Talking ‘Timescaping’: Meet the two artists who have reinvented traditional colourisation with Adobe Photoshop
We’re constantly greeted with bright, energetic and high-definition photography on a daily basis. Whether it be digitally or in print, we’re used to seeing colours in photographs and illustrations, much like it was real-life.
However, as we all know, photography wasn’t always this way. Jump back 100 years or so and photos were very much monochrome. The photographic editing process of adding colour to black and white photography began long before Adobe Photoshop was created; artists and photographers alike experimented with colour before the digital age, resulting in some truly fascinating work.
Once colour was permanently introduced into photography, it could be argued that it was taken for granted. However, in recent years the art form of adding colour to previously black and white photography has seen a resurgence, seeing digital tools such as Adobe Photoshop bring a whole new dimension to the table.
Artists Jordan Lloyd and Carles Marsal take this art form to a whole other level entirely with their self-titled ‘timescaping’ method. Combining antique monochrome and sepia photographs with modern photography from Adobe Stock, the duo takes us on a journey through time, creating a wonderfully fascinating landscape from a concoction of different time periods.
Jordan and Carles have hosted an online masterclass “5 essentials to Timescaping in Adobe Photoshop” – you may watch the recording here and download the tutorial files plus some free brushes here . While Carles initially demonstrates how to take antique photographs and more modern Adobe Stock imagery, blending them together seamlessly, Jordan explains how to add colour and grading to complete the ‘timescape’ masterpiece.
We caught up with the duo to learn how they got to where they are today, the process behind their collaboration and to discover more about ‘timescaping’.
How does modern ‘timescaping’ differ from the earlier versions of it done in the past?
Jordan: The ‘timescape’ is a term I coined in order to pitch the idea of mashing up the same view through different time periods. The idea was for the Times Square project that Carles and I worked on for Retronaut’s New York Exhibition in collaboration with SC Exhibitions. They asked for a centrepiece for the exhibition, where the theme was ‘Panoramas of New York at the turn of the 20th century’. There was something that was both disconcerting and hugely exciting to see what would happen if we took the same view and covered decades through two dozen photographs from 1900 all the way through to 2016, which was shot by our friend Limor Garfinkel. Carles meticulously blended these images together, followed by completely desaturating everything, at which point I added the colour back in to make everything consistent. The final ‘timescape’ was well received – people were mesmerised by the (literally) wall sized final piece and spent up to ten or fifteen minutes soaking in all the details.
On the other hand, ‘colourisation’ is a popular term used to describe the modern process of adding colour to black and white photographs by manual means. The addition of colour is one of the earliest forms of photographic manipulation, with examples of hand painted photographs going as far back as the 1850s. Painting was one method, lithographic means were another, but the general idea was to add as much commercial value as possible to the images. Nowadays, we can get a fine degree of control using tools like Adobe Photoshop, with its non-destructive adjustment layers and blending modes which yield results that is hard to distinguish from a genuine colour photograph.
Is there a lot of research that needs to be done if you want to get the colours right?
Jordan: Yes, absolutely. If you were to break down the time spent on each photograph, it would be at least half the time spent doing research. Whether or not it’s an online search, talking with subject experts, pouring through reference books, or even turning up to a particular location, the aim is to eliminate as much of the guess work as possible. There are some things that can be inferred like the weather and colour of the sky by looking at things like shadows and location data, but things like period clothing or advertising need a great deal of time. Achieving historical accuracy is, unfortunately, next to impossible as we weren’t there with a smartphone or a modern colour camera at the point the original photograph was taken. Some details are going to be incorrect, but with really great research you’re going to get an authentic sense of what the original photographer was looking at through the viewfinder.
Carles, your speciality is matte painting. When did you start learning how to illustrate?
Carles: At first I started with very simple photo manipulation projects. Most of them included just one or two elements in a scene, usually for advertising. Now, I work on very complex projects that may include as much as 50 or more elements, each one with a very precise light and shadow configuration, colour, density, texture, depth, etc. To create a believable composition, you have to understand how things work in real life and apply it to make it impossible for the eye to know what was actually there or not. I learned almost everything from nature and classical painting; everything is there, you just have to put all the pieces together and practice. Of course, you must also use the correct tools. Over the years I’ve developed a very precise technique, which I’ll be sharing in our online masterclass on October 18. It’s an amazing sensation when you see the final piece and it looks as if you were there, taking the photograph.
Jordan, how did you get into being a colourist?
Jordan: It wasn’t any one single thing, more like a combination of coincidences which eventually gave me the opportunity to see how far this could take me. One of those things was trying to repair a very unbleached photograph in the family home. It was relatively straightforward to bring back the luminosity information back in thanks to Photoshop, but I had to start experimenting with laying down colour. At the same time, I’d seen a lot of colourised photographs online and fancied having a go. It took about a dozen goes before I was satisfied with the results and I’ve been developing my own skill set since.
How long does it take to bring a period picture back into colour so crisply?
Jordan: This is entirely dependent on the amount of visual information in the photograph. It could take hours, days, or weeks. There was a photograph that took sixteen straight days to finish. Bear in mind that most black and white photographs have had to withstand the ravages of time and need to be restored to their original condition first – which adds a great deal of time – and that’s not even including blocking in the colour or doing the research.
Which historical periods are you most fascinated by? Does this change as you colour pieces?
Jordan: I have an interest in Japanese history through my Japanese weapons training, so seeing the stuff coming out of Yokohama at the end of the Shogunate, in a hugely transitional period in world history around the 1870s and 1880s, is mind-blowing. Early colour photography is equally fascinating and ethereal. I was fortunate enough to see the largest collection of autochromes by a single person last week that were photographs of England taken between 1910 and 1930. It was something that most people can’t really imagine nowadays and it was shot stereoscopically so you had to see these images in sunlight through a special viewer – the 1900s, in 3D, in colour. Absolutely incredible.
What do you both enjoy most about timescaping?
Jordan: Working with Carles has been a real treat. I was blown away by his matte painting compositions which have a real old master oil painting feel to them in terms of composition, so just seeing what Carles can do with a bunch of photographs is remarkable. From a technical perspective, seeing how he realigns perspective and lighting which is all done manually to create something new is a difficult skill.
Carles: When Jordan asked me to create a timescaping composition I thought it was like reaching the absolute limits of photo manipulation. To not only include elements from different images, but from different periods of time too. Amazing. It was difficult, yet incredibly fun to put all together; trying to include all possible periods, including buildings, people, structures, vehicles, adverts, etc. I have to say that when Jordan added the colour, it was awesome. I’ve seen how he works and colourising all of that stuff… believe me, it’s like making everything come alive.
It looks almost too fun to be work! What kind of clients do you work for?
Carles: I normally work for advertisement agencies and have done some projects for the video game and film industries.
Jordan: Increasingly, publishers, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with some really great collection owners and companies ranging from the Imperial War Museum to Apple and, of course, Adobe.
How long do you think it would take for a Photoshop beginner to start getting good at timescaping?
Jordan: Not as long as you think! What’s great about the idea of a timescape is that you can get hold of hundreds of thousands of public domain historical photographs, combine them with Adobe Stock and very quickly start experimenting. The hardest question is having a very particular theme or question you want to answer. So for Times Square, we limited it to views you could only see in Times Square itself and sample details only from those photographs. In our masterclass, it’s about picking just two or three elements and making them work together. I think the outcome that’s the most interesting is when viewers are forced to double take and warp their perception of time.
What’s your experience of doing international collaborations on projects and what tools do you use?
Jordan: There are so many collaboration tools today, it’s very straightforward to do international collaborations. As I was in multiple countries at the time we worked on Times Square, the tools used were Adobe Photoshop CC, email and instant messenger to discuss particular bits. We made revision changes in a single Dropbox folder, so we did the whole ‘Photoshop Tennis’ thing. I remember trying to pitch the idea to Carles at the time with a terrible mockup I did on a plane to Thailand, which a loose base for Carles’ much better composition in the final image.
Re-watch their Online Masterclass “5 essentials to Timescaping in Adobe Photoshop” here !