Method of Hand-coloring with Oil Paints on Silver Gelatin Prints (Black & White Photographs)
Fred had taken a workshop on hand-painting silver gelatin prints probably back in 2000. I was very impressed with the technique, and then signed up for a workshop at St. Mary’s in Virginia City, Nevada. Soon I was looking over all of Fred’s prints and telling him what needs to be painted. He usually made 2 prints so that if I wanted to paint something, he’d still have a regular silver gelatin to work with. I fell in love with this process partly because I come from a painting background and partly because I just love the effect I can get with a good print.
Hand coloring (also known as hand-tinting) has been around for nearly as long as photography itself, and first gained its popularity as the ONLY way to make a color photograph. Now, with color photography so firmly entrenched, many people find it very odd that anyone still hand colors photographs.
From time to time I'm asked, "Why go to all that trouble when you could just shoot color film?" There really are many reasons to hand-color. Black and white films and papers allow an immense amount of control over the image relative to what we can get with color films. With black and white films we can use a number of different methods to change the relative values in an image, such as using color filters to lighten some parts and darken others, or using the zone system to increase or decrease the tonal range of an image. For regular silver gelatin prints that remain B&W, there are a huge variety of different papers, all with somewhat different characteristics, and we can nudge the image along in different directions with a number of different printing techniques. If I plan to paint a print, then I need to select a fiber-based matt finish paper, and those types of papers are diminishing in the markets.
Processing black & white films and papers tends to be much simpler to use and somewhat less hazardous chemicals than color processsing. Black and white films and papers both tend to hold up better over time than most color films and papers. A well-processed black & white print should last 100 years or more.
My intentions when painting on a photograph are to enhance it with a more painterly effect using layers of paint although the layering is not evident. I'm not trying to make it look like a color photograph. However, at this time my wife is the artist that does most of the hand painting now, as she loves the process of painting in her studio. She calls it her “Zen” time as she takes in the smells of the oil paints and sometimes has to use a magnifier to see the details in the print. She often goes through my prints and decides that some just “have to be painted.” Some photos take as little as a couple of hours, others have taken her 8 hours to complete – which has to be done in one sitting as when the paint dries, you cannot add more layers.
There are different methods of hand painting and we both developed our own styles for this process. I start with black & white prints on fiber-based paper with a matte finish. Most of my hand coloring has been done on Agfa Multicontrast Classic 118 paper, but unfortunately this paper is no longer manufactured. I print each image so that it will stand on it’s own as a silver gelatin print, with or without toning or painting.
Sometimes I will paint on sepia-toned prints. The emulsion protects the paper, but the edges are vulnerable. I leave a one-inch border on all sides and use a gentle masking tape to create the border.
I only use Daniel Smith's Autograph Series oils that have a high pigment concentration and very little filler. I use Grumbacher's Transparentizing Gel to further thin colors when desired.
A paper palette will make the mixing of colors easier, although Donnasue rarely mixes colors on the palette as she paints using thin layers of color to let them blend on the print itself. This process allows a transparent illusion to be created, much like the master painters of the Renaissance. She uses both brushes and q-tips for her painting process. She also uses oil pencils for details in plants and animal fur.
Most of the hand coloring is done in a transparent method so the detail and texture of the photograph shows through the color. We use blues and deep greens for shadowed areas and use more yellows where the highlight is hitting something.