Imagine yourself standing in front of Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait’s A Tight Fix–Bear Hunting (1856) in the Crystal Bridges Early American Art Gallery. You might stare at this grizzly scene and wonder what it would be like to be in that moment. What would the bark of the trees feel like, or the leather coat of the hunter, or the shiny black fur of the bear?
Turns out, you can. Museum Educators and interns in Crystal Bridges’ Access and Inclusive Programs department create touchable paintings based on artworks found in the museum’s galleries. In this post, learn more about touchable paintings, how they are made, and how to engage with them.
Touchable paintings are unique model creations made up of different materials and textures. These textures reflect the ones found in the original painting. Traditionally, these models are used to help guests who are blind or have low-vision experience art in a new and exciting way, but guests of all abilities are welcome to use them, and, in fact, many are curious.
“When we have touchable paintings out for events, we get just as much interest from guests with sight as we do from guests who are blind or have low vision,” said Kim Crowell, Crystal Bridges’ senior museum educator and accessibility coordinator who spearheaded the development and use of touchable paintings at the museum.
“Touchable paintings are beneficial because they allow us to use a greater variety of textures that are more like the objects that they are meant to represent, they are low-cost to produce, and they allow us to create full-color renderings from original paintings that might be helpful for our guests with low vision.”
With the help of fantastic interns at Crystal Bridges like Mallory Lind, the Access and Inclusive Programs team has created five touchable models for the following Crystal Bridges paintings:
When creating her touchable models, Kim chooses a painting and creates a plan outlining all the textures she wants to use. The images are then scaled to fit a 16×20-inch frame, the ideal size for handling and experiencing lots of detail. Depending on the creator’s time, it can take anywhere from six weeks to three months to create one touchable painting.
When asked how a painting is chosen to create a touchable model, Kim says “I try to choose pictures with shallow pictorial depth and fewer objects. Representational paintings also work really nicely for our objectives, as opposed to abstract paintings that are a bit more difficult to decipher and to describe.”
Kim learned about the idea of creating touchable paintings from artist Diane Voyantzie, who created these types of paintings for the Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville, FL. “While Diane didn’t teach me her process for creating touchable paintings, her work serves as the inspiration for the work that I do today and what I am able to teach others,” said Kim.
In the past couple of years, Kim has taught at conferences and museums around the world, teaching other museum staff how to create touchable models for their guests, just like we do at Crystal Bridges.
She has taught classes with the Arts with the Disabled Association (ADA) Hong Kong, and given lectures at the Kennedy Center’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disabilities conference and the 2019 SXSW EDU conference (seen below). Kim has also given an overview of the touchable painting process for a class at Eastern Michigan University and an intern at Duke University’s Nasher Art Museum.
Touchable paintings are mainly available during Multisensory Saturday, which is a free multisensory exploration at the museum featuring gallery activities that focus on access and inclusion and highlight all the senses. Guests can also arrange a private multisensory tour with Kim Crowell to check them out as well.