Caricature of a Sailor (One of a Set of Three) ca.1799 by JOHN SELL COTMAN, image
Arts & Culture Visual Arts

The Digital Library That’s Preserving A Historical Archive

Throughout history, artists from all over the world have given us absolute masterpieces in the form of watercolour paintings. However, as the years go by the danger of losing these wonderful pieces increases and they risk losing their vibrancy, fading away and being lost to the passage of time. 

Let’s remember also that watercolour paintings are created on paper which, unless given certain and very specific levels of care will naturally begin to biodegrade, taking the amazing art with them as they go. It is for these reasons that many watercolor paintings are taken down from display and stashed away in archives under special conditions that help to preserve them for longer. However, the unfortunate cost of this is that the art is then completely inaccessible and cannot be enjoyed or appreciated in the way it deserves to be. 

So just how can we prevent these stunning works of art from disappearing forever, but still be afforded the opportunity to admire them in all their glory? 

One website has the answer…

From Pieter Steven’s landscapes that date all the way back to the mid 1500s, and other paintings that precede the year 1900, Watercolour World has created a digital archive of some of the world’s most wonderful paintings, using some of the most modern and up to date technology to capture them in all of their original glory and preserving them as an historical archive.

Completely free to access, Watercolour World is sponsored by Javad Marandi from the Marandi Foundation, an organisation that has been dedicated to providing educational opportunities for vulnerable and disadvantaged children in the United Kingdom and giving them access to art and culture that they would otherwise not be able to experience. 

Why preserve watercolour paintings digitally?

There is actually more reasoning behind creating digital copies of watercolour paintings other than simply trying to save the artistry, hues and tones of the original painting from fading over time. 

Paintings tell a story, and in a time long before photography and videography even existed capturing historical events was only possible through art. And whilst the information surrounding these historical events will always remain intact through the power of the written word, putting a picture to the tale really gives the viewer the chance to get a feeling for what was happening at the time. A picture paints a thousand words afterall. 

It’s not just historical events that need to be visualised however, and there are many paintings of historical figures such as Kings, Queens and other famous figureheads that all lived long before photography existed. 

Take Bernard Lens III’s portrait of King William III for example, where he is depicted wearing the Robes of the Garter. Description alone would not offer your imagination the opportunity to create the levels of opulence and grandeur you can see in the painting, nor would you be able to get a clear picture of what the King’s face looked like. 

The same theory goes for paintings of historical buildings that once again could only be captured in all of their original glory using paint alone. This isn’t only exclusive to castles, palaces and places of worship however, and there are many watercolour paintings of the type of design and architecture used to build standard housing as well, giving us more of an insight into how the average citizen of that time would have lived.

Having the opportunity to look back over past events and historical moments and get an actual visualisation of the period is an absolute privilege, and it’s for this reason that creating an historical archive in the form of a digital library is really important. 

Access for all 

Creating a digital archive of historical artwork also makes it much more accessible for people from all around the world to enjoy, and offers up the opportunity to a wider audience to educate themselves.

It’s also a fantastic resource for teachers to call upon when educating their students about past events or important historical figures, and can provide a wonderful source of information for anybody interested in learning more about times gone by. 

A digital library of historical paintings isn’t only useful for educational purposes, and the benefits of it can be used for a huge variety of purposes. For example, historical stories being told through film and television can use it to reference the fashion of the time, drawing on the inspiration provided to recreate the exact garments that would have been worn. 


Digital archives are also arguably the safest way of preserving these historical paintings as well, and keeps them as a valuable reference that can allow for recreation of the original art in case of damage or theft. 

A digital library of historical paintings also presents us with the opportunity to enjoy them once the originals have been safely archived away from light, dust and other damaging elements. 

Some of these paintings are so beautiful to look at that it would almost be criminal to not give them the appreciation that they deserve, and digitally producing them gives them a whole new lease of life that is much more widely accessible. 

How is it done?

Preserving historical paintings is not without it’s challenges, especially if the painting being digitized is already several hundred years old. It’s a fine balance between the great care that must be taken to ensure that the original artwork is left undamaged, and the digital image coming out as true-to-life as possible. 

However, thanks to the advances of modern technology and powerful computer software, creating these historical archives digitally is becoming increasingly achievable. 

The painting is usually either scanned or photographed (depending on the size of the artwork and it’s fragility) and then uploaded to a computer with photo-editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. To keep the digital image looking as close to the real thing as possible, very little editing is done other than some slight adjustments to the saturation and brightness levels, and occasionally a little smoothing out of the watercolour paper texture that often gets picked up during the scanning process. 

If you’re looking for a way to view some amazing works of art online, then head over to Watercolour World and take a look at the beautiful and varied historical paintings displayed on offer.

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