The Google Art Project


I had the opportunity to present a workshop today on the Google Art Project.  If you are not familiar with it, drop everything and pay attention.  This could change your life.

The Google Art Project is a gathering of art collections from around the world; 151 institutions, over 9,000 artists, and over 43,000 art works, and counting.  The art works are presented in high definition photography, and many in gigapixel resolution.  To see the Art Project for yourself, go to

The first thing that you will notice is that this is site looks VERY un-google-like.  A lot of thought has been put into the interface, and it is by no means minimalist, as most Google resources are.  Here is what the opening screen looks like, much reduced, of course.  The higher resolution the screen you use to view it, the happier you will be.

Google Art Project Intro Screen

A random piece of art work will appear each time you come to the site, with a gallery of lately added museums and featured sites.  The first thing you should do is login with your Google (GMail) account.  If for some reason you do not have a Google account, get one.  It will make an enormous difference in the amount of art you can see and whether you can store custom art galleries (which is one of the great pleasures of using the Art Project).  If you are the sort of person who does not want a Google account, get over it.  This is how interactions with technology are going to be for the foreseeable future.  You will need to have a least a nodding acceptance with all the giant tech companies in order to participate in the digital riches.

After logging in, Click the Artworks link in the upper left of the screen.

Artworks link

A collection of mostly gigapixel resolution (as in billions of pixels) pictures will fill the screen in medium thumbnail view.

Main Artworks Screen

Change the size of the thumnails by clicking the Refine > Layout selector, and choose small, medium or large thumbnails.

Layout selector

For filtering a collection by title or medium, choose the Filter > Title or Filter > Medium tabs.

Filter by medium

When you first go to the Artwork home screen, the Discover sidebar tool will light up, revealing two other search/filter tools:  by Artist and by Collection.

Discover tool

Clicking the Artist filter opens a panel with a search box (bar far the best way to locate an artist), an alpha list of filters; which will filter on all artists whose FIRST NAMES start with A, B, C, and so on; and a list of all 900+ artists, since the ALL filter is chosen by default.  If you are going to use the filter lists (next to useless in my opinion) remember that it is first names that count.  If you are looking for Manet, use the E filter, for Edouard, rather than the M filter.  Better yet, type [ manet ] in the search box and you will cut to the chase.  Why they introduced such a sill filtering method is beyond me, but as I say, this interface is very un-Google-like.

Clicking the Collection filter title will reveal the same search mechanism for collections.  Typing [ munch ] in the search box is much faster than clicking the M filter and finding the Munch Museum, Oslo, among all the Ms.

To see a major list of the Collections, Artists, and User galleries, in addition to Artworks, use the toolbar at the top left of the screen.

Catalog Categories Toolsbar

The User galleries on the toolbar refer to custom collections created by GAP users and made public.  As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no filtering that goes into this list, which might be made public by any individual.  I created a set of artworks, arranged chronologically, which illustrated couples and married couples in particular.  Within hours of my making it public it appeared in the User galleries, so be forewarned.  I’ll discuss how to create custom galleries below.

Returning to the Artworks home screen, or any screen of artworks from any collection, click on the thumbnail of the art work in order to view it alone on the screen in high definition.  Here is a reduced-size illustration of Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert.

St Francis Magnify View

Zoom/Unzoom the detailed view of the picture by rolling the mouse wheel, double clicking, clicking the +/- icons on the magnification inset (which in this case is outside the picture to begin with, but with pictures of much greater size will overlay the high definition picture.  I had trouble with the +/- magnification in the insets with both Firefox and Chrome (the only browsers worth using on the GAP), but was always alble to navigate with the mouse scroll wheel.  You can drag the focus of magnification around the picture by holding down the left mouse button and dragging, or moving the highlight in the magnification inset.

A Details button will reveal notes about the art work supplied by the museum.  In the case of Bellini’s St. Francis they are extensive, with 8 related videos, an audio and a map showing Venice, where Bellini was born and died.

Notes panel

To use Google street view to tour the host museum for any particular art work, click pegman.  If pegman does not appear in the art work viewing screen, there is no tour available.  The usual street view navigation tools and concepts from Google Maps and Google Earth apply.  If you are unfamiliar with them, there is a brief tutorial here.

Most people already know how to use street view, so it will come easily.  Not all street views are equal, and you will notice that in some museums lighting and clarity from the Google 360-degree street view cameras is a bit disappointing.  You will also notice that some art works in street view are blurred to protect copyright, downright silly in my opinion, since the quality of the pictures in street view is not at all worth reproducing.

As you look at pictures, you will want to create your own collections.  To do so, open the picture in Artwork view, or in detailed view.  If in artwork view, where there are a series of thumbnails on the screen, hover your mouse over the thumbnail and click the Add to Gallery tool.

Add to gallery from thumbnail

To add to a personal gallery from the detailed view of an object, click the add-to-gallery tool in the sidebar.  The specific gallery to which to add the object, or the opportunity to create a new gallery, will appear.  Select (or create) the appropriate gallery, add any textual detail you wish, and click Add.

Add to gallery sidebar tool

As noted above, personal galleries are private when they are created, and when changed to Public will be shared among all user galleries.  It is also worth noting that when a personal gallery is private, you cannot click its title to move from the gallery view back to the detailed art work view, but when public you can.  This is rather annoying, and I cannot imagine why it works this way.  Let’s put the best construction on it and call it an oversight.

Personal galleries allow for personal notes, including any text you wish to paste in, which will appear when the art work is viewed in detail view as an overlay; and a video link, if you wish to add one.  There are numerous art commentary videos at YouTube that can be associated within personal galleries, most notably from the Khan Academy’s remarkable Smarthistory project.

Finally, the sidebar toolbar also contains share on Google+ and a more general Share tools.  The Email share tool will send a link to the detailed art view to anyone you wish, or you can use the Google shortened link.

GAP Share Tool

The final, and most remarkable, tool I have not yet mentioned is one that allows side-by-side comparison of two painted, independently zoomable to maximum definition.  There is nothing like it elsewhere on the web for brush stroke or technical analysis.

Side by side comparison

To get a sense for how the Art Projects interface works in real time, take a look at this video.


To get a sense for how the project was put together, watch this one.

And to get an idea of the scope of the project, watch this.

The Google Art Project is a marvel to behold, done entirely pro bono and with notable skill and design flare.  It makes me feel guilty even offering a couple of criticisms, because I truly appreciate its free and open window into world art.  However, in the spirit of constructive criticism I suggest dropping the alpha letter filters; making the links from art work titles to art work detailed view work from personal galleries in private view; indexing artist names on last as well as first for in-app lists; and cleaning up the overall index.  I noted two art works done by Aleksandr Ivanov attributed to Tania Alexander, a really un-Google error.

Ivanov Misattribution

Those things being said, the Google Art Project is still a marvel, and a work in progress that can only get better.  Taken in concert with Smarthistory from the Khan Academy one can truly gain a deep understanding and personal experience with great art, along with the opportunity to share one’s insights with the wider community.  Thank you Google.