Zooming in: how digitised paintings can take your breath away

By Rachel Hayward | 10 February 2009
A screenshot of the National Gallery website showing a painting zoomed in.

Children are able to zoom into Claude Monet’s 1877 painting The Gare St-Lazare.

There’s nothing like the visceral experience of seeing a work of art up close and being able to breathe in the history before you. But what if you can’t get your class to the museum or gallery – especially if the painting you want to show your class is the other side of the country?

Increasingly, museums and galleries are adding the ability to zoom into their digitised collections, which makes them even more exciting as a learning resource in the classroom.

For example, if your Key Stage 2 class is working on the Tudors and analysing the character of Henry VIII from the evidence of his portraits – you can use the National Portrait Gallery’s excellent zoomify and enlarge facilities for their paintings. Another useful resource is National Museums Liverpool’s Portrait Detectives. As part of this interactive, learners can explore a 1537 portrait of Henry VIII. Find out what a pomander is doing around his neck and why he is standing on a step. By zooming in, your class can find out not only fun facts about the King but also important details on how he wished to be portrayed.

You can not only discover more about the sitter of the painting but the also the techniques of the artist themselves and the age they lived in. The National Gallery’s incredible collection of Zoomable Pictures offers lots of scope for seeing how different artists worked. Click and drag on the zoomified image of the billowing smoke from the steam trains in the station of Claude Monet’s 1877 painting The Gare St-Lazare. You can see exactly how Monet’s swift and energetic brushstrokes exemplify the excitement of new industrial urbanscape he is depicting. The effect is stunning. There are also Teachers’ Notes for some of the zoomable pictures with background information on the paintings and cross-curricular suggestions for classroom use.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: