Handcoloring and painting photographs

Hand-coloring your photos not only allows you intimate contact with the photo but also a great deal of creative freedom. Nitsa Malik shows us how.

Writer and photography / Nitsa Malik

A fine example of a handcolored photograph
Red Umbrella in Downtown Boston / Hand painted photo on watercolor paper. Original photo taken with a Minolta SRT 101 on a Tri-x 400 black and white film.

Most photographs can be hand colored using watercolor, acrylic, or oil paints. You might also use gel pens, colored pencils, metallic pens, or even permanent markers.
You can print out color photos and give them a whole new life by adding color to washed out areas or improving the color in the dull parts of the photo.
But you will get the best effect if you print your photos in black and white and color them from scratch.
The photo should be printed onto high quality photographic or art paper. Semi-gloss or matte are often better choices than gloss paper, which doesn’t hold the paints that well. You can also use watercolor or canvas papers suitable for working with acrylic, watercolor and oil paints. You can find them in any art supplies store.
So try printing your photos on various papers and then see how each one of them works with different paints.

What you need:

  • Paper: inkjet matte finish photo paper or fine art inkjet paper or acid-free watercolor heavyweight paper or darkroom print on fiber matte paper.
  • Paints: watercolors, acrylic, oil paints, color pencils, gel pens, permanent markers.
  • Variety of brushes.
  • Spray fixative.
  • Clear UV-resistant finish (matte or gloss) such as Krylon UV-Resistant Clear.

Watercolor painting a photograph

A photograph painted with watercolour
A photograph painted with watercolour

This photo, taken in Harper’s Ferry West Virginia, was printed on Strathmore cold press watercolor paper.
This paper can be purchased in a pad at your local art store (prices for a 9″X12″ 12 sheets pad is $4 – $6).
Though it was not meant for your printer this paper can in fact run through it. Make sure to adjust your printer’s settings to heavy matte paper which has virtually the same thickness.
Select a photo to color. Photos with good contrast and plenty of light areas will work better. For color photos, convert to black and white and print on your watercolor paper.
Before you begin coloring it is a good idea to coat the photo with spray fixative to prevent ink smudging upon contact with the watercolors.
You can use any brand of watercolors you find, nothing fancy. I got my watercolors at garage sales so I have many different brands, some are more expensive, but they all work pretty much the same.
When your print is dry you can begin painting it. I like to water down the paints so they are almost transparent and don’t obscure the details of the photo. You can always add another layer if the color is too subdued.
When you are done painting protect your work with a UV-resistant finish.

Canvas and oil paints from photos

oil painted photo
Glastonbury, Connecticut / hand painted photo on canvas using Marshall’s Oils.

This picture was taken on Ilford 3200 ASA black and white film in Glastonbury, Connecticut. It was then printed on an inkjet canvas- Lumijet masters Canvas. The
coloring process was a bit more difficult since the oil paints used here
(Marshall’s Oils) don’t blend as well on this type of surface, but the end result definitely justifies the effort.

Darkroom photographic paper

Downtown Boston / Hand colored silver gelatin print.
Downtown Boston / Hand colored silver gelatin print.

One of my favorite types of paper to color is silver gelatin. The best candidates are the ones that are printed on fiber matte, semi-matte or semi-gloss papers.

This picture taken in Downtown Boston was painted with standard acrylic paints. Here too, the paints were watered down to make them more transparent. Also make sure to keep a cotton swab or a piece of paper towel handy in case you mess up so you can wipe off the mistake right away. Keep in mind that acrylic paints dry quite quickly.


The statue of Liberty / hand painted photograph.
The statue of Liberty / hand painted photograph.

There are many ways to color and paint over a photograph. You can take the more traditional approach and color within the outlines of the photo, try the free form style, mix different painting approaches and tools, paint rather
than color, and even stamp and add text.

Typically, grey-toned pictures are easier to color, but as you can see in the example here, depending on your approach, dark-colored photos can work just as well.

The bottom line is to have fun with it, try different styles and experiment with various ideas and methods until you are happy with the end result.

Amit x 4 / hand painted photograph on canvas using acrylic paints.
Amit x 4 / hand painted photograph on canvas using acrylic paints.

A more playful approach was taken here and a black and white (not grayscale) photo of Amit was printed on inkjet canvas. It was painted using florescent acrylic paints.

Here are a few more examples:

Flower street, Downtown Los Angeles / Hand painted photo on canvas using acrylic paints.
Flower street, Downtown Los Angeles / Hand painted photo on canvas using acrylic paints.
Lexington, Virginia / Hand painted photograph on watercolor paper.
Lexington, Virginia / Hand painted photograph on watercolor paper.

And finally a picture I took in Manassas, Virginia. I printed it on a real artist canvas which was then painted by Bentzi Kallush using oil paints.

Manassas, Virginia / hand painted photo on canvas.
Manassas, Virginia / hand painted photo on canvas.

Nitsa Malik is originally from Israel but moved to Los Angeles in the early 90’s. Photographing with analogue cameras, experimenting in the darkroom, creating mixed media pieces and processing salt prints on sunny days. She is the author of the book So much More than Photography More information on her blog.

12 thoughts on “Handcoloring and painting photographs”

  1. Thank you for keeping this essential information online. Three decades ago, in high school, my daughter did beautiful hand-coloring with colored pencils, some of which I have framed and treasured. I hadn’t a clue as to how this was done or what materials would work. This month my brother sent me an 8 x 10 glossy black-and-white of our grandparents that he found — on eBay! — and I am hoping to colorize it. I will print it on matte paper so I have lots to practice on. That much I knew to do. The rest I am learning from this article. As my generation would say, keep on keeping on.

  2. Frances, I too prefer using laser over inkjet for obvious reasons. However, this specific article was written upon demand, for inkjet transfer. My new book “Beautiful Image Transfers” includes different type of transfers utilizing both inkjet and laser. check it out. 🙂

  3. I have been a handcolor artist for about 20 years. The lab I work with has recently converted to digital printing only. What papers do you recommend. I use Marshall’s oils….thanks in advance for any ideas.

  4. Stanislas, I’m not sure I understand your question but basically you can hand color anything, inkjet gloss, inkjet matt, textured papers, art papers, darkroom papers etc. sometimes you will need to prepare the paper to receive the paints better but its easy to do.
    You can check out the tutorial file download I have about hand coloring photos at: http://nonphotography.com/blog/books-downloads/

  5. These photos are incredible! I’m going to try hand-coloring salt prints in the near future as my next project. Thanks for the inspiration!!

  6. These are beautiful! I like to use PanPastels on Museo Portfolio rag to hand color my digital prints. I miss using Marshall oils on darkroom prints, but I achieve a similar look with the pastels.

  7. I have been hand coloring prints using crayon and artist pencils. Yours are way beyond anything I have done. Really nice! Guess I need to learn how to paint so I can do this, as I am not familiar with the materials.

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