Modern Tools for an Ancient Job

Given how similar icons are to some very ancient paintings (I’m thinking of the Faiyum portraits here), modern iconographers need to use some very modern tools to get in touch with their community. Of course, websites, blogs, facebook, even twitter are all helpful but since I work with images rather than text, I need to be able to show my work in a way that does it justice and allows people to see exactly what is going on.

As you can see from previous posts, I document each stage of my work. Not only does it give me a record of what is happening, it often allows me to view it ‘at one remove’ so I can see more clearly why it’s not working properly.

Photographing the final image is, however, altogether trickier. The gilding has a huge impact on how the camera views the object – it captures and reflects a huge amount of light – as well as the photographer!

Last week I rigged up a basic sort of ‘light tent’ with the icon inside a box which was all white with translucent sides and a clothes airer draped in two white sheets so that I could poke the lens in between them.

Now I begin to edit the photograph to optimise it for viewing on a backlit computer screen. I am very slowly learning photoshop and after a short tutorial by my dad today (which was incredibly helpful and saved me hours this evening) I thought you would like to see what a huge difference a few edits can make.

Icon of Christ
Unedited photograph of a water-gilded icon of Christ.

Obviously this doesn’t quite show it off to its best advantage: there’s a lot of background around it, the gold is over-exposed and the painted area looks a little bit under-exposed.  My dad takes amazing photographs of nature and sport and has used Photoshop for many years. Now, having had a little bit of tuition on what to adjust where, I came up with this first draft image:

Icon of Christ: first edit with photoshop
Having adjusted the levels and masked the gold, I edited the exposure and got this!

Now the gold has become too dark and the colours of the paint are looking strident and flat. The flesh tones have almost disappeared and the robes are too dark.  Or at least they do on my laptop! One of the main problems with images on computers is that each screen will look different. Plus my perception of how the colour looks is probably very subjective!

I decided to have one more shot this evening, even though I have spent most of the day on the computer editing, adjusting, linking and attempting to understand a very foreign language of technical computer speak that I find bewildering. This time, I took things much, much more slowly.  First of all, I cropped in to the actual icon. Then I used the ‘magic wand’ to select all of the painted part of the icon and adjusted the exposure and contrast very slightly, before inverting the selection and adjusting the exposure of the gold as well as the hue/saturation – overall the effect is much more subtle and, I think, more balanced and closer to the original. There doesn’t seem to be a way to capture the reflective quality of the gold without having a reflection in the image.  I didn’t manage to use the clone stamp, although I think I was doing it the right way. Perhaps there will be a fourth version of this image! I’d be very interested to know what you think of the different images and how they look on *your* screen.Icon of Christ (private collection)

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