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SPIE Professional April 2008

Optic Art

Optics and photonics engineers can learn a great deal about illumination via art—and vice versa.

By Beth Kelley

People often see optics, photonics, and art as completely separate fields. Yet, many scientists, artists, researchers, and engineers are combining them to create new masterpieces, study the old ones, and spread the knowledge gained from their work.

Educator Pearl John uses holograms and lasers to teach art.

Pearl John is a holographer who has worked and taught in the U.S. and the U.K. In the U.S., John taught holographic art to high school students in Columbia, MO, providing them with training as laser technicians and encouraging them to consider careers in photonics and optics.

“The Photonics Program at the Columbia Career Center gave students three years worth of experience working with lasers and optics starting at the age of 15,” John says.

John is now working in the U.K. with a traveling educational laser show with similar goals. “Students of all ages find holograms fascinating and magical,” and making a hologram is a positive and memorable experience, John says. “As we have a national shortage of people with science degrees and quite a negative stereotype of those who do go into science subjects, it is important for us to give young people good experiences in their science lessons,” she adds.

Sarah Hall is also an artist working with optics, but in a very different way. Hall creates glass installation pieces, and recently began integrating solar cells into her work. Hall says while working in Germany, she saw photovoltaic facades on buildings that provided energy—and were decorative. She thought her art glass was a perfect medium for the same function.

Sarah Hall's Lux Nova tower integrates art with photovoltaic energy.

Her most famous piece is the Lux Nova wind tower at Regent College, University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada). “My project required areas of transparent glass and used a patented process with a specially formulated resin,” Hall says. “The solar cells are embedded between two panes of glass, which have exceptionally high light transmittance and which have been heat-strengthened.”

By combining art and energy, Hall hopes to engage the public’s imagination about renewable energy and help photovoltaic energy integrate into contemporary architecture. (For more about Sarah Hall and her sculpture, see the related SPIE Newsroom article.)

“The integration of art and energy has great potential in both educational and artistic projects,” she says.

In addition to using art to teach people about optics and photonics, optics and photonics are being used to study and preserve art.

David Stork is chief scientist with Ricoh Innovations (Menlo Park, CA). Along with many other jobs, Stork uses computer image analysis and pattern recognition to study famous works of art (from Jackson Pollock to Piet Mondrian to Georges Seurat) and gain more understanding about an artist’s process and technique.

“The field of computer vision and pattern recognition has developed a large number of powerful algorithms for understanding images,” says Stork.

Stork, two other computer scientists, and a Mondrian expert are currently training a computer to recognize a “true” Mondrian from a forgery. Another project involves reconstructing three-dimensional tableaus in paintings based on the image and the image in mirrors depicted within the painting itself.

Stork says it is important for computer vision researchers to learn about the images they’re studying, perhaps through art history classes. “Mere application of computer vision algorithms, untethered to knowledge of art history, is unlikely to shed light on anything,” he says. “My courses in art history were some of the most illuminating of my career, and they literally changed how I see art and the world.”

Daniel Keren, a professor at Haifa University in Israel, created a computer vision program to identify famous artists and determine whether a painting is a fake or the real deal. “I trained it on Dali, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Magritte, and Kandinsky. For five painters, it is correct in 86% of the cases,” says Keren, noting that it can identify van Gogh the most consistently.

Krzystof Zaremba, chair of the Optical Radiation Department at Bialystok Technical University (Bialystock, Poland), was faced with a different art problem: how to display miniature paintings at the Warsaw Museum without damaging them. Working with art conservators at the museum, Zaremba was able to construct fiber optic lighting that protected the minute paintings and still allowed audiences to view them at comfortable light levels. (See related SPIE Newsroom article).

“Museum lighting systems must constitute a compromise between the optical perception requirements and limitations imposed by exhibits’ conservation demands,” Zaremba says. “Exhibit conservation requirements, concerning the illuminance levels for particularly sensitive museum objects – including miniature paintings– impose strict limitations for illuminance value to 50/150 lx.”

Art Education Mixes Well With Technology

Krzystof Zaremba’s advice for technology or art students interested in studying illumination or the arts is “to acquire a varied range of knowledge. Both groups of designers should contact each other and “exchange the know-how,” he says.

Beth Kelley
Beth Kelley is an SPIE editor 

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200804.17

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