Ever since seeing my gran’s hand-tinted wedding photo I’ve been interested in trying this technique myself. Photographers would use a set of Marshall oils, created for hand colouring photographs. You don’t have to use photo-specific oils. You can use dyes, inks, traditional oil paints, acrylics or even watercolours.
I began experimenting with watercolours because they were inexpensive and I already had a few tubes lying around. I recently tried hand colouring photographs with acrylics. I found they blended much better than watercolours and looked more natural too.
Where to begin?
The first thing to do is to choose your image and convert it to black and white in Photoshop or Lightroom. A lighter black and white image is going to work better than a dark image. Once you made your adjustments and you’re happy it’s now time to get your image ready to print. Decide on your print size and then your paper.
A matte paper seems to work better for watercolours than a glossy paper, but if you’re going to tint with acrylics it doesn’t matter what paper you choose. The experiments I have done have been on Epson Enhanced Matte paper and Epson Premium Lustre paper. I still want to do a print on some thicker cold press watercolour paper. Remember a thicker paper is better because when you start to paint with watercolours on your image a thinner paper tends to curl.
If you’re going to use acrylic paints, adding a retarder to the paint will prevent it from drying so fast, as acrylic paint dries very quickly. This way you have the opportunity to blend colours while the paint is still wet.
Whether you choose watercolours or acrylic paints to hand colour your photograph it’s a good to start with a simple palette of colours. Don’t buy the cheapest paints you can find, their quality is not good at all. I use Winsor & Newton’s Cotman watercolours and Galeria acrylic paints. Both in tube format. For watercolours you could also get a pan set.
My palate consists of:
Optional colours include:
How do I go about hand colouring photographs
Lay out your workspace with everything you need close at hand. Keep a few glasses of clean water for rinsing and some kitchen towel. I work with a variety of brush sizes, the small brushes are great for tiny bits of detail.
I’ve found that spraying the print with a re-workable fixative is a good idea. This prevents the ink from your print smudging when it comes in contact with watercolours. When painting it’s a good idea to start with a lighter shade of your chosen colour and work towards the darker shades. You can always add more colour but can’t take colour away. I work with a reference photo close at hand. Take your time and don’t rush.
How much of the image you add colour to is completely up to you. Some images might look great completely coloured in. Other images might look great with only one element with colour. The best thing to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.