A Spanish printing studio has developed a new printing technology that helps blind people appreciate paintings through touch, and the artworks are currently on display at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Estudios Durero, a company located near Bilbao, Spain, calls its new technology Didú, which is like 3D printing but is more than regular 3D printing. It uses a different chemical process to recreate European masterpieces that allow visually impaired individuals to enjoy them through the rich array of textures and colors. Estudios Durero's head designer Cristina Velasco says not all visually impaired people can see nothing at all.

"For this reason, we knew we had to replicate the original colors as closely as possible," Velasco told Not Impossible Now, a website that covers inventions that help improve the world. "This ruled normal 3D printing out, as even the most advanced 3D printer still cannot come anywhere near reproducing the colors and shades of a masterpiece."

Six 3D-printed works of art are currently on display at the Museo del Prado's North Gallery in an exhibit named Touching the Prado, which runs until June 28. These include the Didú version of a contemporaneous copy of Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" done by one of his students, which sits just inside the next room. Also part of the exhibit are Corregio's "Noli Me Tangere," Diego de Velázquez's "Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan," Francisco de Goya's "The Parasol," El Greco's "The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest," and Juan van der Hamen's "Still life with Artichokes, Flowers and Glass Vessels."

The paintings also come with audio guides and braille text to further guide visually impaired viewers. Visitors with clear vision can also use the provided opaque glasses to better understand the experience of "viewing" paintings with the fingers. The exhibit's curator, Fernando Pérez Suescun, says watching visitors appreciate the masterpieces with their hands is "in itself an experience."

"The first question that I got from one of our blind visitors about El Greco's nobleman was what color were his eyes -- and I had to check," Suescun said. "There are really plenty of details to which I had never paid any attention."

The paintings were selected for their significance as well as the ease of reproducing them with Didú, which is still limited when it comes to the range of detailed textures it can provide.

Velasco said size also played a part in choosing which works of art to print. The ideal painting would be around 120 centimeters wide since that is how far a person can stretch his arms to feel the entire painting.

"Could you imagine trying to feel your way around [Picasso's] Guernica?" Velasco said.

To produce the 3D paintings, Estudios Durero starts with a high-resolution image of the painting, which is used by employees to identify which parts of the painting to enhance with texture. They would then print the image using special ink and apply a chemical process that would add texture and volume to the painting, much like adding baking powder to add volume to a cake, Suescun explained.

So far, reception to the 3D paintings is positive. José Pedro González, 56, who has been blind since he was 14 years old, is an avid museum goer, but he needs the help of his wife to describe to him what the painting looks like. At the Touch the Prado exhibit, he says he can discover what the works are all about without having to rely on his wife's descriptions.

"It's an unbelievable sensation," said González. "I'm feeling this painting down to the detail of each fingernail."

Another visitor, Rocio Fernandez, said he would never be able to see colors in the way a person with vision can, but he appreciates the museum's efforts to make important works of art accessible to blind persons.

"Yes, I can feel the texture of the skin, the short beards, and even the look of surprise on the men's mouths," Fernandez said.

Velasco said Estudios Durero is working to improve Didú to include better representations of things such as hair and skin as well as materials such as fabrics, glass, and metal.

Touching the Prado. Didú from Estudios Durero on Vimeo.

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