A digital renaissance

January 28, 2000

The intricate and sometimes destructive nature of art restoration is being tackled in a project on digital retouching techniques, writes Tim Greenhalgh.

Nick Frayling, a PhD student working on the Royal College of Art/Victoria and Albert Museum conservation course, is developing methods that simulate the original appearance of selected Nicholas Hilliard 16th-century portrait miniatures, and the evolution of a painting from the preparation of the ground to the finished work.

The computer "retouching" frees the restorer from the potential hazards of working with the real objects.

The project amplified findings from Mr Frayling's extensive historical and technical research, which suggests that the interpretation of painting techniques and the process of retouching, digital or real, are unavoidably subjective in character.

The portraits are photographed so Mr Frayling can adjust the lighting, in effect bringing them to life. In some cases, Mr Frayling used a series of photographs to make animated sequences showing how different lighting affects the portraits.

Mr Frayling used an Apple Macintosh to manipulate the images digitally and then create a multimedia presentation.

He hopes that this technique will allow a much wider audience to understand some of the techniques that he employed and to appreciate "the exquisite detail and original state of Hilliard's portraiture".

"There is no substitute for viewing the original, but with the natural wear and tear of something of this fragility it is obvious that some of the finer details that would have existed have now been lost to the human eye," he said.

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