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Swatch Out, Lichtenstein!

When color-proofing a work of art, one typically deals more with approximation than absolutes. The perceived color of, say, a painting, varies in countless ways: what kind of light is shining on it? Is it framed behind glass? Is any part of the artwork reflective or oddly-textured? Beyond variables like these, color is subjective—you might not really see color the same way I do. Accurately reproducing a work of art is no small feat, but we in the Publications Department try our best.

In preparing the catalogue for the forthcoming exhibition Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, we were given an opportunity to be a bit more absolute than usual. The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation lent us color swatches made from the very paints Lichtenstein used throughout his career. These allowed us to approach his works with an unusual amount of bravado. We could compare the swatches to the colors in the painting and say, without hesitation, "This is the red he used: Cadmium Red Deep. And so it was. Lo." We prepared CMYK builds of all of these paints so the images of his artwork could easily (well, relatively easily) be translated into the color environment of the printing press.

Proofing this way allowed us to avoid a sneaky phenomenon called metamerism, which refers to the phenomenon of two different objects' colors appearing to match under one light source, but not any other. Specifically, this is called illuminant metameric failure. This is a problem because our proofs are inkjet images output from digital files, and they're supposed to be able to match... well, anything in the museum. Oil on canvas, graphite on vellum, mahogany, steel, sandstone, LEDs, and on and on. Our proofs react to light differently than the objects. Now consider the different types of light in the places we view the art: dimly-lit hallway galleries, constantly-changing skylit galleries, and fluorescent-lit storage spaces. Variables galore.

The beauty of using Lichtenstein's paint chips is that it subtracts variable light from the equation. Every kind of light (sunlight, fluorescent, incandescent, etc.) affects the paint chips the same way it affects the painting, because, well, it's the same material. When we start there, we have a little less room for subjectivity. And so it was. Lo.

Image Credit: Roy Lichtenstein. Two Nudes (detail), 1995. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Collection Simonyi.