Unblinking Eye
Hand Coloring Photographs


Communicating a Unique Vision:
Hand Coloring Photographs

by Judith Monroe

Practically since photography was invented, photographs have been colored by hand.  The initial desire was generally to make the photograph as much like the original scene as possible, since color films had not yet been invented.  But pretty much as soon as color film was available, colorists were out of work.  Then a new reason for coloring emerged, and that was to reinterpret the image in a way that color films could not.  As a college student in the mid-eighties, I was strongly attracted to color in the scenes I was photographing but realized that color films and papers could not produce the emotional impact I had first felt when shooting.  I wanted a way to use color to communicate what I felt, not to just produce another color photograph.  Not able to find anyone at the time who was a practicing colorist, I dug up what information I could find and dove in on my own.

There are a few general "rules" when printing and coloring photographs, and I have probably broken them all at one time or another.  This is not one of those hard-edged sciences, this is an art and I believe art works best when the artist is willing to experiment and break a few rules.  In this light, I'll tell you what I have found that works best for me, what other things I have seen that I liked, and leave you to make your own decisions for yourself.

The first consideration for hand coloring is printing the photograph.  Most colorists I know, myself included, prefer fiber based papers, though I have never found a photograph I couldn't color on with something.  The primary reason I use fiber based paper is its archival qualities.  Simply, if I'm going to take the time to add color to an image, I'd like it to last as long as possible.  The second but more important reason I use fiber based papers is for the texture surfaces available.  Some media, like colored pencils, simply won't take well to glossy resin coated papers, nor even to the matte resin coated papers.  There are sprays to coat these papers so that they receive media better, but I never liked the idea of spraying gunk on a print when I could just print on a paper more suited to my needs.  My favorite papers are fiber based, matte surface papers, or even papers with textures more like regular art papers, such as the recently discontinued Luminos Charcoal R.  I have heard some good things about Kentmere's Art Classic and Art Document papers, and am awaiting the arrival of a test pack as I write this article.  For beginning colorists, whatever paper fits your budget and media concerns would probably be the best bet.

Dreams, by Judith Monroe

"Dreams," printed on Ilford MGFB, glossy surface, exposure and contrast as for a normal exhibition print.

Dreams, by Judith Monroe

"Dreams" hand painted with
Peerless watercolors.

The second consideration when printing a photograph to color are issues of exposure and contrast.  Common practice is to print images slightly lighter and with less contrast than a regular exhibition print.  Printing slightly lighter makes darker tones easier to cover, but I've never understood the concept of less contrast.  Personally, I don't care for flat black and white images, and I don't care for flat colored images, either.  For some, large dark areas of the print which can never completely be worked with color are bothersome, and many will advise to avoid such images but I don't find it that distracting, particularly when I am using watercolors as my medium.

Many colorists prepare their prints for coloring by toning, to create a warm undercast to the image, which can be particularly pleasing with portraiture.  This completely depends on personal taste and subject matter.  I do not regularly tone my images, probably because I tend to stay away from portraiture but lately I do favor warmer-toned papers for my initial printing.

I'm not sure if there is any medium that hasn't been successfully used to color a photograph.  Personally I have used oil paints, colored pencils, markers, pastels and watercolor paints.  I have also seen photo dyes and even acrylic paints put to good use on a photograph.  The primary concern of a colorist is to use a medium that takes well to the surface at hand and that one is comfortable in applying.  Generally speaking, a medium that has a fair amount of transparency is best, to allow the details of the photograph to show through, but the acrylics I have seen had little transparency and were still used in a pleasing manner.  The first medim I ever tried was Marshall's photo oils, still readily available and with plenty of instructions on use.  These are most commonly used as a tint and such images are what most people imagine when you mention a hand colored photograph.  I always had a desire to use deep, intense colors on my photographs so instead of using the tint method, I used paint brushes to get as much paint onto the surface as possible, but never quite achieved the intensity of color I desired.

Flowerspike, by Judith Monroe

"Flower Spike #2" printed on Ilford MGFB, matte surface, with multiple layers of various colored pencils applied.

Years later, when I had two toddlers in the house, I discovered what a challenge oil painting was in that environment, and I began to apply colored pencils to my photographs.  Colored pencils can be used with some oil media, again to produce a tinted look, but I have never used them in this way.  For my pencil work I always use a matte surface fiber based paper, to best receive the color.  Pretty much any colored pencils will work, but the higher quality artist's pencils often have softer textures that make application easier.  I also often use the harder Marshall's colored pencils as a final layer, in a way burnishing the print.  Pigments in pencils can't be mixed the way paints can, so the best way to achieve the rich colors I want is to layer the colors, as one would in colored pencil illustration.  To do this, I begin with the undertones of the image, typically warm colors in the highlights and cool colors in the shadows, keeping the pencil strokes moving in a single direction for the first layer of color. Subsequent layers of color are then added in strokes in opposing directions, forming a sort of cross hatching of colors and eventually filling all the minuscule white spots with color.  The final result can be an image with amazing depth of color.

Turning Turning

"Turning" diptych printed on Ilford MGFB, matte surface, colored with layers of artist's pencils.

The next medium I consistently used on my photographs was watercolors.  The watercolors I employ have the admirable quality of adhering to every photographic surface around, though I still prefer matte surface fiber papers, as I also sometimes add colored pencils to the dry water colored print.  I first found a sample book of these particular watercolors in a local camera and photo supply store but now can only find them online.  These are Peerless watercolors, which have been produced for painting on photographs since 1885, available as dry sheets or in liquid form.  (You can find them at www.peerlesscolor.com.)  Since I first found and fell in love with them in their dry state, that is what I still use.  I prefer to dilute the colors as little as possible and often use a wet brush to take the pigment directly from the paper film to my print, layering and mixing colors on the photograph itself, which I keep as flat as possible until dry.  I must say that of all the media I have used, watercolors are the most challenging to control and I would encourage some schooling and practice before working on your photographs.  The first time I used watercolors on a photo, I was playing with my kids' Crayola paints, and loved the results.  But it was several years before I was again pleased with any of my watercolor efforts.

Life After Death, by Judith Monroe

"Life After Death" printed on Ilford MGFB, glossy surface, and hand painted with Peerless watercolors.

In my experience, playing and experimenting with different media on various papers has been the key to successful coloring efforts.  At one point, I spent a fair amount of time with art markers on glossy Polaroid prints; my main struggle was to find a marker that flowed on the print the way I liked it, and then I discovered they were no longer being produced because they were considered carcinogenic.  I have also used children's markers on regular resin coated prints and experimented with pastels on matte fiber based prints, both with reasonably favorable results.  I think back to that time in college when I was searching for a way to express myself.  I suspect that if I were a college student now, I would probably be attracted to digital manipulations, but I still find the greatest satisfaction in the physical interaction with my medium that hand coloring provides.   In the end, I use the media and papers that I can most effectively use to communicate my vision, and I'm never afraid to try something new.

This article is copyright 2005 by Judith Monroe.
All rights reserved.
No part of this article may be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the author.

Judith Monroe:  Photographic Artist

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