Yevonde Colour Archive: Digitisation

By Ines Alves, Digitisation Officer at the National Portrait Gallery

The digitisation of Yevonde’s archive of tri-colour separation negatives involved scanning the three separate black and white negatives, each unique after having been exposed through three distinctive colour filters. Every negative was treated as though it was a separate work and scanned using a flatbed scanner. The exposure was adjusted accordingly for each negative to extract as much information as possible from both the shadows and the highlights to allow for more control in the alignment and colour adjustment parts of the process.

Yevonde’s studio team had their own strategies for identifying which colour corresponded to the different negatives. This is often visible on the negatives by letters and dots: one dot corresponded to yellow, two dots indicated red/magenta, and three dots represented blue/cyan. The capital letters Y, R and B were very useful in this discovery.

colour photograph of a still life with a bust of a man on pedestal with a bamboo hat with chain and sunglasses. In the foreground is book with fake cherries, a vase with flowers resting on its side and a white animal figure. Five butterflies are suspended within the image. This is all posed in front of a painted cloud and seascape background.
July (Butterflies and Bust) by Yevonde, 1934, NPG x222026 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Detail of July by Yevonde, 1934, showing a bunch of flowers, a butterly and three dots coloured red, yellow and blue
Detail of July by Yevonde, 1934, NPG x222026, showing the three dots along the bottom, in addition to B for blue and R for red (in reverse). Y for yellow appears in the black border along the top of the negative. © National Portrait Gallery, London

The next step was to assemble these in order to create a 3-colour (or tri-colour) process image, as would have been achieved previously through the Vivex printing process. In Photoshop, the negatives were inverted to create a positive, followed by aligning the negatives on top of each other to achieve registration. The alignment order was instrumental in achieving a colour image, as using a different order would produce completely different colours.

The three positives of the tri-colour separation negatives for Lobster by Yevonde
Positives of the tri-colour separation negatives for Lobster by Yevonde (NPG x221940) in order of alignment (yellow, red/magenta and blue/cyan). When combined they create the colour image. © National Portrait Gallery, London

To recreate the colour and tone of the Vivex process digitally, the collection of Vivex colour prints given by Yevonde to the National Portrait Gallery in 1971 proved to be essential when creating a digital colour profile that matches the vibrancy of Yevonde’s photographs. Working closely with an external printmaker and research undertaken by them, a custom CMYK colour profile was created to replicate the aesthetic and colour palette of the Vivex process as closely as possible by manually assigning specific values to each primary colour and its combinations. CMYK being a subtractive colour model, any change will immediately impact the representation of all colours in an image – this involved adjusting the input values and their hue, saturation and brightness to find the most accurate profile, creating an image truthful to the artist’s vision. Wherever possible, the final image was assessed against existing prints in the Gallery’s Collection and other collections, such as the British Council and the Victoria & Albert Museum, to confirm colour accuracy.

The array of different sitters is remarkable and refreshing, especially in the 1930s. The digitisation part of the project unveiled an incredibly visually interesting archive that brings to mind Yevonde’s motto: ‘be original or die’.

Explore further

Learn more about the Conservation work involved and Discoveries made while cataloguing the Yevonde Colour Archive.

Part of Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture

Kindly supported by:

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