Finger/Painting: Innovative 3D-Printing Process Allows The Blind To Truly Feel Visual Art

Can you imagine what life would be like were you to lose one of your senses?  What if it was the sense that's so important, it's allowing you to read this right now?  For the blind, all visual artwork used to be abstract.  Until now...

The original and tactile 3D-printed versions of Van Gogh's "Dr Gachet."
Now you can both touch and be touched by art.
(Image courtesy

According to Reuters, a company called 3D Photoworks has interpreted various pieces of famous visual artwork into the equivalent of flat sculptures, allowing blind art fans to run their fingers over the imagery and "see" the paintings in much the same way that Braille can be "read."

This is also good for sighted people who need to alleviate their
terrible compulsions to touch all the art in museums.
(Image courtesy

John Olson, a former LIFE magazine photographer and co-founder of 3D Photoworks, explained their innovative process:  

"It's a three step process, in which we in step one take any conventional two dimensional image and convert it to 3D data. Once that data has been converted, we send it to a machine that sculpts the data out of a block of substrate. It gives that image length, width, depth and texture. And once that's been sculpted it goes through a printing process where we lay the image back down on top of the relief in perfect registration. So what you end up with is a three dimensional print that has length, width, depth and texture."

Olson poses with two 3D-printed tactile masterpieces.
He's like a 3D-Vinci.
(Image courtesy

To add yet another dimension to the artwork, "audio theatre" sensors are embedded that react to the viewer's touch, initiating explanations and further descriptions of the work to further augment appreciation.  With the scale of the reliefs reaching down nearly 2 inches, there is abundant room for detailing - "down to the brushstroke", as the 3D Photoworks website claims.

But is it the same sensation as sight if it's obtained from skin?  Neuroscientist Paul Bach y Rita gave a hearty affirmation on the company's site, explaining, “The brain is able to use information coming from the skin as if it were coming from the eyes...We don’t see with the eyes or hear with the ears, these are just the receptors, seeing and hearing in fact goes on in the brain.”

Sighted friend (looking hard at painting):  I don't see it.
Blind friend (running hands over tactile 3D image in painting):  It's a sailboat.
Sighted friend:  WHAT IS THIS SORCERY?!
(Image courtesy

With one person in the U.S. going blind every 11 minutes, and 285 million sight-impaired citizens worldwide, the number of lives that will be affected by this innovation is tremendous.  The company's stated goal is to provide their services to all of North America's 35,000 museums, and eventually to take their technology worldwide.  Keep your eyes open (or at least your hands out) for more on this beautiful business...its mission is a masterpiece in itself.

And if you were ever important enough to get your portrait painted by a famous artist, congratulations!
You've just been upgraded to a sculpture, too!
(Image courtesy


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