art

Whilst working at the Chester Beatty Library with the astonishing Ruzbihan Qur’an, I spent some time wondering whether there were ways in which computers could assist with our analysis of the manuscript. Some things I wanted to find out seemed almost within reach, and certainly could be done manually, such as checking to see whether the jadval (frame lines) were all exactly the same dimensions on each page. A minor thing, but it might help us to understand whether the same mistara (ruling device – see here for some very clear examples) was used throughout. Equally, I wanted to compare other divisions of the layout on each page – the size of the onvan heading panels, and the size and position of the decorative side panels. Any anomalies might help us to understand if different quires were worked on by different people, or using different tools, or maybe just at different times. However, I’m limited by my own knowledge and skills when it comes to this kind of analysis – I can manually take measurements of each page but the book is over 800 pages long, so it would certainly be laborious, and then I would have to pick out of the measurements those which matched and those which differed. I’m fairly competent in Excel so could find a way to do this, but I felt sure there must be easier ways…

…And of course there are, and already some exciting methods are being exploited to interesting ends in the fields of art history, bibliography, and codicology. Since I began thinking about this many examples have crossed my path, including a paper given at TIMA last year by PhD student Alex Brey, who used the statistical programming language R to look for variations within certain elements of a Seljuk Qur’an: for example, to find differences between the verse markers, which may help to identify the presence of different hands. His research aims to find out exactly the things which most intrigue me about Islamic manuscript workshops – how many people may have been involved with producing a manuscript; how tasks were divided up within the studio; and how (or, indeed whether) a consistent design aesthetic was achieved when undoubtedly more than one artist was involved. Alex’s blog also delves into other areas where technology interacts with art history. This post is a very interesting discussion on whether computer vision algorithms can effectively look for compositional similarities in paintings (and indeed, what benefits exist from training computers to do this).

Image matching software is another area of interest for art historians and scholars, and already has some very exciting applications.  This Ukiyo-e Search website looks for similar prints across multiple online collections, meaning that comparing impressions, colours (and fading) and so on of the same print is exceptionally fast and easy. You can also upload your own photo of a print, and search to find matches. The Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libraries has a similar function called ‘Image Search’- you can clip an area from one of the digitised ballads, and search to see where else it appears. As woodblocks for these ballads were used over and over again, by gathering together all the similar images we can also start to see how the woodblocks age as wormholes and cracks appear as white gaps in the printed image. There are a couple of very good images of this in this blog post: Of ballads and worms.  The degradation of woodblocks can be instrumental when it comes to dating and analysing print impressions: here is an excellent poster from the University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science’s Visual Geometry Group which demonstrates this, and the role computer aided image-match technology can play in understanding the order in which prints were made. In fact, if you don’t follow any of the other links in this post I would still recommend you look at this one!

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Conservation web resources

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Today I happened across a raft of useful online conservation resources, which I thought I would highlight. In trying to remind myself of how to consult the Teas chart I discovered this handy blog by a Danish paper conservator, which gathers together lots of useful information and conservation news stories: The Media Conservator. Through her I was directed to AIC’s Teas Chart tutorial, which I had no idea existed but is an incredibly useful refresher. And whilst browsing Sophie’s other posts, I followed a link to this superb guide to silver gelatine prints and their deterioration by Gawain Weaver. I think it’s wonderful that there are so many conservators online willing to share their knowledge and expertise for free, and provide this kind of comprehensive information so that we can all continue our education.

Teas Chart

Teas Chart

Institute of Making

Last Saturday I went to UCL to attend an open day at the Institute of Making, a cross-disciplinary workshop space and centre for research into materials science. The interface between art and science seems to me to be a very interesting area to occupy, and whilst perhaps the bulk of people attracted to this centre may be scientists, makers and artists, this kind of research is also very relevant to the conservator. New materials may provide new solutions to old problems, or we may be able to appropriate equipment or techniques beneficial to our own practice.
I stopped first at a stall where we were invited to play with beads of a thermo-plastic that is pliable at a low temperature and therefore usable in a domestic environment as it merely needs to be dunked in hot water for a few minutes. I keenly tried to think of something useful to make from it – among the provided suggestions were using it to create custom grips for tools, which could indeed be useful for those of us that like to make and adapt their own tools. I made a brush rest in the end – not very exciting but I’m hoping a more purposeful way to use this kind of substance will eventually present itself to me.

Thermoplastic brush rest

Thermoplastic brush rest

Upstairs there were three examples of 3-D printers, ranging from a high end, sophisticated behemoth, to a DIY kit which can be put together for a couple of hundred pounds (if you have the technical skills). Here is a quick snap of the mid-range version engaged in printing a small pink rabbit:

3-D printer producing a small pink rabbit

3-D printer producing a small pink bunny

Examples of other objects that had been produced included a working adjustable spanner, various cog mechanisms, and chains (some of these produced using a technique which fuses a powder into the required design, meaning that creating ready-linked chains is easy). The chatty and enthusiastic science chap manning this equipment informed us that various materials can now be used in combination with these printers, and told us about a recent medical first where a titanium jaw was created to exactly fit the dimensions of an injured face. This technology is gradually becoming cheaper, and perhaps could prove to be a useful technique with which to make bespoke mounts to fit museum objects exactly, or even perhaps create fills for 3-D artefacts with losses. Creating accurate facsimiles by using a 3-D scanner and a 3-D printer could also be a possibility.

The last table I stopped at was mainly concerned with the Institute’s Materials Library, which not only contains many new and wonderful materials, but also invites us to reconsider those that we think we are familiar with. I spent a while discussing pigments with someone there, including substances which change colour with temperature or concentration, and various other exciting things. The Institute hopes to run pigment making workshops later in the year, and also has several other interesting sounding workshops planned such as making your own folding knife, neon-making, and (my favourite sounding workshop) rope making and knotting with sailors’ rope-expert Des Pawson. I recommend joining their mailing list in order to keep abreast of all of the exciting things they are doing there.

Materials Library

Materials Library