I was in a major art supply store some time ago and just stood in awe in front of the acrylic paint section. I was marveling at the different types of paint now available, fast acrylics of every colour in every possible consistency. Hard paints, soft blending paints, liquids: guaranteed. It is not that long ago when artists had to create and mix their own pigments, never being absolutely sure of the properties of their ingredients, and whether they would last.
It was of interest therefore to read of the work going on with modern equipment to track down faded or disappeared colours in works of art. In particular, the now almost colourless sky of Wimslow Homer’s “Oh To Be A Farmer’s Boy” has been shown to have been a brilliant red and orange.
In preparing for the Art Institute’s major Homer exhibition, conservators discovered, using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry and visual examination through a microscope, that the painting’s white skies were originally painted in unstable red and orange dyes that have almost completely faded.
That’s neat. But modern techniques allow for even more improvements in method. Just a few years ago, given such information, the restorers would have been busy re-painting the original. Now, we can retain the original as it has become (important in my judgment) and the conservators can use sophisticated software to display to the public their idea of the original painting. This is what they have done with the Homer exhibition. Good stuff.