The colours of the Picassos or mission impossible

Who hasn’t felt deceived, or even annoyed, when, on leaving a good exhibition with some magnificent works, you then take a look at the exhibition catalogue? Why is it that the reproductions often seem so far from the reality that just a few minutes before had been recorded on our retina? How is it that the majority of the postcards we want to buy we see as poor or barely faithful to the original?

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Checking the colour test of the work Portrait of Benedetta Bianco

Behind each reproduction of a work of art there is a long chain of efforts to achieve the fact that what the visitor or buyer sees, gets as close as possible to the original. But sometimes this impossible mission is not achieved. There are many, many obstacles to be overcome during the process.

First of all, the images that are gathered together to publish a catalogue come from many varied sources and have very diverse levels of quality. Despite the fact that when the request is made to the owners of the work (museums or private owners) or to the photographic archives, and that a series of technical characteristics are specified that should ensure a correct reproduction of the piece, the file received doesn’t always fulfil these requirements. The anecdotes would be uncountable about the miracles our specialists in photo-mechanics have ended up doing to turn an image into something publishable.

Secondly, we find ourselves with a fundamental technical problem. Nowadays, practically all the photographs we order and receive are digital and as such some dimensions, resolutions, colour palettes, and formats guarantee a good reproduction in lighting devices (which use the RGB model of colour). But what happens when we have to reproduce these images on paper and by means of the system of offset printing? Then, in this step, a lot of chromatic information that the digital archive has, gets lost because in quadricolour we can only use four base colours (yellow, cyan, magenta and black).


Pantone. The first tab on the right contains the basic quadricolour (yellow, magenta, cyan and black)

Therefore, what is done to try to get the reproduction closer to the reality? The technicians in photo-mechanics prepare what we call the “colour test”, that is to say, the printing of the image by means of a calibrated printer according to the ISO regulation 12647-2 (Fogra 39L). This test, even though it has a “glossy” aspect that doesn’t correspond with that of the paper to be used in the printing, allows us to have an idea of what the final image will be like. This test is compared with the original work that we conserve in the museum and in this way we can see which corrections need to be made on the original digital file which will be included in the layout design. We do as many corrections as necessary until we finally get a definitive proof (and therefore a file) that we consider to be the good one. But what happens when the work to be reproduced isn’t in our museum? How can we be sure that the proof that we produce is similar to the original? In these cases, we ask the owner to send us a proof that he or she considers to be good or we send ours so that it can be validated. Sometimes, the indications ?”a bit darker”, “too black”…? are not easy to turn into corrections if we continue not being able to see a correct image of the work.

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Printing and reading test to certify the images. Photos: Tractament i Ajuda Gràfica

Finally, photo-mechanics prints a set of proofs that we consider to be the good ones. We send all the images of the works of Picasso to Picasso Administration in Paris and they give us their approval to reproduce them and they indicate the corrections we should make that they consider opportune.

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Certification of suitability of images by reading the wedge. Photos: Tractament i Ajuda Gràfica

Once all the proofs are validated we prepare them to be sent to the printer. There they are revised and used as a reference when making the print-run of the book. But all that happens in that moment we will explain in another post.

Marta Jové

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