Hand Colored Gum Prints: When Art and Economics Collide

Whether to save money, time, or to explore creative options in your art, hand colored gum bichromate prints might just be the answer.

Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn


I have always loved film. My first roll was purchased back in 1970. To this very day, almost all of my gum and casein prints begin as a film captured image.

And I love film cameras, especially those which require no batteries, are fully manual and have only essential controls. From my prized meter-less Rolleiflex E3 to a fleet of Agfa Clacks, vintage manual cameras figure prominently in the regular workflow of my gum printing.

Here are items you will find in my regular gum printing workflow. The colored pencils have recently been reintroduced! And black and white films augmenting my usual Kodak Ektar.

But have you seen the price of color film lately? And the cost of black and white is not far behind. In fact, the cost of most everything is through the roof! They tell me there is not much relief in sight.

So, the current state of the economy has forced me to revisit my beginning forays into gum bichromate printing from thirty-five years ago. Back then, before the dawn of the ubiquitous digital miracles of technology we have today, I hand colored simple monochrome gum prints made from one humble black and white darkroom negative. Like training wheels on a bike, hand coloring was a straightforward means of adding hue while learning to improve other gum printing skills. It wasn’t long until I realized my dream of creating three and four-color prints completely from negatives. Perfecting my tricolor printing, I put away the hand coloring technique.

But now it’s back. My bank account demanded it, and my wallet cheered me on!

It’s simple. Straightforward. Expressive. Versatile. And easy on the pocketbook.

You can use watercolor pencils, water-resistant colored pencils, watercolors, gouache, and more to add patches of color or broad areas of hues. My favorite approach right now is using Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils and then blending with 91% alcohol. Sometimes I scan the hand-colored print and produce color separated negatives for reprinting in full color. This creates another layer of nuance and expression to the finished piece.

Here are some recent examples of work. I trust these photo snaps will give you an idea of the process.

These prints, produced in May of 2022, are single color gum bichromate photographs waiting to dry and be hand colored.
With colored pencils, I add color in layers while blending with 91% alcohol. Caran d’Ache Luminance are my favorite pencils for this work.
Displayed is an assortment of finished pieces each colored with a different brand of pencil, or watercolor, or technique. The options are endless!
Connemara, Lower Meadow, Allen, Texas, 2021. Hand coloring prints can supply tonal subtleties which can be very difficult to achieve in the color gum printing process. The artist can bring more precision to the choice of hues selected for any given piece. I used another high-quality pencil set, Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle, for this work.
Fair Square, McKinney, Texas, 2021. This image used both water based and water resistant pencils. I used a “pencil wash” in the brick area while the remailing details were done with resistant pencils.
Sometimes I will scan a finished hand colored gum print and from separated negatives reprint the image in tricolor. Here are two examples of such pieces.
The Umbrella at Mustang Beach, 2021. This last image is a tricolor gum photograph created from a hand-colored original. As you can see, the choices and options are limited only by your imagination.

Will I continue producing tri-color gum images originating from expensive color film? You bet. But there will be no binge printing until further notice. Moving forward, my gum appetite must learn to be satisfied with smaller bites and leaner projects.

One can only hope for better times.

Peter J. Blackburn, MA, is an artist who has been working in gum and casein bichromate printing for over thirty years. He is represented by Afterimage Gallery, Dallas, Texas. You can also see Peter J. Blackburn’s gallery or read more articles he has written.

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