Handcoloring using water, oil or chalk as a base

A chapter from Laura Blacklow’s book New Dimensions in Photo Processes on how to handcolor photographs. The chapter is instructions on hand coloring using water-based methods, oil-based method and chalk-based methods.

Writer / Laura Blacklow
Photography / Holly Roberts, Erica Daborn, Laura Blacklow and Gabriel Garcia Román

Hand colored photograph by Holly Roberts
2.1 Holly Roberts, Small Wolf with Forest, 12 x 12 in. (30.48cm), black and white gelatin silver print adhered to panel with oil paint over, 2000. Courtesy the artist.
Roberts has been blending painting and photography for over three decades. Her work challenges not only technical notions, but also, psychological ideas, and it offers no pat answers. Although the photo is of her daughter, Roberts says she wanted to address the wild nature inherent in every kid, but especially her youngest child, Teal.

Hand coloring is a means by which you can add color to a photograph, photographic printing technique in this book, or digital print and expand the visual and psychological impact. Those who do not feel comfortable drawing but feel the need for painterly expression may find satisfaction in hand coloring a photograph or digital print; modeling, perspective, and anatomy are already apparent in the image. One need not have a darkroom because there are numerous shops that will print for you or rent to you, and I have listed but a few at the end of this introduction. Hand coloring should be done in indirect daylight or under daylight-balanced fluorescent or blue-frosted daylight bulbs.

From the beginning of photography, daguerreotypes, which were the first practical photographic process and announced publicly in 1839, were hand colored by the very men and women who had previously been hired by patrons to paint miniature portraits. The neutral gray tones were not popular with sitters, so studios devised a method of dusting or lightly stippling with a fine brush a powdered pigment and mixing it with gum arabic on the delicate picture, then “fixing” the surface with the painter’s breath. Or, the colors were mixed in alcohol and brushed on so that they would dry rapidly to a visible tint. (You might mistake the pale blue areas in daguerreotype highlights with hand coloring, but the azure tinge often was due to over exposure. Jerry Spagnoli purposely uses that blue) Yet, right from the beginning, an ethical and aesthetic debate arose whether it was “impossible to add by the brush to the exquisite workings of nature’s pencillings.”

Even today, I know of traditionalists who find altering the “truthfulness” of photographs to be offensive, yet every time a photographer frames the world and excludes part of it, the image is just that—an image.

A few decades later, tintypes, a less expensive and, therefore, more popular form of photography with clientele from diverse economic backgrounds, were sometimes hand colored. Both the amount of time taken to paint and the reputation of the painter influenced the price, so less affluent sitters might ask for only rosy cheeks, whereas more expensive and completely colored portraits were seen as status symbols. The process of overpainting, where the layers of pigment are so dense that the photographic image is largely hidden, brought up some of the questionable advantages of such a method, used before airbrushing and Adobe Photoshop®, in order to hide “flaws” and even to pass as a painting!

Before color photography became widely available and relatively inexpensive in the 1960’s, studio photographers hired artists to apply transparent layers of thinned oil paints or water-based aniline dyes onto black-and-white portrait photographs, a method also referred to as hand tinting. One of those original companies, Marshall’s, is still very much alive, and I have used both their oils and pencils and listed them in Supply Sources under OmegaBrandess. Multiple layers of color were built up as the artist allowed each coating of paint or dye to dry and harden before adding another layer. Advertising firms sometimes use hand-colored touch-ups of color photographs to infuse objects with more vibrant color than they originally possessed, although digital imaging and touch-up are more common. Colorists also were sometimes hired to add color into black-and-white photographic murals. I often use a system of purposely creating gray-and-white digital prints or photocopies on paper from my black-and-white negatives or digital RAW shots, then opaquely pasteling over them, because certain inkjet papers also can be covered with oil-based and chalk-based mediums, detailed later in this chapter. I advise against trying to salvage an unsuccessful photograph; it will look like a bad photo with colors on top.

If you do not know how to use an analogue darkroom, you can hire someone to make black and white photographs. For instance, offering a dazzling array of services are Digital Silver Imaging in Boston, MA; the family-run Cox Lab near Sacramento, Ca; rental darkrooms, as well as, digital facility and alt. process workshops at London’s Photo Fusion; rental color and b/w darkrooms and gallery in Tokyo’s M Place); black and white film, toy camera and cross-processing of color film at the Darkroom in San Clemente, CA.

The two major categories of materials for hand coloring traditional photographs are water-based (toners, dyes, and watercolors) and oil-based (oil paints and special photo oils), which may be used alone or in combination with each other. If you combine the two methods, it is advisable to apply water-based colors first because oil-based materials will adhere to water-based ones, while water-based materials do not cover well over oil. Although I use pastels over digital prints on rag drawing paper, special matte or pearl resin-coated photo papers, such as ones made by Ilford, also accept pastels.

Handcoloured photograph by Erica Daborn
2.2 Erica Daborn, Men Only, from the Interplay Series, 21 ½ x 21 ¾ in. (54.6 × 55.2 cm), gouache, pencil, and ink drawing over inkjet print of enlarged bookplate, 2005. Courtesy the artist.
The drawings are made over carefully selected 1940’s and 1950’s photographic book pages, but the idea of transformation is central. The photographic fragment and what might be a deliberately crude drawing are forced to “live” together, thereby breaking down the distinction between traditional notions of the document and invention.

Selection of the coloring agent depends on whether you wish to apply color to a glossy photograph (water-based materials work more easily) or matte photograph (either oil- or water-based colors can be used), and the effect you wish to achieve (water-based colors seep into the gelatin coating of a photograph or the image area of a print allowing the detail of the photograph and texture of the paper to show; oil paints rest on the surface of the picture and can cover up photographic detail and the texture of the paper). Both oil-based and water-based colors can be applied to selective areas or the entire image, on paper as well as fabric. If you are hand coloring a digital print, the oil-based method does not work well because the oil seeps into the paper fiber and can yellow it over time.

When using a photograph, always start with a completely processed and carefully washed print. Oil paints work best on dry photos, while water colors, toners, and dyes work best on damp prints. Both can be applied to inkjet prints. If you have never painted before, you can purchase (or google) a color wheel to see an approximation of what will happen when you mix hues.

Enjoy the hours you might spend hand-coloring by providing yourself with a comfortable chair and work table, preferably near a window or skylight.

Water-based method for black and white photographs and historic process prints

Water-based materials come in a wide variety of colors and types, and they work well on many surfaces. Once you feel comfortable with the suggested procedure for water-based coloring, don’t be afraid to experiment. Many exciting results come from techniques that are not supposed to work.


Certain colors, such as emerald green, cobalt violet, true Naples yellow, all cadmium pigments, flake white, chrome yellow, manganese blue and violet, burnt umber, raw umber, Mars brown, lamp black, and vermillion, can lead to poisoning and other complications if they are ingested or inhaled frequently. When in doubt, look up the Materials Safety Data Sheet on your supplies.

Wearing a respirator and protective hand cream, working in a ventilated area, and carefully washing hands and cleaning fingernails with soap and water—not solvents—after using these pigments can help prevent accidental poisoning or ingestion of the colors. Never point the tip of a brush by putting it in your mouth.
Wear goggles and protective gloves to avoid eye contact with wetting agents and other chemicals.
Never smoke or eat while you are painting.

Method overview

  1. Photograph or photographic print is prepared.
  2. In daylight or mixture of fluorescent and incandescent light, colors are applied to build up areas or layers.
  3. Print is fixed to protect colors, or print is allowed to dry.


1Image.Black-and-white, toned, or color photographs are fine. There are two kinds of substrates: fiber (which takes longer to process but is considered more archival) and RC (a resin coating speeds up processing but can leave a plastic-y feel). In addition, the papers can be either variable contrast, which allows the darkroom practitioner to use almost any contrast b/w negative because the contrast can be changed at the enlarger with filters; or graded, which means that you need the correct kind of negative to obtain richer blacks than usually possible with VC paper.

2Almost any fiber-based photo paper works well with water-based materials, and that is the kind of paper I use and will list here. Lastly, the finish can be glossy, matte, or semi-matte/luster/pearl and the tones can be neutral or warm. Bergger makes one of the highest quality fiber papers, Prestige Glossy or Semi Gloss Warmtone. Ultrafine Silver Eagle, which I have not used, makes both glossy and matte variable contrast fiber paper. A limited quantity of Kentmere Select VC RC Lustre surface is good for hand coloring. In addition. Foma’s Fomotone Graded Matte is their premium paper, but they also make a VC warm tone paper and many others. Ilford Galerie is their ultra-high quality fiber paper but they also manufacture a matte, textured art paper, specifically recommended for hand coloring, as well as cool and warm toned semi matte paper. Oriental Seagull, another one of my favorites, comes as VC fiber Warmtone or neutral VC fiber papers Adox Premium fiber VC Glossy or Semi Matte, Arista fiber VC fine Grain Glossy or Semi-Matte. An almost unfathomable selection can be purchased at Freestyle Sales in the United States, listed in the Supply Sources!

3Using the antique methods described later in this book, photographic prints on artists’ rag paper will take water-based colors, but both photo paper and drawing/watercolor paper must be flattened because a crack or crease will show up as a dark streak when you color the picture. If you are working on a glossy print, use less water when mixing the tint. Natural or natural-synthetic fabrics will accept water-based colorants more easily if the cloth is ironed or tightened over canvas stretchers first, although most water-based paints fade when fabric is washed.

4In addition, water colors can be applied directly onto rage inkjet pictures; it seems that the digital coating acts like a sizing (See Chapter 4: Creating the Photo-Printmaking Studio for more about sizings.) I advise, however, that you let the inkjet print “set” for 24 hours before you apply water color and/or acrylic paint.

5Colors. Water-based substances include Marshall’s Retouch Colors, Nicholson’s Peerless Transparent Water Colors, PEBEO Colorex ink, artists’ watercolors and acrylic paints, food coloring, coffee, tea, batik dyes, photo chemicals (see Chapter16, Chromoskedasic Painting and Lumen sections) and felt tip pens. I have found Dr. Ph. Martin’s Synchromatic Transparent Colors to be the most intense (https://www.docmartins.com). Marshall’s retouch colors and Dr. Martin’s colors come in bottles of concentrated dyes that can be purchased at photography stores or directly form the producer. They can be diluted with water before use and they also can be air brushed, as can Badger Air Brush Colors. You can also use white opaque watercolors (gouache) to cover small dark areas.

6Nicholson’s Peerless Watercolors, available at art stores, come in two forms: concentrated liquid and dry sheet. They are made for application on black-and-white photographic paper and the dry sheets are great to travel with because they are packaged as booklets of color-saturated sheets. They can be wetted with a brush for application directly onto the image. Or a piece of the sheet can be cut off, placed in a bowl, and covered with just enough water to dissolve the color from the sheet. Excess color can be blotted off with the blotter supplied in the booklet or removed entirely by immersing the print face down in a pan of water.

7Food coloring found in grocery stores (the least expensive, but also a fugitive coloring agent) or tubes of watercolor paints from art stores can be applied to photos if a wetting agent, such as Kodak Photo-Flo or Ox Gall, purchased at an art store, is added to either of them before use. Food coloring, however, is difficult to remove from a print after it has been applied. Ralph Hattersley suggests using medicinal dyes, such as merthiolate (shocking pink) and gentian violet (purple) to extend the limited range of food colors (Photographic Printing, 1977, p. 221). See the tips on page 71 at the end of Toning, Chapter 3 for more ideas concerning medicinal and food dyes.

8On black-and-white photos, I have taken to drawing with color spotting pens, which are intended for getting rid of problems in color photos. Alcohol-based permanent markers can add a wet-on-wet color quality to glossy photographs and laser color copies, while nonpermanent felt-tip pens are great for tiny areas. But most ingenious of all is Zig Photo twin tip markers, which look like markers but have both a fine and broad brush on each pen. They can be used to tint photos and write or draw and are both light-fast and acid free. And one colorist recommends fluid makeup from any cosmetic manufacturer, if you use it on a matte surface and let it dry thoroughly for a few minutes after applying it.

9Photographic prints on sized or unsized artists’ papers and fabric images made by the techniques described in this book take to water-based materials in varying degrees. On rag paper and fabric, artists’-quality watercolor paints and water-based felt pens work well, as do retouch colors and Peerless colors, colored pencils (Prisma is my favorite brand), crayons, and pastels. Prisma also markets Col-erase colored pencils once used on blueprints and engineering drawings, and they come in 24 colors. For fabric, Binney and Smith makes Crayola Craft™ fabric crayons and fabric markers, and Pentel makes Fabricfun™ acid-free pastel dye sticks, which become permanent when heated. Perusing the aisles of a craft store will offer imaginative possibilities for adding color to fabric and rag paper. I have liked using procion natural dyes with an alginate thickener so that I can paint without the color bleeding on natural fabrics. Because these dyes change the color of each fiber, rather than staining or sitting atop the fabric, they are more permanent. I cannot always use water-based materials to color digital prints because sometimes they will dissolve the digital ink, so I test first.

10Toothpicks, skewers, cotton swabs, absorbent cotton, sable water color brushes, such as Winsor & Newton series 7 No. 0 and No. 2, or cosmetic sponge. By wrapping a thin piece of absorbent or surgical cotton—not synthetic cotton—around a toothpick or a bamboo skewer (available in butcher shops and barbeque suppliers), you can make an inexpensive, disposable tool for coloring details. Marshall’s packages either metal and wood skewers in their kits. A damp sponge or cotton ball lightly wiped over the surface of a photograph facilitates the application of colors in large areas.

11Ilford Ilfotol, Kodak Photo-Flo, Edwal Wetting Agent, Ox Gall, liquid dish soap, or an equivalent wetting agent by other manufacturers can be purchased from a photography store (wetting agents are usually used when developing film) or art store. See item 2 above about food coloring. Mixing a strong solution of wetting agent, such as a few drops to 2 oz (59 ml) distilled water will create a solution that can be carefully swabbed onto an unwanted color to remove it from an area that has been hand colored. I also use it to prepare the photo emulsion to accept color.

12Water. You do not need running water, but you will need a tray of 32 oz (946 ml) of water at room temperature. You may need a beaker to dilute the wetting agent with water.

13Household ammonia can be diluted with water, picked up on a cotton swab, and gently rubbed in a circular motion on undesirable color for partial removal of that color. Then, swab the area with clean water-dampened cotton, making sure to gradually remove all the ammonia. Too much rubbing, however, will lift off the emulsion of that image. Allow the area to dry before you apply more liquid colors.

14Masking tape is needed to secure the print to your work surface. Make the tape less sticky and less likely to damage your print by patting a length of it onto your clothes before using it. When you are finished coloring, you can remove the tape easily, leaving the print with clean borders. For prints on artists’ paper, drafting tape is less sticky and will not rip artwork when removed. I prefer the acid-free artists’ masking tape for archival reasons. In addition, the application with a brush of masking liquid, rubber cement, or frisket will assure white borders and is easily removed. Brushes may need to be cleaned in solvent, so wear gloves and respirator. Only wear a respirator mask if you are neither pregnant nor suffer from heart and lung diseases. Consult with a doctor.

15Newspaper or glass protects a tabletop from stains caused by the dyes. Make sure that your work surface is smooth, because indentations show up as imperfections in the colored area of the image, and roomy so that you do not have to worry about spills.

16Facial tissues such as Scott Precision Wipes, can blot liquid color and wipe the brush of excess color. Or, you can use white blotter paper to gain control over the strength of the applied color. Protective silicon hand cream from a hardware store is needed if you plan to apply color without wearing gloves.

17Medicine dropper, available at drug stores or Photographer’s Formulary, controls the dilution of mixed solutions. A measuring cup is needed for mixing the solution. Some colorists use a magnifying glass or lamp with magnifying lens for detailed work.

18Bowls, flat white palette, or paper cups. Use small white bowls or paper cups to hold diluted colors. A white ice cube tray also makes an efficient palette, as does the white plastic watercolor palettes available at an art supply store.

Water coloring method

Prepare workspace
2.3 Prepare the work space and tools. This can be done in daylight.

1Prepare the work space and tools
Press 2 in. (5 cm) wide masking or drafting tape to the work surface and picture. Continue pressing half the tape flush to the border of the image, and half the tape to the work surface. Tape down all sides of the print in this fashion. Rubber cement (used as described in the toning chapter) also can mask out areas that you do not want to tint. Using a medicine dropper and a measuring cup, mix one drop of wetting agent to 4 oz (114 ml) of water. With a wad of cotton or sponge soaked in the Photo Flo-water solution, spread the liquid over the photograph’s surface. While it is soaking in, make the tooth picks or skewers for coloring or “erasing” small areas: wrap a thin amount of absorbent cotton around a toothpick that has been dipped in water.

Prepare palette and apply colour
2.4 Prepare the Palette and Apply the color. This can be done in daylight. Wear protective gloves.

2Prepare the palette and apply the color
Squirt one drop of each color or squeeze a pea-sized amount of pigment into separate bowls or cups, or mix different colors in the same white saucer to create new hues. I re-create a color wheel in the way I lay out pigments.
Add drops of the diluted wetting agent to each bowl of color until you make the color a shade lighter than you want on the print. Mix thoroughly. Save the unused, diluted wetting agent.
Saturate another cotton ball with the wetting agent/color mixture, then apply the color lightly to a large area (such as the background) by quickly stroking the image with the color. If the hue is too light, re-saturate the cotton ball and reapply the wetting agent and color to the picture.

Remove the color
2.5 Remove the Color. This can be done in daylight. Wear protective gloves.

3Remove color (optional) and add more color
In a cup, mix one drop of bleach to ten drops of water. Saturate a cotton swab with this mixture, and lightly rub an area of unwanted color with the swab. Blot the area dry with tissues or blotter paper. Dip a fresh cotton swab into another bowl of color and stroke the swab in a new area of the image. Remove unwanted color if you need to. A cotton-wrapped toothpick, pointed sable brush with less color, or a felt tip pen, works in small areas. Clean brushes after each use.

4Finish the print
Air dry the colored print overnight. If you want to work further on the print, you can use more water-based color or oil-based pigments. Carefully remove the masking tape after you have completed coloring.


  • As with numerous processes in art, new painters will avoid some frustrations if they start small, get used to the procedure, and then work larger if desired. I recommend you start with an 8 × 10 in. (20.5 × 25.5 cm) photo that does not contain many small details. If you cannot afford the lamps with fluorescent and incandescent bulbs, set up near a window so that you work with a combination of indirect sunlight and a desk lamp.
  • If the liquid dyes dry out, you can add a little distilled water to make them usable again.
  • It is better to start with too light a hue because you can always add more layers, but removing dye is much more difficult.
    If you apply too much color, quickly blot with a paper towel.
  • If one hue is too brilliant, add a touch of a neutral color, such as brown, or add a small amount of its opposite color on the color wheel.
  • Highlights, shadows, and modeling in the photographic print can show through the layers of paint. Start with a color lighter than you want, and slowly build up layers until the desired chroma is achieved.
  • I enjoy using a color you might not expect to find in a certain area as an accent or detail.
    If you allow a large border around your print, you can test colors before you apply them. Mark Morrisoe, who went to the Museum School, kept the marks visible on his finished work.
  • Some photo paper companies make mural paper in rolls. The toning chapter details the processing system used at the Museum School.

Oil-based method

Oil-based hand-coloring materials are easier to control and apply than water-based ones. Mistakes made with oil paints and photo oils can be removed easily, and prints can be reworked, yet oil-based paints have the greatest permanence of all hand-coloring materials.


Turpentine (found in Marshall’s Photo Oils Prepared Medium Solution) can cause skin and respiratory irritation, allergic reaction, and kidney damage, sometimes years after exposure. It is highly poisonous if ingested and should be stored out of children’s reach. Wear a respirator if you are neither pregnant nor suffer from heart and lung diseases. Consult with a doctor.

Wear protective gloves and work in a well-ventilated area.

Certain pigments, as listed in the safety section above for the water-based method, can be toxic.
Never smoke or eat while painting, and do not allow any painting materials to come into contact with your face.

Marshall’s Pre-Color Spray and other primers are toxic and highly flammable, so do not use them near an open flame or throw the empty can into a fire. Spray outdoors or in a very well-ventilated room while you wear a mask.

Trichlorethylene, found in Marshall’s Marlene, is a suspected cancer-producing agent. It is highly toxic by inhalation and ingestion, causing possible nervous system disorders and reproductive system problems. Trichlorethylene products have been associated with a risk of “Sudden Sniffing Death” due to fatal heart abnormalities. I strongly urge you not to use it, but if you must, be sure to wear protective gloves and a vapor mask and work in a well-ventilated area (i.e., one that has 20 changes of air per hour). In the presence of flames, even lighted cigarettes, and ultraviolet light, trichlorethylene can decompose into a toxic gas. It is flammable if heated. Instead, substitute less toxic solvents, such as orange oil (CitraSolv, De-Solv-it, and the most eco-friendly ZAcryl D-Solv) because they show no carcinogenic or neurotoxin hazards comparable to petrochemical solvents, and are biodegradable. Use with caution, gum turpentine, which is toxic by skin contact and inhalation but extremely toxic by ingestion. Chronic exposure to turpentine can cause serious kidney problems and allergic sensitization, which may not show up until after years of exposure.

Method overview

  1. Photograph or photographic print is prepared.
  2. In daylight or mixture of fluorescent and incandescent light, colors are applied to build up areas or layers.
  3. Print is fixed to protect colors, or print is allowed to dry.

Materials for handpainting photos

1Image.Black-and-white, toned, or color fiber based and not RC photographs work fine. Suitable fiber papers include Bergger Semi Matte, Forte Matte, Kentmere, and some of the smaller manufacturers, who will probably be the sole sources of any kind black-and-white photo papers in short time. More papers and their descriptions are listed above, in the Materials section of Water-based Method. Check out Freestyle Sales (see Supply Sources) because they carry Adox with its high silver content and Foma contact speed. I have used glossy photo paper because I like the way it renders strong blacks, but matte and semimatte are much easier to work on. If you are starting with a glossy print, a layer of Marshall’s Pre-Color Spray makes the surface easier on which to apply color, but is not obligatory. Wear a mask if you spray and spray outdoors.
Photographs should be dry and flat because a crack in a print will show up as a dark streak of color. Work from a technically good and slightly light photograph—it is difficult to conceal a muddy image. Some photographers prefer first toning the photo (Chapter 3) before hand coloring so they can change the blacks and even the paper base. Other variables to consider include the contrast, or amount of black, white, and gray; the image tone (whether it is a warm brown-black, a cool blue-black, or a neutral green-black); and the base of the photo paper itself, which can be bright white or off-white. You might find it less frustrating and less expensive to start with an 8 × 10 in. (20.5 × 25.5 cm) image with simple shapes and work up to larger, more complicated pictures. Making several copies of the same image frees you up to practice and experiment.
Use the light-sensitive techniques in this book on fabrics such as linen and other natural fibers, which accept oil-based colorants and work best if first ironed or pulled over canvas stretchers.
If you want to oil paint on a digital print, try inkjet media canvas, which has a digital coating. In addition, some commercial labs print on prepared canvas. I advise, however, that you let the inkjet print “set” for 48 hours before you stretch it and apply paint.

2Oil-based colors. Paints made especially for application onto photographs include Marshall’s Photo Oil Colors, and, for saturated hues, see Brandess/Kalt and Marshall’s Extra Strong Colors in the Supply Sources. Marshall’s also manufactures Photo Oil Pencils and pencil blender, great for coloring small details, and extender, which has a variety of uses; the addition of extender to Marshall’s oil colors creates more subtle hues, helps move color across the photo’s surface and works well for cleaning paint away from small areas. The extender, Grumbacher Transparentizer Gel for Oil Paints, Gamblin Solvent-Free, non-toxic Gel Medium for oil colors, or Weber Res-N-Gel Oil Painting Medium, in art stores, can be mixed with traditional artists’ oil paints for easier application onto photos or for thinning a color so that the highlight detail, shadow, and modeling of the photograph show through the layer of color. Marshall’s Introductory Kit, which I recommend if this is your first effort, contains everything you will require, but it does not include extender. You can buy a separate tube if you need it.
The photograph acts like a painter’s underpainting, and the layers of color act like a painter’s glazes. Allow one layer of color to dry before adding another.

3Cotton balls and cotton swabs. Surgical cotton—not synthetic—balls or absorbent cotton apply color in large areas of the picture, while swabs such as Q-tips blend the edges of areas of different colors. Both products are available in drugstores. See item 3 above and the first step-by-step photo in Water Coloring Method, for more details.

4Toothpicks, bamboo or metal skewers, sandwich toothpicks, and pointed red sable brushes. By wrapping a thin piece of absorbent cotton around a toothpick or a wooden hibachi skewer (available in butcher shops), you can make an inexpensive, disposable tool for coloring details and removing unwanted paint from small areas. Because the hibachi skewer is long, it is great for reaching the bottom of an almost-empty bottle. You can order extra Marshall’s skewers and cotton from Brandess/Kalt/Aetna (see Supply Sources). Keep applicators, whether brushes or cotton on skewers, clean so that you will not end up with muddy colors.

5Palette. A sheet of glass underlined with white paper or a white china plate best displays true colors, and you can mix colors on such a palette. The disposable paper palettes available in art stores, acetate, or interleafing clipped to white cardboard also work well. Wax paper is not advisable because the wax can chip into the paint.

6Surface preparation. Rectified gum turpentine (sold at art stores) or Marshall’s Prepared Medium Solution is wiped over the surface of an uncolored photograph to make the colors spread more easily. Kira Brown, in Photo Techniques Magazine (September/October, 2000), advises to be careful not to oversaturate the surface or the colors will not stay on the photograph well, a problem particularly frustrating if the photo has a glossy surface. Squeeze most of the liquid out of a cotton ball before beginning and do not press down too hard. Allow the solution to dry until the surface is soft, but not slick. In addition, either of these solvents soaked onto a cotton swab can be used to soften the tips of colored pencils for a less streaky effect. Use Turpentine and P.M. Solution to clean unwanted oil paint or try the less harmful orange oil (CitraSolv, De-Solv-it, and the most eco-friendly ZAcryl D-Solv).
Grumbacher’s or Marshall’s Pre-Color Spray dulls glossy photos and thus makes the image surface easier to work on. Marshall’s recommends using Marlene to remove unwanted paint, but it will also strip these primer sprays off the photo. Use a kneaded eraser instead.
You do not have to prepare photographic prints on traditional artists’ paper unless the paper grips colors too much for you to control; Marshall’s Pre-Color Spray helps avoid stains from the paints.

7Kneaded eraser or Marshall’s Prepared Medium Solution can remove small areas of unwanted color—this must be done before the paint dries and hardens. Kneaded erasers, such as Faber Castell Peel-Off Magic Rub nonabrasive erasers, are sold at art stores and are made of malleable rubber that can be worked to a fine point. Eraser particles can be dusted off with canned air, and I find them the most effective way of “erasing”. PM (prepared media) solution is really helpful to prepare the surface to accept colors.

8Fixative (optional) can be used to protect the surface after an image has been painted and dried. Fixatives are sold in art stores, but not all are of archival quality because they can yellow a print within a few years. Spray fixatives are toxic if inhaled, and a ventilating mask should be worn when you use them. Schminke et al., in Digital Art Studio (see Bibliography), offer a postcoat formula you can mix from acrylic-matte medium and isopropyl alcohol.

9Facial tissues without additives such as aloe or oil. Because of health risks (refer to Safety section), color should be smoothed on with a finger covered with a tissue, such as Scott Precision wipes, or a soft piece of cloth, such as an old handkerchief. Protective silicon hand cream from a hardware store or art store is needed if you plan to rub color in with your bare fingers.

10Masking tape is needed to secure the print to your work surface. Make it less sticky and less likely to damage your print by patting a length onto your clothes before using it. When you are finished coloring, you can remove the tape easily, leaving the print with clean borders. For prints on artists’ paper, drafting tape, which is less sticky, is advised because it will not rip your artwork when removed. Or, use the tape to avoid getting color onto the border if you want the edges to be clean.
Badger’s Foto Frisket Film can keep the borders white as well as temporarily seal a color when you apply another color near it. The film comes in sheets that are cut with a sharp blade in daylight. Many art companies make liquid frisket, and some are specifically intended for photos. I also use neutral pH rubber cement, which I mix with red food coloring so that I can see where I have laid down the mask. Apply to a dry photograph.

11Newspaper or glass protects Newspaper or glass protects a tabletop from stains caused by turpentine and oils. Make sure that your work surface is smooth, because indentations will show up as imperfections in the colored area of the image. Paper towels under your hand help protect a wet area from smudging and from collecting fingerprints and perspiration.

12Spotting fluids, retouch colors, or spotting pens, available at photography supply sources, eliminate white marks on the photo, often caused by dust on the negative when it is being printed. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and spot before you paint.

Oil-painting method

Please note: in these step-by-step pictures, I am applying oil paint on top of water-based colors.

prepare surface
2.6 Prepare the Work Space, Tools, and Photograph. Can be done in daylight. Use a respirator and protective gloves.

1Prepare the work space, tools, and photograph
Press a length of masking or drafting tape half to the work surface and half along the border of the image and beyond the print. Tape down all sides of the print in this fashion. Use Frisket along the white border (optional). Spot the print to eliminate printing imperfections.
Set out all colors by squeezing pea-sized amounts onto the palette. Arranging in color groups, as suggested by a color wheel, may make work easier.
Fray the edges of a ½ × ½ in. (1.25 × 1.25 cm) piece of cotton to make a painting tool, as shown in step 1, Water Coloring Method, above.
Saturate a cotton ball with P.M. Solution or turpentine. Carefully rub the entire photograph with the cotton, then use a facial tissue to evenly wipe off the excess until the print appears dry. You may need to re-prime areas if you continue to work a day or two later. Prepare glossy surfaces with Marshall’s Pre-Color Spray. Hold the can 12 in. (30.5 cm) from the print and spray back and forth. After the coating has dried, spray the print using an up-and-down motion. Matte surfaces may need no preparation.

apply color
2.7 Apply Color. Can be done in daylight. Use a respirator and protective gloves.

2Apply color
Use colors straight or mix colors on the palette by blending paint with a cotton swab. Pick up approximately ⅛ tsp of paint on a cotton ball and rub it into a large area, such as the background. Do not worry about keeping the color within a border, but keep rubbing the color until it is smooth and does not glisten when viewed from an angle. If color overruns an area, clean it off with a cotton-wrapped skewer dipped in Marlene, extender, or turpentine. Blot the area dry with a tissue. Use a kneaded eraser to remove excess paint from prints treated with Pre-Color Spray.

blend colours
2.8 Blend the Colors. Can be done in daylight. Use a respirator and protective gloves.

3Blend the colors
Use your finger, safeguarded with silicon protective cream, a tissue, or dry cotton to rub paint and blend edges of an area. Always rub down each area and remove excess paint before applying color to an adjacent area.
Use a fresh cotton swab and 1/16 tsp of paint to apply another color to a medium-sized area. Clean the print as previously described. A cotton-wrapped toothpick with less paint or photo pencils will work to apply color in small areas. Paint as much of the image as you want, taking into account how the actual tones of the photo affect the colors.

4Finish the print. Can be done in daylight.
Air dry the colored print overnight. If you want to work color into a print that has been colored and dried, use extender or gel mixed into the new pigment, which makes a color lighter and more sheer. Remove the masking tape after you have completed the coloring or use a kneaded eraser to clean up the border.


  • See tips for water-based materials, in the first part of this chapter.
  • Almost any brand of artists’ colored and graphite pencils, crayons, dry dyes and pastels can be used on photographs if you prepare the surface beforehand with a layer of workable fixative, or Grumbacher’s or Marshall’s Pre-Color Spray, available at art stores. All of these sprays are toxic and flammable, so treat photos outdoors or in a strongly ventilated area. After applying pencil color to the print surface, rub it in with a cotton ball or swab.
  • Highlights, shadows, and modeling in the photographic print can show through the layers of paint. Start with a color paler than what you want and slowly build up layers until the desired chroma is reached. Once a color has dried onto the photograph, never use P.M. Solution or turpentine to work more color into that area—these preparations can loosen the underpainting.
    I tend to work from the inside to the outside of an image and to turn the photo upside down so as not to smudge paint already on it. I also find it easier to work with a sheet of clean paper toweling under my wrist and to wait a few hours for the first layer of color to set before adding a hue on top. In addition, you do not need to worry about “staying within the lines” because you can always precisely remove paint later.
  • Days later, paint on a palette may dry and form a skin, but you can prick the skin with a toothpick, remove it, and use the loose paint underneath. (If a cap on a tube of paint sticks, you can loosen it by holding a lighted match under the cap for a few seconds.)
  • The Marshall’s kits are packaged with what, at first, I considered hilarious instructions for how to, for instance, paint “flesh”. However, I realize now that, with some thought and looking, you can take the basic instructions and modify them to your purposes, or deliberately do the opposite!
  • You can completely remove a color, even after it has dried, with Marshall’s Marlene, but remember to re-apply PM solution before you re-work that area.
  • When using the Marshall’s or Prisma pencils, be careful not to press so hard that you leave an indentation.
    You can also use fabrics especially manufactured for digital printers with mediums, such as oil paints, but you should test the substrate first by placing a drop of linseed or vegetable oil on the coated side, then seeing if the oil goes through and stains the back after a day, indicating that it will not work.
  • My students have successfully ironed thin papers and fabrics onto wax paper, sent the two through a printer, then easily peeled the wax paper off afterward.
  • When color office copiers were first being introduced, I was invited to try one out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I think I might have given the technicians a heart attack when I applied and ironed many layers of spray starch on the back of synthetic satin, but this method stiffened the fabric so it behaved like paper, and it worked! William Paul & Associates (see Supply Sources) sells Vesta inkjet cotton canvas and Brandess/Kalt/Aetna (see Supply Sources) sells Marshall’s InkJet Canvas and Photo Oil sets for running through digital printers. They are water-resistant and have a matte surface.
  • Schminke et al., the authors of Digital Art Studio (see Bibliography). explain how to use digital printers with leather, matte board, corrugated cardboard, and other surfaces, but they are careful to use a special precoat and to make sure that the materials are not too thick to fit through the printer.
Laura Blacklow handpainted photograph
Fig 2-9 Laura Blacklow, Shards, 22 x 30 in. (56 x 76.2 cm), pastels on black and white inkjet print on rag vellum paper. ©LBlacklow
I made this piece with words excerpted from my journal. At the time, which was a decade ago, the only rag digital paper at the Museum School, where I teach, was vellum. It is challenging to work on because synthetic vellum stretches a bit, rips fairly easily, and does not like to hold layers of chalky hues. On the other hand, the surface has a translucency that seems to make the colors glow, and I apply the pastels to a low contrast (mostly gray) under-image. I had to cover my studio wall with flat white matte board to which I attached the vellum because it would otherwise pick up the texture of the plaster wall. In addition, I utilized a restaurant-size exhaust fan, so that I could spray fixative as I worked or walk out of my studio at the end of the day.

Challk-based methods for hand-coloring digital prints


You need to protect yourself and others from breathing in pastel’s chalky particles and some colors are toxic (particularly alizarin, benzadine, chrome, cobolt, cadmium, manganese, and lead but not so much ultramarine and iron). If your studio is in your living area, change your clothes and shoes before closing the door and leaving. Do not let children into the studio.

Wear a respirator mask if you are neither pregnant nor suffer from heart and lung diseases. Consult with a doctor.

Work in a well-ventilated area that pulls air away from your face.

Handpainting method overview

  1. Digital image is printed in black and white on digital rag paper or picture in an historical technique is created on rag paper.
  2. Color is applied and usually is eventually blended.
  3. Pastels are spray fixed. More color can be added later, then fixed again.

Materials for handcolouring photographs

1Substrate. Slightly textured rag digital papers, akin to the printmaking papers recommended for the hand-coated processes in this book, are available. My favorites are those made by Hahnemühle, Somerset, Moab (I use their Duo for two-sided pages in my hand-bound books), and Platine. If you are going to make a digital picture for your base, I advise that you use the more archival pigment inks in your printer and test on small pieces of paper to save money and the environment by discarding less paper. If you are willing to work on traditional rag paper, your job is a bit easier, as the pastels glide across the surface more easily. Non-digital paper does absorb more ink.
I start with a digital print or a pale—maybe 10-15% lighter— hand-coated print created from one of the techniques in this book. If you have used one of the hand-coating processes in this book, you can employ either pastel sticks or pastel pencils and all the other materials in this section.
If you have used one of the hand-coating processes in this book, you can employ either pastel sticks or pastel pencils and all the other materials in this section.

2Pastels. I use traditional dry and not oil pastels while wearing a dust mask and skin-protecting lotion. I have found that the colors apply without streaks if I rub the chalk onto scrap paper first, then pick up that dust with my (protected) fingers and rub onto the paper. Carefully done, you can smoothly apply pastel to larger areas by removing the wrapper and using the chalk on its side.
My favorite brand is the French Sennelier Soft pastels, a company started in 1887 by a chemist, and a close second is Germany’s Schmincke Soft pastels, a business founded in 1861. For the method I use, I find these silky pastels the most malleable. http://www.sennelier-colors.com/en/Atelier_58.html has tutorials. Pastel pencils are also available, and I use them in small areas or the picture.
The traditional order is to work from hard pastel to soft pastel, a practice I sometimes ignore.

3Helpful tools. In addition to your fingers, you can spread and smooth pastels with a soft paintbrush; pastel shapers, which come in assorted shaped rubber points and look a bit like a paintbrush, some of which also have a brush at the other end of the handle; tortillons or stumps made from tightly wrapped paper and shaped like crayons (When the tip looks dirty from use, you unwrap the paper to expose a clean end. I actually have one for each primary and secondary hue on the color wheel); Q-tips or the equivalent generic brand, which are good for blending small areas, even though I prefer tortillons; and chamois to blend large areas of colors, but I have found remove too much color although it lasts forever because all you do is wash and dry it, then use it again.
Finger cots protect your skin from becoming raw—mine dries out from the chalk and washing. Moist cleaning wipes are helpful, even though they dry your skin a bit.
A kneaded eraser is really helpful for taking away color, a process that also keeps the whites white. You can change it from the rectangular block when you purchase it by easily “sculpting” it into whatever shape you need. After the eraser collects chalk, twist and break off that area.

4Fixative is used to protect the surface after an image has been colored and to improve its lightfastness. Fixatives are sold in art stores, but not all are of archival quality because some yellow a print within a few years. Some are called workable fixatives, and they are less permanent, making them the solution if you want to layer without completely blending. Not only do fixatives darken the color, a factor you can keep in mind so that you work lighter than the desired end result, but also they impart a bit of a gloss. Spray fixatives are toxic if inhaled, flammable, and possible carcinogens. So a respirator mask should be worn when you use them, you should spray outside or in a room from which you can walk away leaving a window open, even with a fan. I have found no way around fixative; even after you frame a chalked print, the dust can migrate to the Plexiglas™. Even storing without fixative does not work for me because the colors come off either onto interleafing or the back of the next print unless each print is overmatted. Do not use hair spray, which does not disperse evenly and contains additives for hair!
Sennelier makes my favorite fixative, which is supposed to be sprayed lightly and repeatedly. Spectra makes one from milk casein with water, grain alcohol and isopropyl alcohol, and it comes in a fine mist pump sprayer; the manufacturer says that it minimally alters the value and does not change the hue of pastels.
Degas made his own fixative with secret ingredients, but historians think it was a mixture of shellac and maybe alcohol. An old recipe includes gum arabic and water mixed with glycerin and sprayed via an atomizer. I have heard of contemporary pastel painters using watered down polymer medium in an airbrush or atomizer.

5Protective gloves or special hand crème, available at an art store.

6Acid-free or drafting/artist’s tape at least 1 in. (2.5 cm) wide.

7Disposable floor covering (optional) or table covering. I use smooth Plexiglas™ that I can wash clean.

Pastels methods when handcoloring photos

Colour photographs wiwth pastels
2.10 Apply the Chalk. Can be done in daylight. Wear protective gloves.

1Apply the chalk
You can tape your print to a vertical wall, but first put a covering on the floor to catch the toxic dust so you can wrap it up and throw it out at the end of each session. Or, you can work on a smooth table. Tape the whole picture down, not only to keep it in place, but also to maintain white borders if you want them. I apply barrier cream to my hands, then often start coloring the part of the photo that is furthest away in the scene.

2Create new colors
Can be done in daylight. Wear protective gloves.
Blend other colors into the ones you have laid down. Why not? If you want a more representative appearance, you can always shoot and print a color photograph! If you are blending with your fingers, clean your hands regularly so as not to create a muddy color, but then put on fresh barrier cream again. You can keep your print horizontal as you spray workable fixative to partially preserve layers before you add new ones, like Edgar Degas did.

3Finish the print.
Can be done in daylight. Wear protective gloves and dust mask.
Once you see that the picture is how you want it, spray it with fixative outdoors. For the final coating of fixative, stand the artwork upright, avoid a swinging motion, but be sure that the nozzle is always the same distance (approximately 18 in. or 45.72 cm) away.

Tips on handcoloring photographs

Spray the fixative so that the draw from a fan or direction of wind will not carry the fumes by your nose.
You will notice that the spray also darkens the color a bit. Spray on good light with a smooth, even motion; you will know if you have consistently covered your art by how evenly the colors darken.

Grumbacher advises that fixatives first be tested on a small, inconspicuous area and let dry; that fixative be used about 65° F (18.3° C) and humidity below 65 percent; that it be sprayed lightly; and that you allow the fixative to completely dry before touching the work.

You should rinse the nozzle of your spray bottle with alcohol to prevent it from clogging.

To frame the work, make sure you use an over matte so that the pastel does not touch the glass. With large pieces, you may be forced to use Plexiglas™ which, due to static electricity, will attract unfixed chalk particles.

Gabriel Garcia Román handcoloured photograph
2.12 Gabriel Garcia Román, Carlos and Fernando, 18 x 15 in. (45.72 x 38.1cm), photogravure portraits with chine-colle and silkscreened text, 2016.
Although the techniques used in Roman’s “Queer Icons” are not covered in this book, the ideas and visual impact could be inspiring in any medium. The artist invited the subjects to write, then he used their handwriting as an environment for the portraits. I think that, by giving “outsiders” a voice, Roman has humanized them. The translation is: “FVCKTM 2015 Raised on beans and family Two pour-overs and sweet bread. We were in NYC, PHX, SB & now puro Los Angeles I am 1978 California Parents from Michoacan. Pure fucking Queer! A little nook for the family. Dreamers and badasses. We are in love with our animals, those personalities. We are cosmic Chicanos from the stars.
Dancing. Searching. Running. Nor from here but neither from there. Educated Pochos. American We are Latinos for Obama and Juan-Ga during the morning. AH-Ha! Learning how to let go to hold on… I am 1977. E L A and Pico. Bicultural. Pure heart. Stuffed peppers, Parents to Vida, Kiko, Montse and Teo We are non-profit love. Breathing happiness.”

Laura Blacklow, a professional artist for over forty years, is the author of New Dimensions in Photo Processes: A Step-By-Step Manual for Alternative Techniques. She is a faculty member at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University and volunteer at Fotokidsoriginal in Guatemala. More of her work can be seen at laurablacklow.com

Get Laura Blacklow's book
New Dimensions in Photo Processes

New Dimensions in Photo Processes

by Laura Blacklow

Clear instructions in step-by-step to many of the processes.

3 thoughts on “Handcoloring using water, oil or chalk as a base”

  1. I found this “recipe” on FaceBook (https://www.facebook.com/MARSHALLPHOTOCOLOR/posts/tip-for-the-day-looking-for-pm-solution-joe-dahlgren-suggests-on-the-wwwphotonet/1326297577421587/)to make P.M. Solution, and it is similar to the items Marshall’s used to list on their label: Joe Dahlgren suggests on the http://www.photo.net site – Substitute PM solution by using turpentine about at around 2/3, and 1/3 safflower oil. I have used Turpenoid and it seems to work as well and not smell as bad. Distilled turpentine would probably be safer as far as yellowing down the road. Safflower oil has been used for making white oil paint for years as it does not yellow.”
    I hope this helps. I apologize for the delay.


  2. I use to hand tint way back. And I’m now considering on getting back to it. I’m having trouble locating Marshall’s P.M. solution. Do you definitively know whether that product is no longer being made??

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