A 3D scan of Van Gogh to create the perfect replica: FormArt will rock the art world

The current technique for digitizing paintings consists of taking a very high resolution photo of the artwork – that’s essentially what the Google Art project does. The problem is of course that paintings are not 2D objects. A painting is a 3D landscape of paint, and the texture adds just as much to the uniqueness of a painting as the composition.

A Dutch startup called FormArt worked five years to refine a 3D scanner for paintings – the first of its kind, it says. And now it’s ready to start upsetting quite a few apple carts in the art world. For one, it can print a perfect replica of any painting, and it is currently making a 3D scan of a Van Gogh to prove it. Also, ‘yes, with our technique, we’ll be able to spot fake masterpieces conclusively.’

How high is the pixel?

FormArt is actually a spin off from a company that’s specialized in creating custom shapes with lathing and milling techniques, says Peter Dikmans, managing director of FormArt.

Peter Dikmans: “When I met them, they were thinking of new business opportunities, and they came up with the idea to make 3D shapes based on photography. It was one of those ideas that everybody in the company thought was interesting – but that nobody actually did anything with.

So we really started thinking about the question: what would be really useful to do with such a technique? And it occured to us pretty quickly that being able to offer exact, 3D copies of art works would probably be a very interesting business.

The idea was to create a digital file with all the information of paintings in 3D: both structure and color, instead of just the outer layer. It’s like photograph, but in three dimension instead of 2.

Besides just telling you where on the canvas a pixel is and what color it is, it also tells you how high the pixel is on the canvas.

Paintings are not 2D, but 3D

We thought that would be immensely valuable to a lot of people – museums, artists, collectioners, academics.

Most restorations today start from a 2D file – comparable to the high resolution Google Art pictures that you can see on the web. But a painting is not a photograph, of course, you have to be able to reproduce the thickness of the layer, the brush stroke, it all still leaves a lot room for interpretation by the restoration team. Which is why restorations take so much time.

It ended up taking us about half a year to make a very passable copy of a piece of wood, with the structure and all. So we thought: okay, almost there. And then it took us another four years to do it with a real painting (laughs).

The devil is in the details, as they say, and there’s a lot of details in paintings: the reflections on the paint, large surfaces with only very minor differences in color, those are very difficult to nail down. Since our scanner works with normal light and not laser, it was very hard to get the image just right.”

But getting a digitized version of the artwork wasn’t enough: the goal was to be able to print an exact replica of the painting. “It’s a different approach to 3D printing,” says Paul Dings, art expert and commercial director of FormArt. “But I can’t go into much detail about how it works – which is why we also don’t show the machine on our website (laughs).”

Zoom in, zoom out

From the digitized file of the artwork, Formart produce copies in the same dimensions as the original, but it can also blow up portions of the work – or miniaturize. “That’s quite a feat, if we do say so ourselves,” says Dings: “We can zoom in on details in the painting, but the ratio of the 3D-structure stays intact.”

“We keep working on it to perfect the technique, of course, but we believe we have a viable product now, so we decided to take the product to the market – at some point, you need some smoke coming through the chimney (laughs).”

A 3D scan of Van Gogh

Peter Dikmans: “I think there’s quite a few interesting commercial applications for the technology. We’re doing a pilot project on a Van Gogh at this moment, where we take a small part of a Van Gogh and reproduce it. The museum can then sell these fragments in its gift shop. It’s also great for educational purposes: we can blow up certain portions of the painting, to illustrate certain interesting techniques that the artist used.”

The price of a reproduction depends on the number of reproductions and the dimensions of the painting. A recent reproduction for a painting by Jan Hoynck Van Papendrecht for the ‘Legermuseum’ (Army’s Museum) came in at under 10 000 €, for a one time print. If you print more, the price should come down – “just like when printing brochures and business cards,” says Dings.

 F is for Fake

Peter Dikmans: “We also think that the insurers might be interested – I could imagine that insurers will demand that museums make digitize their artworks before they can lend them out, or just as a condition to get an insurance. In Germany last year, 42 paintings were badly damaged in a fire. Having them on file would make the restorations a lot easier.”

3D scan of Van Gogh

Waterloo Bridge by Monet, one of the paintings stolen in the Kunsthal last week

Too bad the company was late getting to the Kunsthal, where seven masterpieces by Monet, Lucian Freud and Picasso were stolen only last week? Paul Dings, reluctantly: “Well, eh, I did talk to them a few months ago, but they said they weren’t interested.”

Formart is also certain to shake up things in the – sometimes murky – world of art authentication. The Formart system is able to distinguish fakes from real masterworks, says Dings. “That’s one of the strong points of our system: if we digitize a few works of a master, it should be very easy to spot a fake, because the patterns of the brush strokes will be different. It’s definitely an avenue we’ll pursue.”

Before we ask, he adds: “The other question that usually follows is: but how about the Formart reproductions? Wo’nt they be sold as originals? Well, I can assure you that it won’t be possible to sell a Formart reproduction as an original. First of all, they’re all marked on the side. And if you know what to look for and you have a magnifying glass, you will spot it in ten seconds, because it’s quite obvious that our reproductions aren’t painted but rather printed.”

If you ARE stupid enough to buy a Formart as a real painting, he laughs, you will probably be happy to hear that the Formart reproductions are washable.

Bootstrapping to the moon

Formart will bootstrap its operations for now. “The idea is that we will grow organically, from museum to museum, in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Beyond that, we’re thinking more of a licensing or franchising model. Transporting these valuable paintings over large distances is not recommended, so you would need a scanner in place. We just don’t know yet. We’ll try to fly first, then we can think about how we get to the moon (laughs).”

The FormArt website

Thanks to Whiteboard contributor Marianne Mol for spotting FormArt and introducing us

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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