Paintings have texture, especially those as old as Johannes Vermeer’s iconic “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” which dates all the way back to 1665. Up close, viewers can appreciate the peaks and valleys created by the paint itself, as well as the cracks and blemishes that have accumulated over the centuries. That kind of detail doesn’t come through in a flat image—even at extremely high resolutions.
But in March of 2018, the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague, Netherlands, teamed up with Hirox 3D Digital Microscopes to create a 10 billion pixel panorama and a super-detailed 3D model of the painting that could convey its texture as well as its tones. Now those files are available to the public.
The process involved the RH-2000 3D Digital Microscope with a 1,920 x 1,200 pixel sensor similar to the one you’ll find inside a modern digital camera. While the sensor is relatively low-res on its own, it’s part of an automated system designed to take a huge number of images that software can automatically mash together later.
The microscope has built-in LED illumination that approximates the color of natural sunlight, which our brains perceive as pure white. While the color of the light is crucial for a project like this, other variables like direction and intensity are similarly important. Everything needs to stay consistent while the rig captures thousands of frames over several hours of work.
For the “Girl With a Pearl Earring” project, the main panorama required more than 9,000 3D image files to create. When focusing this close to an object, the scope’s lens only allows for a very narrow area to appear in focus. To accommodate the texture, a motorized mount automatically moves the scope up and down, taking pictures at various levels, then combining the in-focus areas using software to create an in-focus 3D image. This is a version of a technique called focus stacking, which is fairly common in close-up macro photography.
Once the scans are finished, Hirox’s software can spit out a huge variety of data, including typical 3D models, topographical maps, and super-precise horizontal measurements.
You can click around the giant panorama in which each pixel represents roughly 4.4 microns of real estate on the painting itself. That allows you to see tiny details beyond what your naked eye can resolve.
There are 10 areas around the painting that warranted particularly close inspection, however, and scans from those regions are even more intense. An area around a pair of dots on the subject’s shirt, for example, allows viewers to dive so far into the panorama that each pixel represents just over 1 micron of real world space. Viewing that close makes the whole experience rather abstract for an untrained observer, but it gives art experts valuable insight when trying to figure out the techniques and materials that the artist originally employed. It also allows restorers to learn about and evaluate previous restoration efforts, which may have changed the characteristics of the work.
If you want to check out the painting up close yourself, you can click around the massive panorama, or opt for the 3D viewer to get more options when it comes to rotating the work and observing it from different angles.