The idea was novel and ambitious — using digital cameras to photograph thousands of sketches, paintings, and other objects sitting in dark boxes at the Yale Art Gallery as part of an intricate project which would allow the Gallery to display its art collection online.

“We are the front-runners in this field,” said Paul Ha, associate director of the gallery. “People interested in [digital imaging at museums] look to us.”

Two years into the project, the museum has taken thousands of digital pictures of artwork, using state-of-the-art technology to create what will eventually become a public resource.

Viewing the gallery’s digital images online is still a year or two away, said John Ffrench, the project director. But when it does happen, it will be available to the general public as well as to Yale students.

“For someone who lives in Finland, [for example], it’s a good way to view the objects,” Ha said.

Many of the images are already available on a local network to gallery staff and to patrons who visit kiosks in the museum.

Nonetheless, the numbers associated with the digitalization project are impressive. Over three years, the plan is to catalogue 18,000 items from the museum’s American art collection, 500 works from the European collection, and 250 from the collection of Ancient art.

The images are all meant to be what Ffrench called “publication quality” — good enough to appear on a poster or book — using equipment far better than the cameras available in stores. The museum uses a digital scan back that fits on an existing film camera as well as a Phase One digital camera — listed on the company’s web site at $19,990.

The money for the project came, largely, from grants by the Henry Lewis foundation and the Legman foundation, with a gift from James Ottaway Jr. ’60.

The project staff, over the last two years, has tripled. Starting with just a project director and an assistant, the staff has grown from two to six.

“It takes a lot of people,” Ha said. “Like building a car, you need an assembly line.”

Ffrench estimated that they have catalogued 70 percent of the American art collection, and it will be about a year before they are finished.

The digital imaging project has also taken low-quality images of about 10,000 objects and 10,000 photos in the Ancient art collection. That project ended in December.

Janet Zullo, who directed the ancient art project, said that she had already received requests from around the world to view the images. But given the size of the gallery’s collection, it is unlikely that everything could be catalogued as extensively as the American art holdings.

“We’re primarily doing masterworks, storage box by storage box,” Ffrench said.

Ffrench said he thought that many museums would start to put together similar digital databases.

“All museums are starting to go digital over time,” he said.

But Ffrench and Ha both said that an online database would never reproduce seeing the actual artwork. Both said they viewed digital imaging as simply a tool and a resource for those who could not come to New Haven.

“I don’t think these digital files will ever replace standing in front of an object,” Ffrench said.