A master's student helps blind people “see” paintings

  • Forum
  • 05/17/2018

  • Mathieu-Robert Sauvé
Credit: Thinkstock

In 5 seconds

Patricia Bérubé makles new versions of paintings in 3D so that blind people can appreciate them.

Helping blind people perceive line and colour in paintings is the incredible challenge Patricia Bérubé has set for master's thesis in art history. And already, she’s partly succeeded. In a video she made about her project, some of the nine blind people she is studying said it worked for them.

“Realizing I could appreciate the beauty of an artwork once again was deeply emotional for me,” said Jean-Daniel Aubin, who lost his vision in 2012 due to an illness but was able to "see" an Alfred Pellan oil painting (Bannière de l’exposition 'Prisme d’yeux') that Bérubé reproduced in 3D form.

“You forget you're blind and can’t see anymore,” Aubin said in the French-language video, which Bérubé made for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada's 2018 “Storytellers” contest. Her entry was chosen as one of the finalists.

Great museums around the world are increasingly trying to open up their collections to non-traditional audiences. Painting is particularly challenging “because of its two-dimensional nature and the prominent role played by colour,” Bérubé explained at the Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS) conference at Université du Québec in Chicoutimi on May 7.

Normally, unlike sculptures and other tactile artwork, paintings can't be touched. Bérubé replicates geometric patterns (triangles, rectangles, circles and diamonds) are on a flat surface that people can explore with their fingertips. Each colour is represented by a specific texture and identified using a tactile legend.

3D printing rejected

Bérubé considered using the new technology of 3D printing to make her art reproductions, but after some testing she decided against it. “The results were unsatisfactory because the superimposed layers were perceptible to the touch," she said.

"So instead we used the technology to create molds for casting hard silicone forms. After that I improved the prototypes based on feedback from participants in my discussion group. The final version consisted of two separate prototypes: the first represented the painting's lines, while the second represented its colours.”

Even though colours can described in the Braille alphabet, Bérubé decided that texture would be a more universal language that could cross cultural barriers. In discussion groups she organized, participants helped choose textures to represent colours – smooth for white, for instance, and raised for red.

Can any painting be translated into a tactile surface? “The way things stand now, probably not,” said Bérubé, who is nevertheless thrilled to see museums launching initiatives in this area. Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, for example, has been reproduced in 3D form. But no solution for representing its colours has been proposed.

An emotional charge

Bérubé's research has also revealed something unexpected: the emotions that people associate with colours.

“The study’s preliminary findings identified an interesting question that should be explored further, which is whether participants associate each colour with the emotional charge traditionally given to it in North American culture,” she said.

Long interested in colour in the arts – she previously wanted to study Eugène Delacroix’s use of colour but felt the subject had little social value – Bérubé has found a research project where art history and museum studies meet.

On the same subject

ACFAS art history research