Untitled (The Magic Lantern) | Paul Sandby | © Trustees of the British Museum | Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Digitising watercolours

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Watercolours are fragile documents: they fade over time if exposed to daylight and are vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity. For this reason, they are often kept hidden from view, safely stored away in albums or archive boxes. But as a result, they don’t get the public attention they might deserve. Watercolours can easily fall into obscurity. Overlooked and undervalued, they become neglected, and are sometimes even lost or destroyed.

The Watercolour World aims to change this. By digitising watercolours, we are helping to preserve them for future generations to enjoy, creating durable digital images which can be appreciated and studied with no risk to the original artwork. And by publishing the digital images online, we are making watercolours freely and easily accessible to everyone, enabling a global public to see – often for the first time – these important documents of the past.


How it works

In partnership with PFU, a Fujitsu Company, TWW offers a free digitisation service. Using PFU’s ScanSnap SV600, a portable scanner, our team go out and visit owners of watercolours to record and catalogue works in their collections. The scanners are simple to set up and use. They are designed such that they do not come into direct contact with the watercolour, using LED technology to create clear, detailed digital images of the artworks, even through glass, but without emitting potentially harmful heat or ultra-violet light. Once our team has scanned a watercolour we note down as much information as we can about it, such as the title, name of the artist, date it was made, and any inscriptions written on the artwork or mount. This information is added to our database alongside the digital image.

We work with many kinds of owners: some are private individuals, with just a handful of watercolours, framed and hung on the walls of their home; others have extensive collections, stored in numerous albums or sketchbooks. We also work with companies and institutions that do not have the facilities or resources to digitise their own collections. After we have scanned the watercolours, we return a set of digital images to the owner, for their own records.


Why it's important

Some of the collections we have digitised contain hidden gems – unusual and interesting watercolours that have been forgotten about for decades. An album could have passed down through a family, for example, and might contain sketches recording an ancestor’s exploration of a remote part of the world, or a set of pictures made by an army officer depicting the exotic places he was stationed. In many cases, watercolours were made for the artist’s personal interest or as a way of sharing their travel experiences with a small group of family and friends. They were made by amateur rather than professional artists, but can nevertheless be highly accomplished works. And as first-hand observations of the places the artist visited and the people he or she encountered, they now form a valuable historical record. By digitising, TWW is bringing these watercolours out from obscurity and making them available for everyone to see and enjoy.

Original watercolours won't survive forever. When they are damaged, lost or destroyed, we don't just lose a work of art – we lose the fascinating, detailed, and often surprising information that the painter recorded all those years ago. We lose a piece of history. Digitisation ensures that this information is preserved long into the future, while also making watercolours more visible and accessible than ever before.




To learn more about our work with PFU’s ScanSnap SV600 scanners, click here.

If you would like to know more about our digitisation service, please contact us.


Into the unknown

Not all images are easy to locate. Can you help? If you spot somewhere you recognise, tell us in the comments