Computers Create a Rembrandt 2.0

HowStuffWorks Now: The Rembrandt in the Machine HowStuffWorks
HowStuffWorks Now: The Rembrandt in the Machine HowStuffWorks

Advancements in image recognition and machine learning have led to some pretty cool (and sometimes bizarre) applications. Researchers at Cornell University designed a computer that taught itself the basic laws of physics by observing the motion of a pendulum. Google built the Deep Dream Generator, which turns photographs into surreal portraits. And a project team behind The Next Rembrandt designed algorithms that allowed a computer to create a painting in the style of the 17th century Dutch master.

The project didn't attempt to recreate a particular painting — instead, the goal was to analyze Rembrandt's artistic style and use computers to generate an entirely new painting based on that style. It's a simulation of how Rembrandt would have painted a new portrait. You might not go so far as to call it a new Rembrandt, but it's probably about as close as we can get.


So how did the team do this? Developers determined the new painting would be a portrait of a Caucasian male between the ages of 30 and 40. They also decided he would be slightly in profile and wearing a hat and a large collar. They made these decisions because Rembrandt painted an awful lot of portraits with this sort of subject.

The team scanned dozens of Rembrandt's portraits to learn what makes a painting a Rembrandt. They studied the shape and position of the eyes, the distance ratios between facial features and other minuscule details. Then they used computers to analyze the data.

They also scanned the brushstroke patterns. Viewed from afar, a painting might seem flat. But when you get close, you'll see ridges in the paint that the artist's brush created. The team took that data and fed it into the computer system as well so the finished product would have all the quirks of an actual oil painting.

Once the computer put together a virtual Rembrandt portrait, it was time to paint. In this case, painting involved a 3-D printer with special paint-based ultraviolet ink. The printer constructed the painting layer by layer, incorporating the tiny ridges and valleys that a brush would make. The final result was a painting that absolutely could have been painted by Rembrandt.

This is an impressive achievement, but it also points out the current limitations of computers. The computer couldn't come up with a subject and paint it in the style of Rembrandt on its own. A team had to curate a collection of portraits and direct the computer to construct a new painting. This approach would never yield anything truly new or innovative — it would just copy an existing style.

Perhaps one day we'll have computers that will be capable of artistic expression beyond parroting humans. For that to happen, computers will need some form of consciousness, which is a pretty tall order. Until then, we can enjoy a painting that a Dutch master could have, but didn't, create.

Check out the video above to see the digital Rembrandt and learn more about its creation.