Art Imitates Art: The Versatile Digital Canvas

Art collectors sometimes find themselves in difficult situations. To name a few…they loan their in-demand paintings to an exhibition and then find themselves staring at a bare wall.

They’ve discovered the philanthropic (and substantial tax advantages) of gifting their art to a museum, but can’t imagine living without it. A favorite canvas has become too fragile to expose to the environment and has to be put away. Or, they are blessed with multiple residences, but hate being separated from the pieces they want to look at every day. There is a state-of the-art, “have-your- cake-and- eat-it- too,” solution to each of these problems -- an enhanced digital reproduction that is a beautiful and expertly-executed stand-in for the original work.

For years, serious collectors have relied on digital photography when creating permanent records of their collections. Now, the digital image can be transformed from a photograph to an artistic – even painterly -- replication. Michael Tramis, the art photographer at Lowy’s Digital Photography Studio, describes the first step in the process of capturing a museum-quality digital image. “First, I have to determine the size of the piece and its medium -- whether it is a painting or a watercolor, for example – which determines the appropriate lighting, “ He uses a medium format Hasselblad camera and a custom professional lighting system, meeting the stringent guidelines for cultural heritage imaging. “Ideally,” he says, “ the camera, lighting, computer, and printer are all calibrated together to ensure correct color output.”

The images obtained from the Hasselblad are so accurate that they provide the Lowy conservation team with the perfect “canvas” for a replication. In simplest terms, the conservator applies three-dimensional brushstrokes to the photographic surface, adding texture, depth, and finish, just like the original painting. But there is nothing “simple” about the process or the results. Lowy’s Senior Paintings Conservator, Lauren Rich, notes that she and her colleagues draw upon their extensive backgrounds in Art History and Fine Arts before they put brush to photograph. “We do extensive research about the artist,” she says. “More importantly, we actually have to think like the artist in determining what kind of bristle to use, where a stroke should begin and end, and what kind of finish to select.”

Rich recalls the first time Lowy created replications for a client. A collector donated forty-five paintings, including works by Sargent, Chase, and Hassam, to a museum, but wondered if there were a way to have reminders of the art once it was gone. “The art was a part of the family’s history,” Rich says. “It made sense to me that a passionate collector would want to memorialize the works in his home because they had so much meaning.”

Replications are also becoming increasingly important for the collector who owns works that are fragile. The delicate watercolor that is threatened by light can be preserved in storage, while a more durable “twin” hangs in plain sight. According to Rich, the “frosting,” so to speak, on any Lowy Digital Canvas is the frame. A period-appropriate frame – one made of exactly the right material, and with the right patina and carving, can be created to complement a replication, completing the effect of a real work of art.

“By marrying digital photography to techniques we use in conservation and framing -- our core capabilities at Lowy -- we are able to come up with incredible replications that are very convincing,” Rich explains. “They are not meant to fool an expert. In fact, the owner is required to formally acknowledge that the piece it is a copy that will not be used unlawfully. But they do capture the look, feel, and presence of the original work and enable our clients to surround themselves with the art they love.”

Deborah Davis
Author of The Secret Lives of Frames: A Hundred Years of Art and Artistry; Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X; The Trip: Andy Warhol’s Plastic Fantastic Cross-Country Adventure; and Fabritius and the Goldfinch.