From Paint to Pixels: Scanning the World’s Watercolours

All over the globe and in some of the world’s most prestigious art galleries and museums there is always one form of artwork that you’ll find gracing the walls - watercolours.

Creating artwork using watercolours is one of the most popular ways of capturing beautiful scenery, painting life-like portraits and studying still-life objects. However, an unfortunate side effect of using watercolours is that they begin to fade over time, and as the years go by there is a risk of these masterpieces being lost to us forever.

But just how do we prevent these wonderful paintings from disappearing? Well, thanks to the advances of modern technology, we now have the ability to scan watercolours, capturing every detail of them in the process and then saving them in a digital format.

Not only does this help to preserve the artwork in a very modern way, but when these digital captures are uploaded to a website, it makes them a lot more accessible for anybody to access and enjoy.

One such website is Watercolour World, which is one of the many organisations supported by Javad Marandi, one of the Joint Chairs of the Marendi Foundation which helps to provide opportunities in education, and supports some of the most vulnerable communities in the United Kingdom, as well as art and cultural initiatives.

Scanning watercolours is intricate work, however, and it’s certainly a lot more advanced than the usual scanning you might be more familiar with. Keeping the vibrancy of the painting, the depths of the colours and picking up on every tiny brush stroke requires the correct equipment, software and a great eye for detail.

If you’re an artist and you’d like to digitize your watercolours through scanning, or if you’re generally interested in how it’s achieved, we’ve broken down the process below to give you a better idea of how art is transformed from paint to pixels!

Scanning & Photographing

The first stage of digitizing a watercolour painting is deciding the best way of capturing the image itself and, although there are a couple of ways in which you can create a digital copy of a watercolour, scanning is by far the most popular method.

This is due to the fact that scanning tends to pick up on the vibrancy of the colours a lot better, not to mention it is much easier to lay a painting on the surface of a scanner than it is to photograph it.

However, one common issue with scanning watercolours is that the scanner is so good at picking up every minute detail, it often picks up the texture of the unpainted patches on watercolour paper as well, which can distract from the painting. With a bit of post-scan editing though, this can easily be fixed, and we’ll go into more detail on this a little later.

Photographing a watercolour painting is another way of capturing it digitally, and this certainly works well for bigger paintings that would be impossible to place on a scanner. It’s important that the camera can take high-resolution photos though, as this will pick up the smaller details of the painting a lot better, as well as give you better post-shoot control in the editing process.

The reason that photographing paintings for digital interpretation is the lesser-prefered method is due to the fact that it doesn’t shut out as much light as scanning does, so it isn’t as good at capturing the colours in their truest form. But this can be remedied by shooting the painting in a room that doesn’t get affected by sunlight, or by placing the watercolour on a flat surface (such as a table) and photographing it from above.

Preparation

Once the watercolour has been captured digitally, either through scanning or photography, the image needs to be prepared so it can be worked on properly.

This is a very simple part of the process, and involves cropping and trimming down any edges of the image that have been photographed alongside the painting or cutting out the blank image that is left by the scanner copying the empty glass surface that is often left behind when scanning smaller paintings.

Colour Correction

This part of the process requires some photo editing software, such as Adobe PhotoShop, and the purpose of it is to adjust the colour levels on the scanned or photographed watercolour in a way that brings it as close as possible to those you’d see with the naked eye.

The type of colour correction needed will often depend on what method has been used to capture the image and, generally speaking, photographed paintings require a lot more adjusting then scanned watercolours as the colours will appear slightly duller.

Having said that, it’s usually only ever the brightness and saturation levels that get adjusted during this phase, as the equipment used for capturing the image will most likely have been specially designed to produce as close to a life-like replica as possible.

Clean Up

As we’ve mentioned above, there can be a slight issue with the texture of the watercolour paper being picked up during the scanning process, and it’s at this point that it can be edited out.

This is where photo editing software is used again, and the texture of the paper is smoothed away to leave it looking as clear as it would when seen in person, and simultaneously allowing the painted colours to shine brighter.

Export

Once all of the editing changes have been made and the painting looks as close to the original as possible, the simple job of exporting the image and saving it as a digital file closes the process.

Why should we produce digital images of watercolour paintings?

Nothing is ever going to beat the experience of looking at a beautiful watercolour painting with the naked eye, but by scanning and producing a digital image the art can be used to educate and entertain, as well as making it more accessible to a wider audience who might not have the time or ability to visit an art gallery.

Digitally conserving artwork also helps to keep a piece of history safe, and means that if the painting was to ever become damaged or lost, there is always going to be a backup of it that can then be used to replicate it in watercolour again.

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