Student Research Projects

Quantifying Art

Student Thomas Simmons ‘16
Faculty Mentor(s)
Department Art History
Course Art History 232: Art History: Renaissance to 20th Century


The objective of this project was to find a way to quantifiably measure the color differences between two works of art. To achieve this, I designed a program to analyze digital images and measure their pixel data (the proportions of red, green, and blue light each pixel produces) and display it in terms of hue, saturation, and value. The program presents useful output, such as the average saturation and value of the image along with the relative proportions of colors in the image (presented in 10 degree increments of hue.) For demonstration, I used the program to analyze two works of art by Van Gogh, his “The Road Menders” (two versions of the same image, done in the same medium). This is an apt choice because of Van Gogh’s interest in color and his practice of painting the same image more than once. The images analyzed came from the websites of the collections of the Cleveland Museum and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C (using museum quality images helps with chromatic fidelity). From the first version of “The Road Menders” (from the Cleveland) to the second (the Phillips), I was able to detect a slight increase in average saturation (a change of approximately 4%), a moderate increase in average value (a change of approximately 20%), and a significant change in dominant hues (in the first image, dominant hues ranged from 20 to 50 degrees, while in the second image, the dominant hues ranged from 50 to 70 degrees, indicating a shift from a broader, redder base to a narrower, yellower base.) Results such as this could be useful for art historical interpretation, since analyzing color is a key part of investigating the visual form of any piece. Furthermore, such results allow insight into smaller details about color than may be readily apparent to the naked eye and could be useful for investigating the change in an artist’s style over time, revealing clues about the artist’s evolving style, preferences, or practice. This program is in no way restricted to just works by Van Gogh or only images in repetitions, however. It can be applied to any bitmap image of any subject, and as such can be used to compare literally any series of images to one another. Despite what the program is currently capable of, however, I believe there is still more that it could be designed to do. In the future, I would like to add better measurement systems of saturation and value (instead of being restricted to broad averages) and present the color information using the HSL system (hue, saturation, and lightness), as well.