Chromoskedasic sabattier is an experimental silver gelatin techqnique developed in the 1990s and carried out in a traditional darkroom. Megan Crawford explains the process.
Chromoskedasic sabattier (chromo for short) is a darkroom process that was developed in the 1990s. In short, the process lifts the silver halides in gelatin silver paper to the surface, thus resulting in a multicolor, metallic sheen on what would otherwise be a black and white print. Colors and patterns that appear cannot be diligently controlled, rendering chromo to be an experimental and image specific process.
There are three key figures in the foundation of the process: Dominic Man-Kit Lam, William Jolly, and Alan Bean. The combination of their work, from articles to research to printmaking, led to the chromo process in use today. I learned everything I know about chromo from Christina Z. Anderson— this article would not exist without her (or her incredibly helpful Experimental Photography Workbook, which I would highly recommend if you’re getting into experimental darkroom work).
- Black & white gelatin silver paper: Paper type (fiber based, RC, cooltone, warmtone, etc.) will have different effects on the final print. Illford warmtone is ideal for chromo, but I’m personally fond of Illford RC pearl— the texture translates nicely to metallics.
- Activator and Stabilizer: Activator and stabilizer are the two chromo specific chemistries you will need. You can find both of them at freestylephoto.com. Do note that this chemistry smells strongly of ammonia.
- Standard darkroom chemistry: Developer, stop, fix, and hypo.
- Brushes: I’m personally a member of the “dunk it in the tray” team, but you can brush chemistry onto specific portions of the print. Calligraphy brushes work best for this, as they can hold a decent amount of chemistry without making a mess.
- Chromo tray 1
- 500ml warm water
- 125ml EcoPro developer solution
- 250ml activator
- 125ml stabilizer
- Chromo tray 2 (optional)
- 900ml warm water
- 100ml activator
Chromoskedasic Sabattier Process
- Expose the print as you normally would. Keep in mind that chromo affects the highlights of a print.
- Develop the print for a shorter amount of time, until it’s just developed.
- Rinse the print in water
- Place the print face up in the first chromo tray. Chromo is a delicate process. Anything that touches the surface of the paper (tongs, gloves, the tray itself) will leave marks on your print. Be sure to agitate the print for the first 30 seconds. As the print sits in this tray, you’ll start to notice the silver plating out as a dark, opaque grey. It will look like you messed up, but that’s what you want. The rate that the print plates out depends on how warm the solution is (the warmer the better) and how exhausted the solution is.
- If the print looks as desired after Tray 1, you can skip Tray 2. If you want the print to have a greater range of colors, submerge it into Tray 2 and bring it out into room light. This is where color shifts will occur: greens, blues, pinks, coppers, etc. will slowly appear at this stage. This is the point where, if desired, you can add brushwork to your print.
- Brushing 20% stabilizer onto the print will result in darker colors going pale.
- Brushing 20% activator onto the print will result in those darker colors returning to a darker tone once again.
- Brushing paper developer onto the print will result in the print “silvering out” to cool-tone metallics.
- Once the print is where you like it, rinse it with water and continue the development process as usual. Handle your print with care. It’s best to not print a full image. Leave yourself margins to be able to transfer the print. As I mentioned earlier, anything that touches the surface will leave a mark.
- Do not squeegee the print— dry it face up. Once the print is dry, you can treat is as a standard gelatin silver print.
- When in doubt, check the temperature of your chemistry. Tray 1 requires 80°-105°F (27°-40°C) temperatures to work best.
- The pH of the developer directly correlates to the tones you get. Higher pH levels tend to be more warm tone, lower pH levels tend to be more cool toned.
- Chromo prints tend to dry down about one stop.
Guidelines, creative ideas, & miscellaneous ramblings
- If you’re new to working with chromo, start with a test strip. This will allow you to clearly see how the chemistry interacts with the paper.
- Allow yourself to be creative. Take prints out in room light, sprinkle powdered developer onto a print, experiment with different light sources and brushes. As it is with almost any other process, chromo can be printed in combination with other processes. The process is as vast as you make it.
- Note that while chromo prints are beautifully metallic in person, they do not scan well. How a chromo print appears depends on the light source hitting it. A print that is completely copper and gold in person may scan as dull cool tones.
The beauty of chromo is that there isn’t one right way to do it, and it relies heavily on the printmaker letting go of control. Let the process take you where it may.