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Brazilian artist makes history feel like the present with beautiful colorized photos

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Marina Amaral

In 2016, we are overwhelmed with options for adding color to black-and-white photos. Cheap smartphone apps, artificial intelligence, and Photoshop knockoffs are accessible to amateurs and hobbyists, and YouTube is a constantly replenishing source of step-by-step tutorials. And yet, if you've tried colorization, you've likely discovered the finished result looks like highlighters scrubbed over an old newspaper.

Yes, anybody can add color to old photos, but doing the job well remains a craft. Marina Amaral is a professional colorist. Her job isn't simply to add color, but to communicate an image's history. The Brazilian artist puts hours of research into her colorizations, contacting historians to get their expert opinions on the original colors of the subject material. Her projects often reflect significant historical moments like the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, or the self-immolation of Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc in 1963, bringing a sense of modernity and immediacy to familiar images.

Amaral was studying International Relations in college when she was introduced to colorization through a history forum. A year and a half ago, she began to create her own. Gradually the projects became a bigger part of her life, so she left school to dedicate herself full-time to her craft. She now spends her days doing commission requests (the most common being family photos and portraits, as one might guess) and working on bigger projects, like a partnership with a Swedish museum in the restoration of photos of locomotives.

"I wake up at 7am, grab a cup of coffee, and work nonstop until 10 or 11pm," Amaral told The Verge. "At the end of the day I'm exhausted, but also very, very glad for this opportunity to work doing something I love to do. On weekends I spend at least 3 hours a day practicing new techniques."

Her practice involves developing new ways to make an image look as realistic as possible. Amaral studies traditional painting techniques and observes photographs to understand how light interacts with specific materials like skin, metal, wood, and grass. Her goal is to end up with a finished product in which you can't tell the original photo was once black and white.

Amaral has always had an interest in history, and shares her process and detailed background on the stories behind the images on her blog. "I remember getting blown away by history classes in school since I was very young, about 6 or 7," she said. Seeing how her colorized photos have the transcendent power to take the viewer to a moment in time, hopefully her work will resonate with a new class of young minds curious about history.