The power of the image: Non-photorealism

The power of the image: Non-photorealism

Since investigating the various notions and attitudes surrounding the digital representation of cultural heritage artefacts, I’ve discovered that the reason or cause for digitisation appears to be the key factor when considering the most suitable method to use.

If one was considering digital cultural heritage from a uniquely preservationist point of view then only the most photorealistic surrogate of the artefact could be deemed suitable for preservation through record. Recordings of artefacts exist to document detail while also granting greater access in support of scholarly knowledge and interpretation. As such, the highest level of detail possible is implicit in the notion of digital recording.

However, there are other reasons to digitise. Should the aim be to, say, disseminate, to theorise or to educate, then a high degree of detail may become less important or, indeed, undesirable. For example, in relation to hypothesis Maria Roussou and George Drettakis (8) point out that: “Using […] a nonphotorealistic technique has the advantage that the viewer is immediately confronted with an abstraction, thus subconsciously underlining the hypothetical aspect of the reconstruction.”

The digital representation may be displayed in crosshatch, black and white or some other overtly abstract form which immediately implies some process of human interpretation to the viewer. This idea of evident human mediation seems to be hallmark of the processes of NPR representations. Kang and Kwon describe three levels of NPR processing, ‘feature’, ‘semantic’ and ‘imaginative.’

In this scheme the basic details of the artefact, dimensionality, perhaps material composition and so forth, are illustrated at the ‘feature’ level. The semantic level of NPR will expose further details such as context or the object’s relationship with its surroundings. Finally the imaginative level will allow for further artistic impression. Perhaps shading may be exaggerated to better depict salient detail or movement may be implied with strokes or flourishes.

Each of these levels calls for decisions and artistic interpretations to be made by acknowledging both the true nature of the object and the purpose of the digitisation. That idea of decision or selection echoes the curatorial obligations that cultural heritage projects often entail. Beyond preservation there may be a duty also to educate or disseminate. Either of these functions could call for illustrative or illuminating representations as distinct from highly realistic ones.

It is this intersection between authenticity and functionality where, I feel, the key factors and concerns for these decisions exist. An expertise not only in the field with which the artefact is concerned, but also in the methods and principles surrounding digital heritage, will help guide these decisions and accomplish the best results.



Kang, Hang-Bong, and Kwon, Yong-Moo. “The needs and possibilities of non-photorealistic rendering for virtual heritage’.” Eighth International Conference on Virtual Systems and Multimedia (VSMM2002). 2002.

Roussou, Maria, and George Drettakis. “Photorealism and non-photorealism in virtual heritage representation.” First Eurographics Workshop on Graphics and Cultural Heritage (2003). Eurographics, 2003.

One thought on “The power of the image: Non-photorealism

  1. You raise some interesting points here about the actual functionality or philosophy behind the requirement of NPR. The idea of a digital requirement is interesting, having a direct dependence on what we are digitising, its cause and/or reason, as you have put it. It leads me to wonder about the state of creativity within Digital Heritage as a whole; is there room for artistic licence within the field, should we be confined to accuracy when concerned with preservation, etc. In researching this topic, I came across the term ‘artificial creativity’ which I thought was a very interesting concept. Is there any real artistic merit to something that is purely generated by a computer? Obvious examples could be post-processing on smart-phone applications and the like. Digital art almost seems bloated in its immediacy and presence in modern culture. It is interesting to think of the possibilities that could be achieved creatively in the field of Digital Heritage if we were to approach the ideas of preservation and creativity in tandem. It seems the more one explores the differences in functionality between Photorealism and NPR in Digital Heritage, the more they appear similar in their function.

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