Art making history

Editorial Type: Case Study Date: 03-2020 Views: 546 Tags: Document, Scanning, Hardware, Search, PFU, Fujitsu, ScanSnap SV600 PDF Version:
Andra Fitzherbert is CEO of The Watercolour World - a global project and PFU's chosen charity for 2020. She spoke to DM Editor David Tyler at PFU's Information Capture Conference to discuss how a project to digitise the world's hidden watercolours 'grew quickly from an arts story into a data story'

The aim of The Watercolour World project is to aggregate geolocated images of all documentary watercolours before 1900 onto a website that is freely available to everyone. These watercolours are too often hidden away in public and private collections, yet they hold vital scientific, environmental and historical information for us all about our past.

"These watercolours are records of the past that are often the only way for us to see 'the world before photography'," explained Andra Fitzherbert, CEO of The Watercolour World. "Watercolours are susceptible to extremes of heat and light, and for this reason many of them have been kept away from view sometimes for a very long time."

Recording not just scenes from daily life but also building projects, railways and bridges in various stages of construction, these watercolour images have been able to shine a light on details of local history that would otherwise never have been revealed. In the time before photography these pictures are often the only accurate records of changes over time in towns and cities all over the world.

The project put out feelers to public and private collectors all over the world, and has had a phenomenal response including some of the largest and most important collections in international galleries and museums, as well as individual owners offering access to precious (but not always necessarily artistically valuable) watercolours that they may have had secreted away in a loft for years.

While many public collections had access to large format scanning devices of their own, PFU was able to offer its support with capturing the very many smaller collections and single pieces, thanks to the ScanSnap SV600 overhead scanner device, specifically designed for capturing images from delicate artworks, books, newspapers and periodicals. Designed for quick and easy image capture that delivers very high-quality output, the ScanSnap SV600 can even scan images accurately through glass, meaning paintings don't need to be removed from their frames, avoiding the risk of damage.

The SV600 also features a light range powerful enough to capture the images in high detail and is within safe limits for the watercolour medium, so will not harm the delicate paint. The SV600 is also highly portable, which enables the digitisation teams to take it to collections, galleries and homes to capture the images. PFU EMEA supplied six of the SV600 devices to Watercolour World for their scanning requirements. Andra herself as CEO of the project has personally handled many of the on-site scanning visits, and was hugely impressed with the ease of use and image quality of the SV600.

To date, the online, free to access archive, has more than 100,000 watercolours spanning over 30,000 locations. The resulting website (see URL below) allows visitors to search by location, artist and other keywords, and as Andra explained, it has become clear that there is an important part to be played in the project by 'crowd-sourcing' local knowledge. It is possible to leave comments, for example, suggesting the likely location for a painting based on specific landmarks or buildings in the background. This information is then used to build a clearer broad picture for any given location, based on feedback from visitors themselves.

Andra Fitzherbert concluded: "Watercolours are fragile, often hidden away and liable to fading. The Watercolour World was founded to document these important paintings in both public and private hands, and aggregate them on a geolocated website, before they're lost forever. The online archive we've created, with the help of PFU, enables visitors to search and zoom into many documentary watercolours. Already this has helped the scientific community to identify changes in landscapes over time, and we are excited to see how the power of our digital age harnesses the information that can be found in historic watercolours."
More info: www.watercolourworld.org

"Watercolours are fragile, often hidden away and liable to fading. The online archive we've created, with the help of PFU, enables visitors to search and zoom into many documentary watercolours. Already this has helped the scientific community to identify changes in landscapes over time, and we are excited to see how the power of our digital age harnesses the information that can be found in historic watercolours."