Most of us these days use Google as our main source when researching new projects. It's an invaluable resource for sure, but consider the issue of fidelity: How can we be sure that we are seeing color the way it is in the original?
Anthony Van Dyck's portrait of Cornelius Van Der Geest is a classic. Like many artists, I've attempted to copy it myself. I immediately noticed a huge variation in color chroma and value between the many images available online. It's a bit of a head-scratcher.
|My 'copy' of Cornelius Van Der Geest, by Anthony Van Dyck|
Visual Hint took this concept much further, researching the many variations of classic paintings and re-arranging them into collages to demonstrate the huge variety of color and even shape available online. The uneven edges demonstrate the available crops of the original.
|Danae, by Gustav Klimt [Image: Visual Hint]|
Though photographic color reproduction of artwork has advanced tremendously in recent years, anyone out there who collects Art books will know that there was a Dark Age in print quality roughly from the 1920s through the 1970s. Unless I see that a book contains line drawings or lithographs, I hardly pay any attention to Art books of that period: What's the point of printing poor black & white or washed-out color photographs of art? We want color, and lots of it!
|Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer [Image: Visual Hint]|
Some issues worth considering when researching 'Historic colors':
• Early books had plates that were hand-colored, which of course could never be precise. Even if the colors themselves were not subject to fugitive changes and fading, the paper underneath turned brown and changed the overall effect.
• The advent of color lithographs in the 19th century advanced the process, but the color separations were done by eye and there was a fair degree of room for variations and differences between copies and editions.
• Readers in the 19th century were cautioned by publishers to work from paint chips rather than plates when selecting colors. There is no such disclaimer on Google!
• The actual paint chips contained in some books were subject to the same discoloration found in samples removed from historic structures. Verdigris sometimes turned a very dark brown, for example. I doubt if Mount Vernon would look have the same impact if we relied on paint chips alone.
• The problems were compounded when modern printers reproduced those reproductions on an inked drum.
• 19th century photographic film was less sensitive to reds and yellows. A print rendered from one of these negatives would yield much darker yellows than modern film, and reds would appear virtually black.
Not to mention that color 'correction' software is misleading: You're still looking at pixels and light, not paint, after all. Combine that with endlessly variable differences in Monitors and desktop printers, and the photo editor's preference for hitting the 'Auto Levels' and 'Auto Color' button in Photoshop, and we have a disaster in the making.
Truth, as we know, is relative, and the photographic record is as manufactured as memory. It seems that History is a matter of what we settle on as being the generally accepted view. The victor turns out to be the one who simply turns up at the top of Page One in a Google Image search.