How We Do What We Do

May 19, 2014

“Can you please explain what you’re doing?”

is a question we hear daily. From a visitor’s perspective it doesn’t look like we’re doing much. Basically, we observe and document. A thorough condition report is the first step in any conservation treatment; we need to know what we’re dealing with. These murals are so large that a written document consistently describing the location and details of each condition would be too long and arduous to read, let alone write. So instead of written documentation, we use high resolution digital images and Adobe Photoshop.

Buddhist Blog Project Photo
This is a shot from the scissor lift. Cassia Balogh is visible in the bottom right corner working on a lower portion of the mural.

The first step of the Buddhist mural condition survey was photography. Architectural photographer Joseph Elliot worked with Cassia Balogh to take digital images of every section of each mural. Each photo is typically of a panel (or two). We then set ourselves and our computers (with images of the mural) in front of the corresponding areas of the mural with the help of a ladder and the scissor lift. We have fifteen different conditions and each one has been assigned a specific color. We have organized these conditions and their respective colors as separate layers on Adobe Photoshop, this way each condition can be edited and viewed separately from the others.

This image details how Photoshop layers can be viewed separately and together. We chose three layers to detail out of the total of fifteen.

The different layers can be separated into three categories: previous restoration, structural conditions, and issues pertaining to the original painted surface. In the previous restoration layers we look for areas that may have been patched or painted. These areas differ in texture to the original surface.

The structural conditions vary between each panel; some have hardly any. These layers mostly show where there are cracks and where the original surface is delaminating from the supports behind it. There are several layers of support behind each panel, including metal frameworks, and so one of the layers is “Metal Detection.” Check back for a post that details our metal detecting process.

Most of the conditions affecting original painted surface describe areas of paint loss and actively flaking surfaces. However, one layer indicates graffiti; there are Chinese characters in both red and black inks that were written on the murals.

This screenshot shows a lower portion of the mural with a single visible
This screenshot shows the same lower area of the mural as the image above and how multiple layers can be viewed simultaneously. Each color corresponds to a specific condition.


Once we have examined every centimeter of every panel of the mural and all of the photos have been marked up, we compile the photos and their layers into one giant photo-mosaic that depicts the entire mural and the conditions. This provides us with a big picture (literally) of just how the various conditions are concentrated on the mural and how the conditions vary from panel to panel.

Acknowledgements: Work on the Buddhist Mural Conservation Survey in supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and Michael Feng and Winnie Chin Feng.