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True colors

RIT imaging scientist Roy Berns reveals artworks as they were meant to be seen

This image shows the current condition of Vincent Van Gogh's 1890 oil painting, Daubigny's Garden. Color measurements performed on the faded painting led to this digitized version of Daubigny's Garden, in which the ground and white flowers were recolored to simulate the original appearance.

Color scientist Roy Berns knows a thing or two about Vincent Van Gogh's palette. He knows time has toyed with Van Gogh's materials and that the colors we see today are not always as the artist painted them.

Pigments have lost their intensity, as in the faded ground in his 1890 painting, Daubigny's Garden. Other colors have all but disappeared.

Berns is giving the art world high-tech solutions to such conservation challenges. Berns doesn't restore the works themselves: He has developed technology that can create color-accurate reproductions for printing, publishing and for viewing on the Internet. Conservators can use the technology to detect forgeries and to optimize gallery lighting. It also can help determine if a painting's surface has been altered over time and show the affect of the cleaning.

Roy Berns

Berns, the Richard S. Hunter professor at RIT's Munsell Color Science Laboratory in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, is teaming up with colleagues in the art world to create the next generation of imaging technology that will change how museums reproduce and archive artwork. Berns' system will be the first to document and reproduce artwork that matches the original under any light source. He envisions a practical system that will use off-the-shelf hardware combined with proprietary software, some patent pending.

The spectral-art-imaging project, now in its second year, was launched with grants of $315,000 each from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Berns recently won an additional four-year grant of $874,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, boosting project funding to $2.3 million, including $586,000 from RIT.

Berns' technique uses spectrophotometry, a process that measures wavelength and energy or intensity of light reflected from the surface of a painting. Data gathered by a spectral camera yields information about the physics and chemistry of a work of art. Identifying the optical properties of materials, or an artwork's unique spectral fingerprint, will bypass some of the obstacles inherent in archiving art with digital technology.

While the most successful imaging systems currently used by museums mimic the human visual system, Bern's research will record the optical properties of the paint. This is significant because color values change under different light sources due to the way the eye processes light.

“When we see color, we see integration,” Berns explains. “Wavelength information gets combined into three signals — red, green and blue. With digital photography you get color information, not information about spectral data, because the camera is working in the same ways as the human eye.”

By using spectral data, it is possible to calculate an object's color precisely.

“This technique will make it possible to measure the color of a work of art rather than simply estimate it, as is done with film and even the most sophisticated digital cameras in use today,” says Jim Coddington, chief conservator at The Museum of Modern Art. “This increased color accuracy will open up significant new avenues of research for museum curators, conservators and art scholars.”

Berns believes there may be commercial applications as well.

“I am very excited about this work,” says Berns. “I first envisioned such a project in 1988 and made a pitch to several imaging companies. Although each was intrigued, the leap to commercial application was just too great. Today it is clear that visible spectrum imaging provides many advantages over conventional digital photography, particularly for artwork. We plan to demonstrate the value-added of this approach. Who knows? This time around there may be a strong interest in commercialization.”

For more information about Berns' research, visit www.cis.rit.edu/people/faculty/berns/research.html.


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