On Fine Art Reproduction… (or: You’re Doing It Wrong) Part 1

October 24, 2011

Recently I did some work for a very dear friend, and highly respected oil painter, scanning his work on the Cruse camera and reproducing it with one of my large-format printers.  He wasn’t happy with it, and had a very hard time verbalizing exactly what seemed wrong.  He was, though, emphatic, and the way he did finally put it into words was that the reproduction was “doing violence” to the intention of his painting.

What he meant was, it felt like it was tearing it apart – he was seeing things which were not intended to be seen, and not seeing what he worked so hard to show.  It was as if the painting was being dissected…quite literally.

After a long series of conversations, it became very clear to me what was happening.  The lighting I had used to scan his painting was significantly different that the lighting in his studio.  He was seeing the painting as if it was in an entirely new location, with entirely different lighting.  From his perspective, the wrong lighting.

His studio has a large, north-facing window, but the primary lighting on his work comes from a bank of halogen down-spots which have been carefully aimed and balanced over his large canvasses.  This produces a very specific rendering of the work.  He can see highlights from his brush strokes, and details, tones and values as the painting would appear lit in almost any gallery or museum environment.  When I lit the piece from both sides, with the standard copy-board lighting (the standard method of virtually any fine-art reproduction, used by every museum, photographer or reproduction service working at any acceptable level of quality standards), I was lighting textures that he simply never saw, nor intended the viewer to see.

If the intention of the artist has any value at all, it was simply the wrong lighting.

We tried an experiment.  I went into his studio and photographed his work under exactly the same lighting that he used to create the painting.  We then took it a step further…  I printed the image right there.  We, together, evaluated the lighting, the tones and colors in the print, again, lit by exactly the same light, next to the original painting (obviously, still under the same lights).  He was happy with the final print.  It met, to the degree that any reproduction could, his intentions of the original work.

Why is this?  It has to do with the basic principles of the quality and characteristics of light.  The lights used in copy photography are completely different than the lighting used in a painters studio.  Most studios are lit with light that is a substantially different color than copy lights- that is, they’re working with a different spectrum, which will reflect colors differently.  The angle of the lighting in a copy setup is simply never used in an artist’s studio, nor in a gallery or museum.

In an effort to be technically accurate, the practices adopted in fine art copy photography have forgotten what the purpose of the process is – to represent the work as the artist intended it.

Is this important?  I would argue, yes, it’s vitally important.

Keep something in mind.  Almost every painting created in the mid – 20th century and before was painted in the traditional “north-light studio”- a studio lit solely by a large, north-facing window and usually a large, north-facing skylight.  There really couldn’t be a more profound difference between the quality of light in this kind of studio- soft, very cool (blue, rather than amber), and coming from one direction with a “fill” light reflected from a surrounding room), and the light used by a fine art reproduction process- warm, to neutral white, from multiple sources with varying degrees of “softening” applied to the reflectors.

You can quite confidently state that no painting created in a north-light studio has been reproduced, or for that matter displayed, as the artist saw it.  You have never really seen, not as the artist has, the work.

On Fine Art Reproduction… (or: You’re Doing it Wrong) Part 1

On Fine Art Reproduction… (or: The Importance of Lighting) Part 2

On Fine Art Reproduction… (or: Enough Talk) Part 3

On Fine Art Reproduction… (or: North Light, You Say?) Part 4

On Fine Art Reproduction: (or, How to Do It Right) Part 5

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3 Responses to “On Fine Art Reproduction… (or: You’re Doing It Wrong) Part 1”

  1. Michaela Says:

    This absolutely speaks to me, and my frustrations with reproducing my artwork. It seems to me that my work is never, never accurately represented in photos. And I know I’m not alone. Most of my painter friends feel the same way. Color is always an issue, but even more frustrating is texture and that inexplicable thing I call ‘tone’ or ‘mood’. I think you are right. I create work that speaks my language in natural (ideally north) light and also under halogen lights because they are —in my lingo— the purest of artificial light. Sherlock, you may have something here. Looking forward to your next installment! 😉 M


  2. […] To read more on the techniques and practices of Fine Art reproduction, see “On Fine Art Reproduction… (or: You’re Doing It Wrong) “ […]


  3. […] On Fine Art Reproduction… (or: You’re Doing it Wrong) Part 1 […]


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