July 1998 Issue 28
An Exploration of the original appearance of Nicholas Hilliard's portrait miniatures using computer image manipulation
'....but of all things, the perfection is to imitate the face of man kind...'
Nicholas Hilliard A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning c. 1600 1
The goal of this research project has been to simulate both the original appearance of selected Hilliard portrait miniatures, and the evolution of a painting from the preparation of the ground to the finished work, using computer image manipulation techniques.
My research involves the use of computer image manipulation to explore the original appearance of works of art. Clearly, there are many potential applications in this field and, after a survey of other ongoing research, I chose to focus on Hilliard's miniatures. This allowed me to investigate broadly applicable issues, whilst enabling me to indulge my irrepressible interests in portraiture. Access to a comprehensive collection of the works within the V&A Museum, and strong support from the Paper Conservation Section responsible for their well-being, also influenced my decision.
Practically speaking, the size of the miniatures allows digitisation at an acceptable level of detail via the medium of film, and subsequent digital image manipulation and display using Apple Macintosh systems and a variety of software available at the College.
The flexibility of using film to capture images has proved essential. When photographing the works I have been able to adjust the strength and direction of the lighting to bring out the desired qualities of individual paintings. In some cases, this may be at microscopic level under raking light to emphasize the application sequence. Where necessary I have taken a series of photographs, varying the lighting progressively in order to produce animated sequences to show effects which rely on movement of the painting under illumination.
Computer 'retouching' of paintings, although free from the hazards of working with real objects, requires much research and evidence gathering, both historical and technical. I have therefore set out to acquire as much intimacy with the artist's style, and fluency with his practical methods, as possible in the available time. This has been a daunting task as Hilliard's work is characterised by astonishing virtuosity, ranging from his free draughtsmanship from life, to an immaculate precision of technique. His treatise on miniature painting is beautifully written, concise and addresses difficult concepts.
The first-hand access to the works has produced many surprises: the quality of the brushwork at microscopic level is remarkable, and Hilliard is extraordinarily sensitive to the effects of light and movement on his work. The removal of the protective glass to permit study and documentation also produces significant differences in appearance. It is hoped that multimedia presentation of the images will bring the opportunity to share these pleasures with a wider audience.
The access to the resources, expertise and training opportunities within both the V&A and the Royal College of Art has been invaluable to my research. The V&A has provided the privilege of access to the original paintings for my own technical examination and photography, and also to existing conservation and curatorial expertise. Of great assistance has been access to the research findings of the late Jim Murrell, the pre-eminent authority in the field. The College has provided me with wider computing resources, as well as courses extending from anatomy to lithography and etching.
The anatomy course, provided by the Centre for Drawing Research, involved study visits to the dissecting room of University College Hospital and has been particularly valuable, adding a new dimension to the way I view both painted portraits and life models. Attending the twice weekly life drawing classes at the RCA has given me regular opportunities to improve my technique. I also attend themed daytime drawing workshops, if they are portraiture orientated. A recent intensive two day workshop tutored by Maggie Hambling was particularly productive. The Research Methods Course has provided the stimulus for discussion and occasional collaboration with research students from a wide range of college disciplines.
Multimedia presentation of the results in a broader historical context, enabling conservation issues to be brought to a wider audience, was integral to my original objectives. The opportunity to achieve this much more effectively has been realised by a collaboration with Kenny Stocker, who is currently studying Informational Illustration at the RCA. Kenny's design skills, combined with his specialised computing and communication skills, have enabled me to aim for a more ambitious result.
In the course of my research I have taken a large number of microscopic detail photographs directly from the work of Hilliard and his near contemporaries - Holbein, Teerlinc and Oliver. These images, selectively lit to identify and record stylistic and technical features, offer a unique resource for attribution research; an area which I feel could benefit from a more cross-disciplinary approach. The comparison of characteristic compositional devices - calligraphy, brushwork, use of pigments and techniques - coupled with comparisons of sheer dexterity of the artists working at such a challenging scale is revealing.
Hilliard's treatise, though (perhaps for professional reasons) not revealing all his secrets, nevertheless gives invaluable indications of his systematic approaches and broader intentions. One of my own special interests, somewhat heightened by attendance on the college anatomy course, is the individual artists' knowledge and application of anatomical matters in relation to portraiture. Certain aspects are sought and recorded, while others are overlooked, on occasion consistently misrepresented, or even perhaps suppressed by the dictates of prevailing portraiture conventions.
A broadly based approach to the interpretation of the artist's treatise and the subsequent 'virtual restoration' process has been very interesting and fruitful. With my background and objectives I could not have comfortably approached the project in any other way. The research has increased my awareness that the interpretation of painting techniques and the process of retouching (digital or real) are unavoidably subjective in character. One is of course always aware that, though offering many exciting opportunities, computer screen display must necessarily differ markedly from the experience of viewing the actual painting.
The use of computer image manipulation is relatively new in conservation and many practical and ethical challenges peculiar to the new medium are presenting themselves. The potential advantages of a body of research students working together in this fast changing field are obvious. The arrival this year of Angela Geary, who is carrying out a research project within the course on computer visualisation of polychrome sculpture, has proven this, and led to some mutually constructive sharing of our differing skills. Next academic year, when I hope to be pursuing a PhD, a third 'computing' student will join the course and our digital collaboration should prove still more fruitful.
1.Thornton, R.K.R., Cain, T.G.S., (eds.), A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning by Nicholas Hilliard together with A More Compendious Discourse Concerning Ye Art of Liming by Edward Norgate, Mid Northumberland Arts Group in association with Carcenet Press, Manchester, 1981.