Recreating the appearance of Maya polychrome reliefs by 2.5D printing

This project approaches the imagery and symbolism from the pre-colonial Americas through the recreation of the appearance of ancient polychrome relieves from the Maya region and Central Mexico. We depart from the full-scale watercolours and photographs made by Adela Breton during her trips across Mexico, where she copied the colour and details of brightly decorated architecture and wall paintings, dating mostly from the Classic Period (200AC-850AC). Our goal is to develop novel printing methods to mimic the natural colours and surface structure of modelled stucco reliefs for public display, and to gain insights on how to enhance the haptics of printed materials through the combination of advance imaging, analogue printmaking and 2.5D printing.

Adela Breton (1849-1923) was a British artist and explorer who travelled across Mexico between 1892 and 1907, witnessing the remains of polychrome facades and even the splendour of a recently revealed stucco frieze dating ca. 6th century in Acancéh, Yucaatán. Adela Breton documented the findings by drawing and tracing motifs and architectural details, and reproducing in watercolours the hues and exact tones that were still visible in facades, temples and ceramics. 

The collection World Cultures and Archaeology at the Bristol City Museum holds a significant part of Adela’s work on Mexican material culture.  These include paintings, artifacts, archaeological copies, sketches, drawings, photos, sketchbooks, and manuscripts.  The watercolours and hand tinted photographs of the Upper Temple of the Warriors, the bass relief of the Low Temple of the Jaguars, both in Chichén Itzá, and the almost inedited real scale watercolour copy of the frieze at the Palace of Stucco in Acancéh Yucatán, are today some of the most valuable references of the deteriorated stucco shapes and the colour that has already been erased.

The Centre for Fine Print Research collaborates with the Bristol City Museum on this project with the aim of retrieving ancient images and knowledge by combining Adela Breton’s artistic gaze, archaeological research and attention to colour, with advanced imaging, material characterisation and a range of hybrid methods for printing colour and surface structure.  We are currently producing prints on paper, plaster, ceramics and inkjet UV curable ink, in order to achieve the appearance of polychromed modelled stucco. Measurements of colour and gloss, and scans of the surface structure of the prints are used to characterise the printing methods and to verify repeatability by quantitative means. Mesoamerican records that are still preserved such as wall paintings and structures will be scanned on site and used as a reference to approach the look of freshly made stucco.  

The Palace of Stuccoes by photopolymer gravure printing

The Palace of Stuccoes was a 13 m long and 2 m high wall decorated with brightly painted stucco relief. It was found in 1906 by residents of Acancéh, Yucatán in an ancient building protected by a coat of whitewash and the rubble of later buildings. Shortly after its creation in the 5th– 6th century, the stucco relief was covered by cut stone mosaic and its brilliant colours were therefore preserved until its discovery more than one thousand years later. It displayed two rows of animal, bird, and human figures modelled in relief and contained within twenty-one overlapping cartouches. The scene was framed at both ends by large stucco birds, and above and below by decorative mouldings.

Adela Breton visited the finding in 1907 and spent five weeks copying the frieze of the structure in full colour. Unfortunately, the fragile stucco did not survive its discovery for long. From the twenty-four figures depicted, only remains of four still exist [1]. The colour has gone completely.

The full size copy was exhibited at the International Congress of Americanists in London in 1912 by Breton. She planned to produce a second copy for public exhibit and the publication of a smaller copy of the water colours in a long narrow piece that could be folded as a codex, including a description and plan of the chamber inside the façade. The Bristol City Museum holds a set of watercolours of the Acancéh frieze, although one panel is missing [2].  The set was exhibited in Bristol in 1989 and 2017. The watercolours were published for the first time by Victoria Miller in 1991 [3].

Fig 1. A watercolour panel from the Acanceh frieze Ca. Ea8186a © Bristol City Museum
Fig 2. Fragment of the Acanceh frieze in 2019. Photo by Sue Giles

We have reproduced one of the panels by photopolymer gravure and created relief printing plates to transfer a specific surface structure on paper by impact printing.

Colour printing plates and relief plates for embossing were created from photopolymer flexographic plates.  Currently we are developing quality measures to control the height of the surface structure generated on the paper and to characterise the colour gamut produced through a CMY halftoning analogue intaglio process.

To compare results, three combinations of impact printing methods were used.

  • Photogravure with halftoning separation and a relief plate for the embossing.
  • Photogravure with spot colours and a relief plate for the embossing.
  • Relief plates with spot colours.

The motif used for the test was the image Ea8186a ­­­from the Bristol City Museum archive. This is a watercolour with dimensions 2.76 x 1.19 m made by Adela Breton showing the panels 6 to 11, where the mythic bat Camazotz, a howler monkey, a macaw and a rattlesnake are represented and painted mainly with ochre colours and Maya blue pigment.

The prints have been photographed following the principles of Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to register the surface shape and colour produced with this printing method. In RTI, images are produced by photographing an object several times from a fixed position but illuminating it from multiple angles. Processing was done with the open- access software developed by Cultural Heritage Imaging [8].

Fig 3. Reproduction of water colour panel CA. Ea8186a (fragment)
 CMY photogravure print, intaglio inks on paper

Fig 4. Reproduction of water colour panel CA. Ea8186a (fragment)
 CMY photogravure print with relief
RTI by Xavi Aure

Scans, colour and gloss measurements of the prints were made at Fogra Research Institute for Media Technologies. An x-Tex scanner was used to capture several images of a material in different lighting [1] situations and derive physically based information about the material surface on colour, texture, reflectance, roughness, surface orientation and transparency.

Printing digital information by analogue means allows us to recover and generate visual information through an expanded range of materials and textures, even making possible the use of customized inks, resembling ancient materials, such as ochre or indigo based pigments.

Fig. 5 is a colour image of one of the prints produced and Fig. 6 is a roughness map, associated with the gloss of the print.

Fig 5. Reproduction of watercolour panel CA. Ea8186a (fragment)
CMY photogravure print using ochre based inks
Fig 6 Roughness map of the print with colour and relief on paper. Image acquired with x-Tex scanner
Fig 7 Normal map showing the surface shape of the proposed relief printed on paper. Image acquired with x-Tex scanner

The surface structure, that appears like relief to the eye, is transferred mechanically to the paper by pressing it with a flexographicpolymer plate, where a negative relief has been engraved. To create such plates, we exposed them to UV light, under a transparent film where a high-map has been printed as a grayscale (Fig 7). The softness of the detail demonstrates the potential of a hybrid digital-analogue technique to transfer physically based displacement maps into paper surfaces via impact printing.


[1] S. Giles and J. Stewart, The art of ruins : Adela Breton & the temples of Mexico. [Bristol]: City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, 1989.

[2] Mary F. Vicker, Adela Breton: A Victorian Artist Amid Mexico’s Ruins, University of New Mexico Press, New Mexico, 2005.

[3] Virginia E. Miller, The Frieze of the Palace of the Stuccoes, Acanceh, Yucatan, Mexico Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection Washington, D.C. 1991

To top