In the first two parts of this blog thread we discussed a few basics about anthroquinone dyes.  We discovered that these organic dyes were used by many painters, especially some of the Impressionists, to produce bright red and blue colors.  Then we reviewed how two groups of chemists used Raman spectroscopy to nondestructively isolate pigments and couple it with known color degradation rates and reconstruct what we think are the original colors in old images.  In the third part of this blog we are going to discuss some practical and ethical issues surrounding the restoration of old and degraded artwork.

One famous attempt at image restoration took place at the Iglesia del Santuario de Misericordia church in Borja, Spain during the summer of 2012


The left image was a fresco on the wall of the church was taken about 2010, the middle one in 2012 and the right one being taken after the “attempted” restoration.  From the date stamps on the photographs, either the left image was digitally retouched or the fresco was in imminent danger of total destruction.  Much of the internet commentary centered around whether or not the concerned citizen actually did the viewing public a favor by bringing this mostly unnoticed century old fresco in a church in a town with a population of 5000 souls to international attention.  Read more here ( and here (

Another image, much more famous (or infamous), illustrates the same to fix or not to fix issue with old images.  One of the 10 most expensive to date photographs ever sold is the 2X3 inch ferrotype (tintype) of Billy the Kid by Brian Lebel’s Old West Show & Auction in June 2011.  No one knows who took the photograph or the exact date it was taken, but it was privately held by Billy the Kid’s family and is considered authentic.  The image surfaced in the mid 1980’s though several copies of the image were circulated prior to that date.  Read more here ( and (


This image is often used by photography and photoshop(tm) students to practice photo restoraiton.  Below is one attempt.


(from:  However, is the “fixed” version really the same image as the original?

The restoration of the above Billy the Kid image is a fairly straight forward, though painstaking, non-destructive process.  You straighten the photo, patch the the damage with cloning tools and balance the colors in an RBG histogram.  In fact, many of these processes have become largely automated in the more advanced imaging software.  However, face and eye damage to an image is not easily repairable and often results in creative bias being incorporated into the image.  Creative bias is quite a controversial subject with images and is being constantly debated by ethicists.  An interesting commentary on this subject can be found here: (

With all the ethical dilemmas and the fact that digital reconstruction/restoration of an image is more of a curiosity than a necessity there is a compelling argument for restoring historical images.  Take for instance a situation illustrated in the following video.

All Hands and Operation Photo Rescue

In review, new processes for determining the content of historical artwork along with the ability to apply this information digitally to an image is revolutionizing how we look at classical art.  We can only conclude from the work of the scientists at Northwestern University that many of the old masters did not consider their work “permanent” or “archival”.  The fact that Renoir used materials that he knew would fade within a fairly short time makes one question what his intentions were.  Was this work meant to last, or was it really just a throw-away?

I have on occasion been surprised when people view my own work.  Have you ever been surprised when a patron gets excited and just gushes over one of your throw-aways?  Awww shucks, that is just an old piece of junk I have in my discard pile.

Some Helpful References