Identical Twins: 3D Printing and Art Authenticity

Next Rembrandt, image from The Next Rembrandt: Blurring the Lines Between Art, Technology and Emotion. | Image source:

As an online art platform, we’re always super interested in the intersection of art and technology and what that means for the art world. There are so many fascinating things happening in that space! And this one’s a doozie– when 3D printing meets art, how do we judge the authenticity?

The Next Rembrandt

The Next Rembrandt project is probably the most intensive project in this arena to date. A group of researchers studied hundreds of Rembrandt’s paintings and gathered thousands upon thousands of data points about his work to distill what they call “the artistic DNA of Rembrandt.” They studied the types of subjects he painted, the colors and proportions he used, and the little touches and physical nuances that made him so unique and used that information to create a huge database about his work. They even took 3D scans of his works to study his very brushstrokes.

Then they took all of that data and set out to do something amazing – create a new Rembrandt piece. After analyzing the data, they decided to create a portrait of a white male with facial hair, wearing a hat and collar, aged 30-40. Using deep learning algorithms and the data they had gathered from Rembrandt’s paintings, they determined the look, size, shape, and proportions of the portrait. Using the 3D scans of his other works, they determined what the brushstrokes would look like. That gave them a 2D image of this “new” Rembrandt. And then they 3D printed it.

We know this isn’t an original Rembrandt painting – the subject is made up from data about his other subjects and it’s made of a special kind of 3D printer ink rather than paint. But what if instead of a new painting, they made a replica?

Next Rembrandt project, courtesy of the article on Microsoft News Center, The Next Rembrandt: Blurring the Lines Between Art, Technology and Emotion. The project is a cooperation between presenting partner ING Bank, advertising agency J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam, supporting partner Microsoft and advisors from Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), The Mauritshuis and Museum Het Rembrandthuis.
The Next Rembrandt: A cooperative project between ING Bank, J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam, Microsoft and advisors from Delft University of Technology, The Mauritshuis and Museum Het Rembrandthuis. | Image source:

Spot the Difference

With current technology, we can get extremely detailed data about a work of art. We can determine what sort of paint was used, for example, down to the precise pigments involved. We can make perfect 3D maps of the brushstrokes. We can even peer behind the paint to tell if a canvas has been used before – like the portrait of a man that Picasso painted his Blue Room over.

In other words, we can create a nearly perfect model. And with 3D printing technology, we can reproduce it. In theory, we could even do it with perfectly matched materials – the same type of canvas and paint, for example.

That leaves us with something of a dilemma. If we take an artwork – say, the Mona Lisa – and create a perfect reproduction of it, is it authentic? Sure, Leonardo never touched that particular canvas himself. But those are his materials, his brushstrokes, his vision. The reproduction is obviously newer, but is that enough to determine the authenticity?

Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ image courtesy of program page: The Business End of Contemporary Art
Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ image courtesy of program page: The Business End of Contemporary Art

A Fuzzy Picture (And We’re Not Talking Sfumato)

Authenticity is a tough enough concept already. Let’s start with something we know is not authentic. If a person set out to recreate an artwork by hand, it seems pretty obvious that we wouldn’t consider it authentic. No matter how hard they tried, they wouldn’t be able to perfectly reproduce the colors or the strokes.

But consider this: many artists have assistants or students contribute to their artworks. Peter Paul Rubens, for example, had a large group of students that would work on his paintings and drawings. If an assistant did much of the work, is that an authentic Rubens? It’s his vision, his materials, and his ultimate approval, but he didn’t necessarily create the whole thing himself. In other words, his students were more or less recreating his style, just like someone today trying to do the same. Just think of Warhol’s ‘Factory’ and its multiple print production line or Jeff Koons’ army of assistants in his mega studio complex.

So, what makes a work of art authentic? Is it about the “original” idea (Duchamp’s ‘Fountain,’ a piece of porcelain urinal)?  Is it that the artist himself touched it? Maybe not, if we consider the role of assistants and students. Is it their supervision and approval? Technically, the subject and style of a 3D replica was supervised and approved when the original was created. Is it the age? Maybe – but we could just as easily make perfect replicas of modern artworks while the artists are still alive. Where does that leave us?

The Next Rembrandt – On 5 April 2016 The Next Rembrandt was unveiled in Amsterdam: a 3D printed painting, made solely from data of Rembrandt’s body of work. | YouTube by ING

 What Does It All Mean?

As you can see, there’s no really good way to nail down what makes an artwork authentic. It’s just a messy question. But perhaps the more important question is this: what matters the most? We love art because it’s beautiful – because it moves us. Does a perfect replica of the Mona Lisa move us in the same way as the original? If the answer is yes, then in some sense the question of authenticity is moot.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple (what is?). There is one arena in particular in which authenticity is a big concern: the art market. An authentic artwork is worth a lot more than a copy. And in some cases, millions of dollars hinge on that issue. As the technology for creating these reproductions improves, the art markets are going to have to contend with those questions of authenticity.

But for now, this is just a really exciting development. Imagine being able to make perfect replicas of great works of art available for study! Imagine being able to hang them on your own walls! The philosophical implications are thorny, but the possibilities are really, really cool.


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