Computer creates ‘new Rembrandt’ after analyzing old works

Rembrandt van Rijn may have died nearly 350 years ago, but his most recent painting was made this very year.

Well, sort of—because scientists have taught a computer to create its own unique Rembrandt paintings.

Dutch financial group ING kick-started this whole project by approaching an Amsterdam advertising agency in October of 2014, in hopes of figuring out a project that would show innovation in Dutch art. The resulting idea: Teaching a computer to “paint” like the famous Dutch Golden Age painter.

From there, an army of scientists, developers, engineers, and art historians coming from Microsoft, Delft University of Technology, and two Dutch art museums (Mauritshuis and Rembrandthuis) spent 18 months working on this project.


Credit: ING

How did the team do this?

The team scanned 346 of Rembrandt’s paintings and, using their own specially-developed software system plus special algorithms and facial recognition technology, they analyzed the works to understand every element of the paintings.

“There’s a lot of Rembrandt data available—you have this enormous amount of technical data from all these paintings from various collections,” said Joris Dik, a professor at TU Delft, in a statement.

From there, the team narrowed down what elements were the most typical of Rembrandt—and came up with portraits of white, bearded men between the ages of 30 and 40, who were wearing black clothes with white collars and a hat—and who all faced to the right.

After telling the computer to create a painting in this vein, it went to work studying traits of these subjects in nearly 170,000 relevant painting fragments—and then came up with a sort of Rembrandt “average” for specific aspects of them. For example, it derived the most typical eye shape, and the normal tilt of the head. The computer also analyzed the depth and texture of the paintings’ surfaces to capture Rembrandt’s brushstrokes.

“We really wanted to understand what makes a face look like a Rembrandt,” Emmanuel Flores, director of technology for the project, told the BBC.

Then, after 500 hours of work, the computer created its very own Rembrandt painting with more than 148 million pixels, and printed the result in 13 layers using a 3D printer and paint-based UV ink. The result: A surprisingly convincing and totally new Rembrandt-style artwork titled “The New Rembrandt,” complete with replicate 3D brushstrokes.

For those worried about computers replacing real artists, do keep in mind that it took more than half the corpus of a true master painter to get to this point—nothing was spontaneous on the computer’s part. Indeed, the goal of this wasn’t to find a way to make a computer into a painter, but rather to celebrate painting through the use of technology.


Image credit: ING