Color Science Cuts through Time— - Art Conservation to Benefit from New Imaging Technology

RIT collaborates with the NationalGallery of Art and The Museum of Modern Art

Has time flattened Van Gogh’s palette? Were his blue backgrounds once purple and his white roses, red?

An imaging system that can showcase the original condition of a painting—reversing centuries of grime and deterioration—while reproducing its true palette is an art conservator’s dream.

Rochester Institute of Technology, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and The Museum of Modern Art in New York are partnering to create the next generation of conservation-science technology that will change how museums around the world reproduce and archive artwork.

A research team led by RIT color scientist Roy Berns is creating a unique imaging system that will record and reproduce art work not as the human eye sees it—subject to different lighting—but based on a painting’s true optical properties, its own unique spectral fingerprint. Berns’ research will introduce new techniques, better accuracy and give museums a cost-effective and practical way to create their own spectral archives. His team includes RIT color scientists Francisco Imai, Mitchell Rosen, Lawrence Taplin, and graduate students Ellen Day and Collin Day.

The three-year project is supported by funding from the National Gallery of Art and The Museum of Modern Art with a $110,000 grant in the first year. Berns, the Richard S. Hunter Professor of Color Science, Appearance and Technology in RIT’s Munsell Color Science Laboratory in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, is designing the new imaging system to improve upon European advances in conservation science.

In the last decade, museums in London, Munich and Florence took the lead in digital imaging of artwork, developing costly, custom-built systems. Berns envisions an affordable, practical imaging system that will include capture, archival storage, web capabilities and large-format multi-ink printing, all taking advantage of spectral information. His imaging system will combine off-the-shelf hardware with highly sophisticated software, patent pending. The system will be the first of its kind to document and reproduce artwork that matches the original under any light source.

While the most successful imaging systems currently used by museums mimic the human visual system, Berns’ 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 says. "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 the same way as the human eye." What does this mean for museums? By focusing on the spectral data, Berns’ system will more accurately reveal a painting’s optical properties, giving conservators information about the physics and chemistry of a work of art.

More specifically, spectral information can tell conservators and art historians if a painting’s surface has been altered over time, what materials might have been used, and provide valuable information during restoration. In addition, spectral data can show what the painting would look like if cleaned, almost always a costly, controversial venture. Berns anticipates that his imaging system will safely simulate the original condition of a painting, giving conservators important information before a final decision is made to clean the artwork.

The majority of Berns’ research will occur at RIT with periodic visits to each museum to test the new imaging system. In the final phase of the project, the RIT team will create a spectral-based digital imaging facility at the National Gallery of Art and The Museum of Modern Art.

To talk to Roy Berns about his research, contact Susan Murphy at 585-475-5061 or


The Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, part of the College of Science at RIT, offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees and the nation’s only Ph.D. in imaging science. The research and teaching laboratories at the center, established in 1985, are dedicated to electronic imaging, digital image processing, remote sensing, medical imaging, color science, optics and chemical imaging.

Internationally recognized as a leader in computing, imaging, technology, fine and applied arts, and education of the deaf, RIT enrolls 15,000 students in more than 240 undergraduate and graduate programs. Its cooperative education program is one of the oldest and largest in the nation.

For the past decade, U.S. News and World Report has ranked RIT as one of the nation’s leading comprehensive universities. RIT is also included in Yahoo! Internet Life’s Top 100 Wired Universities, Fisk’s Guide to America’s Best Colleges, as well as Barron’s Best Buys in Education.


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