The art of digitising: The Oil Paintings project

Taking a significant portion of time and space for both the Collection Care and Digitisation teams, the Oil Paintings project has now reached its conclusion. Since June, Digitisation's studio space has been almost solely dedicated to harbouring the works that now grace the walls in the Paintings from the Collection exhibition. Fresh from being inspected and cared for by Collection Care staff, at least a third of the paintings that will meet the public eye from October first paid a visit to our studio to be digitised in their current state. We created digital records of a combination of previously un-digitised paintings, and paintings that had undergone conservation treatment by Collection Care.
 

Between two large studio lights, a man leans over a painting on a desk, holding a light measurement device.

Imaging Officer Russell Perkins performs a lighting measurement prior to digitising DG 223 (Photo by Joy Lai)

Weeks of preparation went into the Oil Paintings Project. The Digitisation studio was reconfigured to accommodate the large amount of space the project would require. New workflows were established for both the photography and post-production of the materials. We also developed new procedures that allowed us to capture the canvases and deal with specular highlights without using polarised light.

Because of the vast differences in material, obtaining a perfect image of both the frame and the canvas in one shot was virtually unobtainable. The variety of material meant that each painting and frame possessed its own bespoke complications. For example, a gold frame required a different lighting technique to a wooden frame, glossy paintings required a different lighting technique to matte paintings, and even the varying thickness of paint on a canvas could bring its own set of technical issues.
 

Standing on a ladder between two studio lights, a woman adjusts the lighting and environment for a painting hung on the wall behind her.

Imaging Specialist Joy Lai prepares the studio space to digitise the lacquered wooden frame of ML 1305 - The grey card measuring exposure accuracy has been placed on the glazing that sits in front of the actual painting. (Photo by Joy Lai)

We were also required to digitise the canvas itself, unframed. Therefore, each painting made its way between Collection Care and Digitisation twice. With all the necessary elements digitised, the material would then go through a post-production procedure to merge them together. Within Adobe Photoshop, the image of the canvas was overlaid into the image of the frame and painstakingly matched. By the time the Master and Comaster files of a completed painting were forwarded to Quality Assurance (QA), hours of work had gone into each one to ensure the best result.
 

Two versions of an image superimposed with another, one version showing an exact superimposition, the second showing differences in positioning.

Utilising the Layers functions in Adobe Photoshop, the image of the canvas is dropped onto the image of the frame and then slowly lined into place. With the layer set to 'difference mode', misalignment shows up as coloured outlines and when the image appears black, we can be sure that the image is now in the correct position.

For many of the Digitisation staff involved in the Oil Paintings Project, this was an opportunity to expand career skills, working with materials that do not frequent the studio. The evolution of our workflow, lighting, and post-production techniques required research and development and was a team effort. With the paintings coming into the studio multiple times and staggered throughout a week, effective communication was required to be maintained between Collection Care and Digitisation. Many thanks to the members of Collection Care who worked alongside the Digitisation team to ensure that this project ran smoothly and on target. Over one hundred paintings have been digitised as part of the Oil Paintings Project, producing over three hundred high resolution images that will be made available for online viewing.
 

Between two large studio lights, a woman angles a board on the ground to reflect the light more evenly onto the painting hung on the wall in front of her.

Imaging Officer Taryn Ellis inserts a poly board reflector to increase the exposure to the bottom edge of ML 336 (Photo by Russell Perkins)

- Written by Russell Perkins, Imaging Officer

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