The practice of hand-coloring black-and-white photographs can be traced all the way back to the days of daguerreotypes, which predates Instagram creative filters by about 180-plus years. In a bid to add life to the putty-like tonality of many of the earliest print technologies, photographers would very carefully brush thin layers of color pigments mixed with gum arabic (or quicker-drying mixtures containing alcohol) onto the cheeks, hair, and outerwear of portrait sitters. With the advent of paper print processes and tintypes, the use of transparent photo oils, dyes, and pencils became the media of choice for bringing color to black-and-white photographs.
Commercial applications of hand-coloring also found their way into use early on. Toward the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of 20th Century, color lithographic postcards of popular tourist attractions and holiday destinations came into vogue, which opened up new avenues for working photographers.
Hand-colored photographs © 2020 Allan Weitz
What’s interesting is that the vast majority of these “cartes-de-visite,” as they were popularly known, were in fact black-and-white photographs that were colorized by lithographers who had never been to the places they were coloring. The colors were chosen according to the colorist’s whim and personal aesthetics and reproduced as lithographic postcards and souvenir prints. Coloring monochrome photographs remained in vogue until the arrival of the first Kodachrome color slide films, in 1935, which unlike the muted tones of tinted photographs, were bright, bold, and most importantly—accurate. Since that time, hand-coloring has gone in and out of vogue on a regular basis in the fields of advertising, editorial assignments, album art, fine art applications, and for the longest time, portraiture.
Generally speaking, hand-colored photographs have muted color palettes, though bold coloration is doable. Based on personal experience, I strongly recommend using a warm-toned, matte-surfaced print as a starting point, especially for portraiture and landscapes. B&H stocks a wide selection of neutral, warm, and cool-toned cotton and fiber-based medium and double-weight papers in a variety of sheet and roll sizes.
In the case of night scenes, a cooler-toned print might be preferable. Neutral-toned prints can also be used but, with few exceptions, I find the look of hand-coloring on neutral-toned prints to be less convincing, and depending on the image, visually jarring, but then again, we’re talking aesthetics here and your thoughts may differ.
It’s also important to note not every picture was born to be colorized. Some images are best represented in black-and-white, while others look strongest in color. For this reason, consider the reasoning behind wanting to colorize an image before committing to it. And if you do not currently have a photograph you’d like to colorize, go out and take a few pictures that would better lend themselves to the process.
Darkroom Paper Choices
My earliest experiences with hand-coloring were pre-digital, and my choices of traditional photographic enlarging paper were wide. Initially, I colored sepia-toned black-and-white prints, but soon began using papers like Agfa Portriga Rapid, which was a lovely, naturally warm-toned paper. On occasion I would also pass Agfa Portriga through a bath of selenium toner, which would slightly cool the paper’s inherent warm-tone finish.
Despite the dominance of digital imaging in today’s marketplace, photographic enlarging paper is still available in a number of surface textures including gloss, matte, semi-matte, luster, metallic, and others. From personal experience, I always preferred using matte or semi-matte cotton and fiber-based enlarging papers for hand-coloring with photo oils because they allow easy color blending and feathering of edge details. I also found these print surfaces to be less susceptible to streak marks from the brushes and cotton swabs used to apply the color media to the print surface.
One of the advantages of traditional photographic prints is that unlike inkjet prints, in which the image consists of ink droplets lying vulnerably on the print surface, the silver halides that make up traditional photographic print images is within the print emulsion, where it is far less susceptible to scuffs and scratches.
Tip: For best results, photographs you plan on hand-coloring should be printed about 10% lighter than you would normally prefer.
What You Need for Hand-Coloring B&W Prints
Fiber-based prints aside, the only supplies you will need are the following:
- Transparent Photo Oils Transparent photo oils are available at B&H as kits or individual tubes in a variety of colors from Marshall’s Retouching and Pebeo.
- Cotton Swabs Use cotton swabs for applying and blending photo oils and make sure they are 100% cotton. The synthetic versions, while fine for cleaning your ears, are not suitable for smoothly blending transparent photo oils on photographic prints.
- Cotton Balls Cotton balls are for applying photo oils to larger areas. Again, avoid the cheaper synthetics—they don’t work well.
- Toothpicks and Wood Skewers Toothpicks or wood skewers with smaller swabs of cotton wrapped around their tips can be used to apply or remove photo oils from smaller detailed portions of a print.
- Kneaded Erasers Kneaded erasers are used for cleaning stray oils from the print surface, which is a common practice when defining edges of a selectively colored portion of a photograph. Clean pencil erasers with pointed edges can be used in a pinch, but the best erasers for these applications are kneaded erasers. Kneaded erasers, which can be purchased in most art supply stores or online, are soft and malleable and, therefore, less likely to mar delicate print surfaces compared to hard erasers.
- Marshall’s PM Solution / Marshall’s Marlene Marshall’s PM and Marlene solutions are used to clean edges, details such as eyes, and stray brush marks from print surfaces.
The one last thing you might want is a larger sheet of poster board or foam core to which you can tape your print as you work on it and shift it about.
Photo Oils: A Little Goes a Long Way
Transparent photo oils should be applied in a well-lit workplace, preferably daylight-balanced and with plenty of elbow room. Using a clean cotton swab, take a dab of color from the tip of the tube, or in the case of blended colors, your palette, and apply it to the surface of the print in small circular motions, slowly spreading the oils color across the intended area. Use a fresh cotton swab to further spread and smooth the colors across the print surface. For larger areas, use cotton balls for applying and smoothing out any streaking, refreshing them with new cotton balls as needed. Clean cotton swab and cotton balls can also be used to clean up areas you didn’t intend to color.
The best tool for removing small areas of stray paint and clearing details is a kneaded eraser, which like a piece of soft putty, is easy to manipulate and, unlike many conventional erasers, will not mar the surface of the print. Alternatively, you can also use cotton swabs dipped in Marlene or PM Solution to remove or clean small and larger areas of the print.
Something I cannot stress enough is how far a tiny dab of oil paint on the tip of a cotton swab can go. Always start off sparingly—you can always build up the colors. You should also be spare about how much of the image you do color. Here too, a little goes a long way, and our mind’s eye fills in the gaps in more ways than we realize.
An added bonus of using photo oils is that once dried, the oil paints seal the print surface from air and pollutants, which adds to the longevity of the print.
Messed it Up? No Problem. PM Solution to the Rescue!
No matter how good you get at hand-coloring, sooner or later you’re going to mess up a print. Fear not! One of the beauties of photo oils is that you can always clean the paint off the print surface with cotton balls soaked with a bit of Marshall’s Marlene or Marshall’s PM Solution, both of which are available from B&H. Let the print dry down, and you’re good to go for a second (or third) try.
Final Thoughts on Hand-Coloring Black-and-White Prints
Hand-coloring photographs is the opposite of speed-skating. It’s a slow, meditative process that often requires you to take a step or two back along the way before adding the next color. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself completely starting over every now and then. That, too, is part of the creative process.
And remember: You don’t need to know how to draw or paint to hand-color photographs. You don’t even have to know how to draw a straight line. The image pre-exists— all you have to do is fill in the gaps.
The following is a portfolio of hand-colored, black-and-white 4 x 5" photographs of Coney Island and some of my favorite spots along the Jersey Shore, taken in the late 1970s and ’80s.