Colouring in the Gaps: Exploring Transnational Aesthetics through Digital Collections

Helen Gorrill, Judith Mottram

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


This paper reflects on an approach to the visual analysis of digital collections for the arts researcher. The subject area is cautious about quantitative analysis, but systematic statistical methods can open up new possibilities for those engaged with visual arts research. We asked whether it is possible to manage the subjectivity of colour reception and analyse colour in artwork through the digital means. The objective of the research was to determine whether it was possible to distinguish palette differences across a range of cultural variables, such as gender, nationality, artist’s age, collecting institution, or donor, or pictorial attributes.

A sample of 500 contemporary paintings from museum digital collections was constructed and a measurement derived of each image palette’s dominant colour constituents. The digital dataset is drawn from national collections in the UK, Finland, France, USA and Qatar. The images were selected through a random sampling process. The method incorporates the use of a medical mobile app for identifying colour for the colour blind. The app is evaluated as a technique for assisting in colour identification.

We reflect on the potential of such datasets and analytical methods to provide new perspectives on cultural heritage, and scope for application beyond the immediate scholarly field. Previous work using such data has challenged more subjective and inferential perspectives on collection policies or gendered career development. The potential to explore preference or transnational aesthetics in respect to physical object characteristics could be useful at both the meta-level of national collections as well as for individual subjects, notwithstanding the ethical dimensions of both. The opportunity, however, is to use available data to explore patterns hitherto only suggested by informed connoisseurs. We reflect that this enables fresh insights to be drawn on social and economic factors relating to cultural identity and heritage.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResearching Digital Cultural Heritage
Place of PublicationGBR
PublisherUniversity of Manchester
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2017


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