You’ve probably seen by now some of the examples of very high resolution art images, on the Google Cultural Institute: Art Project if not elsewhere, and you may have heard of the process of 3D printing, in which ink-jet like printers can print three dimensional physical objects by the computer-controlled application of layers of sprayed material.
Tim Zaman, a dutch researcher, has built a system using high resolution photographic imaging, along with structured light 3D scanning and fringe projection, to image the topographic surface of well known paintings, along with their image and color, and pass that information to special 3D printers from Canon’s Océ group, resulting in three dimensional replicas of the paintings.
These show the three dimensional characteristics of the brushstrokes and other details of paint application. In the experiments shown in this article on designboom, paintings by two painters with very distinct three dimensional character to their work were scanned and reproduced: Rembrandt and Van Gogh.
The designboom article suggests that the technology presents potential issues of forgery, but I don’t think that’s likely. I don’t know what kind of material they’re using to print the replicas, but I can’t imagine that it’s oil paint in its normal form; it would simply be unsuitable to being sprayed through printer nozzles without being chemically altered in a way that would be easily detectable (it’s hard enough to put oil paint in tubes by machine without adding chemical agents).
No, I think beyond the idea of rich folks, (at least at first) having three dimensional replicas of famous paintings in their houses, which seems the likely application for this technology, the more interesting question is how this might affect the practice of museums loaning valuable and easily damaged works to one another for exhibitions. It even raises questions about museums putting 3D replicas of works in their collections on their walls, and hiding the irreplaceable originals in storage.
Food for thought.