Light projection as a tool in art conservation was first described and demonstrated by Canadian conservator Raymond Lafontaine using slide projectors in the 1980s. More recently, digital projectors have been used to restore items such as a Henry VIII tapestry in England’s Hampton Court and a Native American vessel at Purdue University. But restoring a large-scale painting, pixel by pixel, was something new.
To begin, a team of conservators and scientists at the Straus Center spent months determining what kinds of materials Rothko (1903-1970) used to help them better understand the fading process. They built on work done in the 1980s by Harvard conservation scientist Paul Whitmore, who found the abstract artist relied on the light-sensitive pigment lithol red to give his murals their deep crimson. The “fugitive” nature of that pigment combined with the desire to preserve Rothko’s brushwork ruled out the use of conventional restoration techniques. The team turned to a digital solution.