Erwin Zeemering: colourising the past

Erwin Zeemering is a digital artist and photographer who dedicates his spare time to colourising and restoring historic photographs. We chatted to him about his process and what he hopes people take away from seeing his work.

Erwin, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hello, my name is Erwin, and I’m a part-time digital artist and photographer based in the beautiful city of Zwolle in the Netherlands. As long as I remember, I have been interested in history. I worked as a photographer, and trained as a digital artist, so why not combine the three? To me, colourising historic photos is the perfect cumulative of history and photography as hobbies and work as a digital artist.

What first got you interested in photo restoration and colourisation?

A while back, I made the transition from digital to film photography. To digitise my own work, I needed a good film scanner. It was only a matter of time before I started scanning my own historic photos which I had collected over the years.

About the same time, I was looking for an alternative for a well-known photo editing program. I signed up for the beta of Affinity Photo and started searching for tutorials. To master the new software, I needed a little project. I decided to colourise some of my own recent scanned photos. That came out surprisingly well, and I stuck to it.

How do you source historical photos?

Throughout the years, I have gathered a nice collection of historic photos and the beauty is that they have never been published. When I don’t have commissions, I tend to work on those. Archives are really busy digitising their collections nowadays, so they are a great place to find beautiful photos. Clients have their own means to source them, but they also tend to shop in public archives.

How do you decide which colours to use?

Before starting, I do some research on the known elements. Uniforms and insignia and the likes are pretty well-documented. Once that is blocked in, I start colouring in the rest. The latter is mostly based on experience, and of course, a bit of creative freedom. Dating the source also has an influence. Colours on a hot sunny day bounce differently than on a dreary autumn day, for example. Original colour photos back from the day also help as inspiration. My collection of historic books has since then grown exponentially.

On average, how much time does it take to restore and colourise a black and white photograph?

That depends. I like to work on print-ready files which understandably takes a bit longer. Another factor is the complexity of the image. A portrait has way fewer elements than a crowded city street, for example. On average, I tend to work on them a full day. That also includes research which can take up some time. But it varies a lot. Of course, experience pays off. The more you do it, the faster you become at it.

What is your usual process?

Most film negatives have dust and scratches. Glass plates may even have cracks. So the first thing to do is to clean the image up and to do some basic restoration. This is extremely important for printed media. Dust won’t show up in small resolutions, but

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