Color Science Rejuvenates Seurat’s Masterpiece, La Grande Jatte




Follow Susan Gawlowicz on Twitter
Follow RITNEWS on Twitter

The combined magic of color science and digital photography can bring aging artwork back to life through simulations that leave the original work untouched.

Rochester Institute of Technology professor Roy Berns has used color science techniques to “turn back the clock” on paintings by Vincent Van Gogh as well as the Star Spangled Banner. His reputation as a color scientist in the art world led to an invitation to digitally simulate Georges Seurat’s masterpiece, La Grande Jatte, for a new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte, on view through Sept. 19, brings to light new information about the 19th century French artist and his famous work painted in the Pointillist style using dots and dashes of color. The exhibition includes Berns’ digital simulation of the nearly 7-by-10-foot painting depicting the people of Paris enjoying a sunny afternoon. The recreation corrects a wayward yellow pigment and refreshes the entire surface, simulating what it might have looked like when first shown to the French public in 1886.

“The AIC contacted me and asked if I thought it was possible to correct the painting digitally to show what the dots would have looked like before they turned brown,” says Berns, the Hunter Professor in RIT’s Munsell Color Science Laboratory (MCSL) in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science. “I was really honored that the they asked me, and I was confident I could develop a practical approach by enlisting the expertise of my MCSL family.”

To correct the color digitally, Berns blended color science and color imaging techniques, a hallmark of MCSL, and a method used in paint stores for making custom colors. He took optical and visual measurements without removing samples from the painting, including measuring the spectral reflectance of the darkened dots using a spectrophotometer, a hand-held device that determines the amount of light reflected and absorbed by different pigments.

To figure out the “color mathematics,” Berns compared this information to measurements taken from fresh samples of pigment Seurat would have used. The resulting data enabled Berns to computationally replace the degraded yellow pigment that had been mixed in with other colors.

“The project evolved as I was trying to correct the painting digitally to show what the dots would have looked like,” Berns says. “The science evolved as well as the technique for making the digital rejuvenation.”

The final technique Berns developed gave the museum staff the capability to replace the pigment digitally, dot by dot, and complete the extensive image processing at the museum.

“The technology enables the museum to make a representation of how the painting might have looked in the late 1880s before the yellow pigment started to darken and before the painting underwent normal aging,” Berns says. “It will give some sense about why people had such strong opinions about it when the painting was first exhibited.”

To speak to Roy Berns about his work on the Seurat simulation, please contact Susan Gawlowicz at 585-475-5061 or smguns@rit.edu.