Inpainting Decision-Making: An Introduction

Vanessa Applebaum

It’s Fashion Week in London and to celebrate the array of styles and colours I’ve seen walking through the streets, I’ve decided to speak about the nuances of colour matching when one inpaints a decorative or archaeological ceramic.*

As we saw in Emma’s post from last week, repairing a ceramic often requires the application of a fill to replace gaps or spaces, which can both recreate the object’s original form and provide it with structural support. Inpainting the filled area frequently provides it with camouflage, to avoid bringing unnecessary attention and focus to this recent addition.

One aspect of conservation that I find particularly tricky is the lack of a singular, finite answer when it comes to treatment questions. Sometimes, the correct way to proceed for one object is a completely inappropriate method for how you should handle another. An example of this is the difference between inpainting the fill of a decorative ceramic object vs. an archaeological one. Since there is no set criteria for choosing a treatment based upon object material alone, the important thing to keep in mind is the item’s context and its significance to the stakeholders to which it is connected. This will play a key role in any conservation decisions made in the future.

In year one of the MSc programme we are given nine objects of varying origin to conserve, each composed of a different material. The first two we received were ceramic—both high and low fired. Similar to Sarah’s, my high fired ceramic was a blue and white transfer print bowl from the latter half of the 20th century. It used to look like this:

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Object no. 9211 before treatment. Courtesy of Liz Pye.

According to the owner, the main objective of the conservation treatment was to return it to its original decorative function. Since the goal was to regain the aesthetic of the originally manufactured object, it would be important to colour match the fill as close to the colour of the ceramic body as possible.

After reconstructing and filling the bowl, I thought inpainting it would be the easy part. After all, the bowl was white wasn’t it…? Not so much. As it turns out, recreating a ‘white’ colour is not as simple as you’d think, and in the case of my ceramic bowl, its ‘white’ body was actually a combination of five pigments.

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The five pigments I combined to mimic the ‘white’ of my high fired ceramic

After many trials and mixing combinations, I was able to come up with the correct colour to match the bowl, as you can see below:

Colour match success!

Colour match success! Courtesy of Liz Pye.

Once I mixed the appropriate colour, it was applied to the fills and allowed to dry. Upon completion, the bowl looked like this:

Object no. 9211 after treatment

Object no. 9211 after treatment. Courtesy of Liz Pye.

The fills and inpainting can be considered successful because of their close similarity to the object’s existing colour. Because of this, I was feeling confident in my abilities to match and was quite happy that I’d cracked the correct method of dealing with ceramic fills…until I realized that was completely different to the considerations that had to be given to the inpainting of my low fired ceramic, which were two sherds** from a pinch pot dated between 3300 – 2700 BCE, spanning Predynastic and Protodynastic Egypt.

Before they were joined, the sherds looked like this:

 Object no. UC 66105 before treatment. Courtesy of UCL, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

Object no. UC 66105 before treatment. Courtesy of UCL, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

Unlike the high fired ceramic, the objective for this treatment was to stabilize the object for future handling and use in a university research collection. The sherds needed to be reattached, with fills added for structural support. Like the bowl, these fills needed to be inpainted so that the repair wasn’t distracting when viewing the object; however, unlike the bowl, the colour of the fills needed to be distinct from the ceramic body. This is because the object will be studied and viewed in the context of its place in an archaeology collection, and so there should be no question as to what is newly added and what is original to the manufacture and use of the object. This presented the challenge of coming up with a colour that would simultaneously look similar yet different to the original.

In the end, the following effect was created on the area of fill through paint layering and surface finishing:

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(Courtesy of UCL, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UC 66105.)

Both of these inpainting jobs were considered successful because they weren’t judged by the same set of criteria. Instead, conservation methods were created from the context clues and significances that were applied to them. For someone who used to study scientific and mathematical concepts  that purported to have ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, this was a departure from my comfort zone. That being said, the problem solving that conservation encourages and the creativity that I now enjoy were things that I quickly learned to appreciate. …And as an entirely added bonus, I can now say that I understand colour matching as well as those down at London Fashion Week.

*Ceramic – a material composed of inorganic compounds of varying compositions, which can be high fired fired (porcelain) or low fired (terracotta flower pot).

**Before anyone thinks this is a typo and that I meant to say ‘shard,’ ‘sherd’ is a term often used to describe archaeological ceramic fragments.

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