Hand Colouring Silver Gelatine Prints

This will be a quick introduction to Hand-colouring, it is by no means in-depth. But should give you an idea if you want to try this alt-process. Hopefully point you in the right direction to making your own work of art. This is a process even our digital shooting friends can enjoy.


Hand-colouring (or hand-coloring) refers to any method of manually adding colour to a black-and-white photograph, generally either to heighten the realism of the photograph or for artistic purposes. This process is also sometimes called hand tinting, terms like over-painting and hand painting are also sometimes used, although they refer to a slightly different technique.

[Early hand coloured daguerreotype by J. Garnier, ca. 1850]


The process dates back to the dawn of photography around 1839, at this time it was the only way to get colour on a photograph. But after colour film became mainstream in the mid 20th century, hand colouring was no longer needed as a way to record a photo in colour. But this doesn’t mean it became obsolescent, it was and is still practiced as a form of fine art photography. The beauty is this process is very open to artistic interpretation, you can color selectively colour only one part of the print, or the whole print. If you want to use muted colours or vivid colours, or perhaps you want a purple sky, it’s all possible.

[Example of different colouring options – by James A McKeinnis, Hand Coloring Photographs, AMPHOTO, 1994]

So why do it, colour film is cheap, digital is cheaper? In The Photographer’s Toning Book , Dr. Tim Rudman writes: [there is] “…considerable satisfaction that is to be had from the craft aspect of printmaking. The thrill of watching the image slowly emerge never completely disappears. The sense of creation that is to be had by physically handling a sheet of photographic paper through all the stages of exposing, developing….is very real. It is a tactile process involving a ‘real’ and evolving product, quite unlike the rather abstract computer image that has no physical substance throughout its embryonic development until the ‘print’ command is given.”


Quite simply there is something deeply satisfying about making something with you hands.

[Reprint of 50 year old negative, printed on Ilford MG FB paper, coloured using pencils and oil/turps wash]


Ok so you have read this far, so you probably want to give it a try. So how do we go about it. We need to first chose a photo to hand colour, a paper to print it on, the colouring medium we want to use (photo-oils, pencils, water-colours, etc).


Choosing a photo

Not all photo’s lend themselves to hand colouring, you ideally want a photo with a lot of highlights, as that is where the colour will show best. A dark photo with lots of shadows will not show colour in the shadow areas very well. But having said that don’t let me stop you from trying, perhaps a night scene with lots of shadow and some bright neon lights might make a very striking hand coloured photo.


People who hand colour landscapes usually like to use IR film, which makes greens very white, and darkens the sky. This makes colouring trees and grass areas very easy and bright.


Choosing paper

Resin coated paper will not take photo-oils or water colours very well. The best paper is fiber paper, I prefer Ilford MG FB but any mat paper should work well. If you use digital you can even print your B&W photo in an ink jet printer, rather than making a darkroom print.

[Salt print on water colour paper hand coloured with pencils]

Choosing a colouring medium

Photo-oils are the traditional choice here (at least in the context of 20th century photography). But some people prefer to use water-colours or colouring pencils. One book I read said it was best to learn with colouring pencils then move to photo-oils, but then another source says photo-oils was best to learn with. I started out with colour pencils, I think this is a good place to start as they are easily obtainable, you probably already have a pencil case full of them at home. If you find you like hand-colouring you can then experiment with other mediums and see what suits your inner artist.


With colouring pencils you get a more oil paint / pastel look by mixing up 1 part vegetable oil with 1 part Turpentine ( Art supply shops have unscented Turps ). once you have coloured you print moisten a cotton bud with the oil/turps mixture and rub it over the pencil colour. this will lift up some colour and give the desired effect. Also while on the topic of pencils it is a good idea to get a “blender pencil” this is a neutral colour which you rub over the colour to remove pencil strokes and blend the colour in.


[Ilford MG FB paper with photo-oils]

Photo-oils are quite easy to use, in fact in some ways easier than pencil. The trick to photo oils is NOT to stay in the lines. I know you think I’m talking crazy talk but when you start putting colour down going over the lines will prevent clumping of the oil at the lines. when you put the next colour on it will remove any colour under it. So you only need to be careful about staying in the lines when you are doing your final touch up.


Additional reading

If you want to give this a go dive right in and try it. If you find you like it there are some good books on Amazon that I can recommend.


Hand Coloring Black & White Photography: An Introduction and Step-by-Step Guide

By Laurie Klein



Handcoloring Photographs

By James McKinnis


Flickr groups for ideas




5 thoughts on “Hand Colouring Silver Gelatine Prints

  1. Michaela

    you need to add what silver Gelatin is so that people know what you are on about other wise it is no good (the information)


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