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Published: 01 March 2014

By Andy Ross

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The illusion of colour

Mark Rothko, the American artist, has had a makeover. Or at least some of his works have, according to the Economist.

The paintings in question were created for Harvard's Holyoke Centre and have faded in the daylight that the Centre was designed to capture. In fact the pictures were faded so badly in only 15 years that they were taken down and stored in a basement. When conservators came to look at the photographs that had been taken of the paintings they found that these too had faded over the decades.

What a conundrum. Overpainting the pictures was not an option even though the medium Rothko used was an emulsion of standard pigments that could easily be tested in a sort of reverse-engineering process: expose those pigments to light and figure out how they reacted and then use that information to work out which parts of the paintings used which colours. However art historians were not impressed with the idea that the pictures could simply be painted on anew.

The solution is unique and clever. A high-resolution camera scans the paintings continuously and then compares the photograph, pixel by pixel, with the restored photographs. A computer then works out what mixture of light to throw onto the paintings to recreate the vibrant colours of the originals.To paraphrase a popular advert, the future is indeed bright!