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Seeing new detail in old masters

By Julie Clothier for CNN

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The new software reveals previously unseen detail in old paintings, such as "The Arnolfini Portrait."
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Arts, Culture and Entertainment
Painting

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Technology installed at the National Gallery in London means visitors can now take an even closer look at the painstaking detail at its entire collection.

A new interactive touch-screen software package was unveiled at the gallery this month, providing a virtual tour of the collection at a high resolution: detail not previously seen by the naked eye can now be spotted.

Visitors can use the program, called ArtStart, by touching on screens to find out more about any of the gallery's 2,300 paintings.

The paintings have been scanned at such a high resolution that visitors can zoom in and see the finest of details, including brushstrokes.

The paintings were originally scanned at 100 mega pixels as part of a European Union research project, but have been reduced in size to make them accessible on the new software.

Steve Dale, deputy head of new media at the National Gallery, said the software was aimed to improve the overall experience of visitors to the gallery.

"What we set out to do was help the visitor to get the most out of their experience," he said.

"We've created a system that doesn't assume the visitor knows anything about the collection, that they are not an art history expert. It gives ordinary, everyday visitors a way of engaging with the collection."

He said that even though the images had been reduced in size from their original scannings, the detail seen in them was amazing.

He talked of one painting, "The Arnolfini Portrait," by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, where the software had allowed Dale to see extra detail he had not noticed before.

"There's a window to the left of the painting, which is open. When you zoom into the gap in the window using ArtStart you can see tiny little berries on a tree," he said.

"You can't help but marvel at the attention to detail. I doubt very much whether visitors to the gallery would notice such an intricate detail without the software. We've seen details in paintings that we (at the gallery) deal with every day and had not seen."

Dale said he hoped the new software would act as an educational tool for visitors and that it would also be useful for the visually impaired.

"I hope it points out something for them that they wouldn't have instantly spotted. It's not a substitute for standing in front of the real thing."

"It allows you to find out more about how the paintings are created and look at them up close in a way that you can't easily do in the gallery."

He did not know any other gallery that had scanned its entire collection and believed the system was the first of its kind.

ArtStart is also able to create personalized tours for visitors, based on their interests, or give them a printout of the 30 "most significant" paintings in the gallery.

You can also join the the gallery's mailing list from the screen or get information about a particular painting sent to your email address.

The program was funded by a £500,000 ($900,000) American Express Foundation grant. The monitors were donated by Hewlett Packard.

ArtStart is one of five programs nominated for a BAFTA Interactive Award. The winner will be announced in March.


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