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Undergraduate Researchers

John Winder, Computer Science

A Digital Skeleton Key to Art: Symbolism of Light and Dark in European Oil Painting from 1500 to1900

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Preminda Jacob

Painters of the High Renaissance through Romanticism periods (1500-1900) used chiaroscuro (contrast of light and dark) not only as a stylistic, compositional tool but also to impart symbolic meaning to aspects of their work. I will devise an algorithm that will allow me to abstract the varying values of light and dark in a digital copy of a painting, providing an analysis based on both quantitative and qualitative methods. The purpose of such an analysis is to reveal facets of a painting, primarily focusing on composition and content, so as to illuminate the artist’s intentions, to compare different artists’ use of chiaroscuro when portraying the same subject, and perhaps confirm or refute conventional assumptions about a work. For each painting I will provide a contextual “vignette” to explain the artist use of chiaroscuro, its significance and symbolism to the work and compare this to other paintings of the same theme. Such a vignette would address thematic questions covered in numerous paintings. Example vignettes would include: Is Christ portrayed as the lightest figure in a scene? Do artists convey the sublime in dark or light landscapes? What we think to be the case might or might not be.

How did you find your mentor for this project?

I took an art history class with Dr. Jacob in the fall of 2009, and routinely spoke to her after class about my passion for the subject. Dr. Jacob encouraged me to develop a topic of research and offered me guidance as I formulated one.

How did you know this was the project you wanted to do?

My main goal, before I knew specifically what I wanted to do, was to pioneer a connection between math and art. I knew I wanted to do art historical research with a focus on painting. I also wanted to analyze critically the spatial and symbolic composition of paintings. The key inspiration came from a remark in a math textbook about the structure of a digital image. From that, I synthesized my research topic.

Is this your first independent research project?

Yes. I was one of the few freshman who were awarded a URA, and I hope that this current project might serve as a basis for future research.

How much time do you put into it?

Several hours per day during the summer, and it will continue to a lesser degree during the semester. It is a good policy to think of independent research as a full-time summer internship or employment.

How did you hear about the Undergraduate Research Award program?

I had seen information about the URA on the UMBC website, but I was unsure who could apply. My mentor, Dr. Jacob, actually gave a presentation about the URA to her class in the fall. When I spoke to her, she encouraged me to pursue it.

What academic background did you have before you started?

I have a keen passion for art and its history. During high school I educated myself extensively on the history of painting, and since coming to UMBC I have taken art history classes.

Was the application difficult to do?

The application was straightforward, but I devoted considerable time to it. My main difficulty was describing my topic, though it was clear in my mind, concisely and effectively without excising anything necessary to its explanation.

How much did your mentor help you with this?

My mentor provided me with books, inspiration, direction, and encouragement.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?

Do not be afraid of your professors (talk with them after class or visit their office!), do not be afraid of your own ideas, and do not limit yourself (my major is computer science but I am doing art historical work). This is a rare opportunity for undergraduates, take advantage of it!

What are your career goals?

I plan to go to graduate school for computer science. Research (on the technical side) for this project has revealed intriguing avenues of study in CS such as image processing, computational photography, and computer vision.

What has been the hardest part about your research?

The challenge of this project is uniting all of the disparate but necessary topics of research, such as digital images, mathematical manipulations of images, themes in European oil painting, and the significance of chiaroscuro and the shadow in art. Their synthesis is my success.

What was the most unexpected thing?

Seeing how, when using my algorithm, successive levels of abstraction remove detail from a painting but retain its overall form and composition.

How does your research relate to your work in other classes?

The project is really independent from any class, but a lot of the principles I applied to it came from math or computer science classes. I truly believe greater understanding comes by viewing matters with an unconventional eye.