Sunday, October 28, 2012

Manfred von Richthofen: A New Look


My childhood best buddy, Iain Martin, is now a well known author and historian who works for a great publishing house in Connecticut. I'd already done some work with him for the cover of Eddie Rickenbacker's biography, and the idea of me painting some portraits for his upcoming Gettysburg book came up. I suggested that perhaps we look into some advanced colorization of existing b&w period photos - something I'd been experimenting with in the digital realm. That evolved with some mediocre results, but in the process I came upon some ideas to merge period photo colorization with new hand-painting - in theory bringing together the best of both worlds.

As an experiment I decided to apply these ideas to the well known formal WWI portrait of the 'Red Baron' - Manfred von Richthofen. Starting with the original picture I proceeded to improve upon it using traditional Photoshop techniques: improving the resolution, sharpness, contrast, and healing the many artifacts and damage to the original negative. I then employed the colorization methods that I've developed over the years.


There are huge problems with the usual ways that artists and photo editors add color to b&w photos - they apply to my own usual means as well - due to several factors. For one thing, a b&w photo does not represent a merely desaturated version of a color image. Reds appear as black and light blues appear as white, for example. But the greatest stumbling block in the way of colorizing a convincing image is due to the fact that a human face, for example, is not various shades of one color with only 'pinker' cheeks and lips - which is what we do to a b&w portrait to try and make it look natural in color. There are many tones and colors in the human face, subtle though they may appear, and there is no Photoshop mechanism available to pull this information from out of the original image. They must be hand painted into it, but not in a way that creates a new painting at the expense of the original photo.

(See my comparison photo - below - that shows an excellent but traditional 'colorized' Richthofen with my own original completed piece)


After I'd created the best possible colorized 'Baron', I began trying out my new ideas. I imported dozens of excellent color photos of human facial features: eyes, noses, hair, areas of flesh, warts and all. I created a layer over the background image and, using my eyedropper to capture exact color samples from these photos, began hand painting these features one by one over top of my 'Baron' background. By so doing I discovered myriad colors everywhere in the human face that I might not have otherwise noticed: yellow in the eyes and green in areas of the flesh, and all sorts of odd things. I did not trust my own eyes, but what the eyedropper showed me, and as I built up these layers my 'Baron' started to really come to life. In order to adhere exactly to the original photo, however, most of these layers were translucent - from 90% to less than 5% - and thus nothing of the original photo was completely repainted, while at the same time nothing of the original photo was completely preserved. The result, shown here, I think speaks for itself.

Of course there were some areas where I had to invoke some artistic license. The original photo did not reveal eyelashes, freckles, or other fine details. Surely Richthofen had them and I had to do my best to add these elements in a way that was plausible and not contrary to how he really looked. I kept these details very subtle, and I think they add to, rather than take away from, the originality of the portrait.

As an afterthought I decided to offer 13 x 19 inch prints of my completed work as a limited edition series, and so far it has been one of my hottest sellers! Who knew?

- R

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