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Rembrandt Brought Back to Life with New 3-D Painting

Four-and-a-half centuries after Rembrandt’s death, a new painting by the Golden Age artist has been unveiled. But this stunning portrait was not created by the Master of Light and Shadow himself — it was generated by a computer and output on a 3-D printer.

This nexus of art-meets-science is the result of an unlikely team of art historians, developers, and data engineers who spent 18 months laboriously logging all 346 known works by the artist, pixel by pixel.

“The Next Rembrandt,” unveiled earlier this week, is an unmistakably Rembrandt-esque portrait of a 17th-century man in a wide-brimmed hat with a gaze that draws in the viewer — and seems to be asking “Impressed?”

“We’re using data to improve business life — but we haven’t been using it that much in a way to touch the human soul,” said Ron Augustus, director of small and midmarket solutions at Microsoft, one of the partners in the project. “You could say we use technology and data like Rembrandt used his paints and his brushes to create something new.”

Using Microsoft’s Azure platform, the team accumulated 150 gigabytes of data, logging algorithms based on 60 specific points in a painting — such as distance between the eyes — to estimate facial proportions for the new artwork. The data even dictated the composition, colors, and subject matter of the painting.

To replicate Rembrandt’s signature shadow depth and brushstroke technique, the team gathered data on “surface texture, elemental composition, and pigments” to generate a height map. Then, using a special paint-based UV ink, the team printed out 13 layers to generate the final work of art.

See More: How a Hand-Painted Film Is Bringing Vincent van Gogh's Art to Life

"I am surprisingly impressed with the final product," said Dennis Weller, Curator of Northern European Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art. "The portrait certainly comes close to capturing elements of Rembrandt’s diverse painting style."

Much could be made of the capacity for forgery with this technology, but Weller threw cold water on that, pointing out that the technique, "while extraordinary," does not "fully capture the expressive personality that stands at the core of Rembrandt’s genius."

The program's creators are hoping to use their innovative technique for a greater good in the art world, such as restoration. Indeed, Weller welcomed the idea that the technique might "turn back the clock" on damaged or lost paintings.

“It makes you think about where innovation can take us. What’s next?” asked Tjitske Benedictus, head of sponsoring at project partner, ING.