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Resurrecting a Lost Frida Kahlo with Photoshop

By Terri Stone

While artist Frida Kahlo suffered many losses during her 46 years, at least she was spared the loss of her painting The Wounded Table, which disappeared on its way to an exhibit in 1955, the year after Kahlo’s death. Only three photos of the painting survive, none of them high quality. That didn’t deter Karla Cordova, an Ecuadorean art director and retoucher, from saying yes when Adobe asked her to re-create The Wounded Table using only Adobe Stock images and Adobe Photoshop CC.

“The painting had so much emotion, which attracted me the moment I saw it,” says Cordova. “It is beautiful and has a dark and very strong story behind it. Kahlo painted this work during her divorce from Diego Rivera, and it reflects her state of mind. It’s a surrealist painting that show a lot of struggle, pain, and confusion, and her connection with her Mexican roots.”

Cordova says researching Kahlo and The Wounded Table was crucial to a successful re-creation. Here, Cordova recaps what she learned:

“The painting resembles a skewed version of The Last Supper, with Frida playing the role of Christ at the center of the table. She is surrounded by her relatives, a large papier-mâché Judas, a female skeleton, a Nayarit (Mexican pre-Columbian sculpture), and her pet deer Granizo.

“The oversized Judas on Frida's right represents Diego, who betrayed her when he had an affair with her younger sister Cristina. The figure has his hands on the table, as did the Judas who betrayed Christ. Despite the betrayal, Frida allows the Judas (Diego) to protectively place his arm around her. 

“To her left, the skeleton is holding a strand of Frida's hair…perhaps she is flirting with death. The skeleton bleeds and has a wound, showing how fragile she is. (She received that same wound in an accident that almost killed her.) The Nayarit is intertwined with Kahlo, sharing the same arm, symbolizing her connection to her Mexican roots.

“The threatening characters seem to be between the painter and the innocent figures of the children and the fawn, making them unreachable. The children, Antonio and Isolda, are the children of Frida's younger sister Cristina. They seem to be unaware of the situation or their surroundings.”

Cordova worked from a pixellated photo of the original (left). Her final re-creation is on the right.

GETTING TECHNICAL

Once she understood the subtext, Cordova was ready to face the technical challenge of re-creating a surreal painting with photos of actual people and objects.

“Due to the particularity of the characters’ poses, it was not easy to find pictures that matched perfectly,” she explains. Cordova built the characters one by one, combining body parts from several sources for each character. “The most difficult part was to get their gestures and their expressions right, as well as their exact position, because Frida was really meticulous about those things. For her, everything had an emotional reason, so I tried to evoke the same feeling.”

You might think that Kahlo’s dreamlike style would make this re-creation easier than, for example, Charles Debroize’s take on Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew and the Angel, but it posed its own challenges. “Because the painting is surrealistic,” Cordova explains, “nothing was going to look 100% lifelike or even normal. For example, stock photos of human skeletons weren’t working, so I started to search for things that could potentially look like bones, like dinosaur bones, white stones, plastic bottles, and Mexican skeleton masks.”

She used Photoshop to combine and refine the parts she pulled from the Adobe Stock images. For example, the deer is made up of four photos, but she tweaked those sources with Puppet Warp, rotating and enlarging the neck and moving the legs.

“Another tool I used is Color Range,” Cordova says, “which is the perfect tool to work with hair transparencies and skin. For Frida, I used four photos that included hair, and I wanted to select just the hair in the photos, not the skin or background. I set the Color Range option to Sampled Colors and clicked on the dark hair in one image. Photoshop sampled the color I clicked on and selected all of the pixels that were within a certain range of that color. To add more areas to my selection, I pressed and held the Shift key and clicked on more shades of black in the hair.”

She used Photoshop’s Liquify filter on the faces, enlarging eyes and shrinking noses. “Frida in particular was challenging,” Cordova recalls. “I tried to get the most accurate resemblance of her and Liquify is perfect for these little distortions.” Cordova’s painstaking re-creation required 180 stock images and 20 days to complete.​​​​​​​

Click to watch a time-lapse of Karla Cordova re-creating Frida Kahlo's The Wounded Table.