Hand-Color Black And White Photographs

Step by step guide to hand-coloring black and white photographs, for a beautiful, nostalgic look.

We've all seen beautiful hand-colored black and white photographs. A lovely shot of a child with lightly tinted cheeks and an armful of flowers, or a black and white beach with red and blue striped umbrellas. Perhaps you've wondered how it was done. Perhaps you've even assumed only professionals could create such images. The truth is it's actually quite simple once you know how. With the proper tools, anyone can create professional-looking hand-tinted photographs.

To get started, buy some black and white film. It's sold anywhere film is sold. Try Kodak Plus-x or Tri-x Pan. Next, go out and shoot! Landscapes, portraits-anything goes! For beginners, it's best to start with uncluttered photos, free of unnecessary details and distractions. A shot that is light in overall tone will work best.

After you've taken your pictures, get them developed and look them over. Choose one or two to hand-color. Take the negatives to a photo store, and (this is VERY important) ask to have the photos you've selected reprinted on fiber based paper with a matte finish (NOT glossy!) A larger surface is easier to work with, so have them reprinted no smaller than 5 x 7. Most places will take about a week to get your pictures back. You can use that time to gather your supplies.

The tools you will need for your project are:

Cotton swabs (Q-tips)

Cotton balls

Waxed paper



An eraser

Photo Oils (I use Marshalls)

Colored Pencils (I use Berol Prismacolor)

"Marlene" solution (also by Marshalls)

Marshalls sells a great starter kit that includes 12 tubes of paint and everything else you will need, except the cotton swabs, waxed paper, tape, and pencils. This can be found at larger art supply stores, like Michaels or Aaron Bros.

Now that you have your photos and supplies, you're ready to get started. Find a workspace that is well lit (our dining room table works great!) where you can spread out. Take a piece of waxed paper and tape it down to the table. This will serve as your palette. Next, tape down your photo in front of you (tape underneath rather than on the surface of the photo).

Next, decide what colors to use. Paint larger areas first. Put a very small amount of paint onto the waxed paper. Apply paint lightly to the area you wish to color with a cotton swab. Blend it in well with a cotton ball. If it is darker than you want it to be, keep blending! If it is lighter than you want, apply more paint and keep blending until you have just the right shade.

Now.. have you gone over the lines? No problem! Get out your eraser and erase the edges until the paint is only where you want it to be. Is the color all wrong? No problem! Erase it all with the eraser, or start over completely by putting a little Marlene solution on a cotton ball and taking it off that way.

For smaller areas or finer detail, you have two choices. You can use the colored pencils, or you can use paint by twisting a tiny amount of cotton onto the end of a toothpick and carefully dabbing paint onto the area. This works well for lips and cheeks, and other very small areas.

If you want a truly nostalgic look, don't paint the entire picture. For portraits, you may want to just tint the hair, cheeks, and lips. For a field of flowers, painting just the flowers and not the sky or grass might look just right. Play around with it. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Remember, you can always start over.

Once your image looks the way you want it to, let it dry for 24 hours before handling or framing. Soon you'll have beautifully hand-colored photos to share with family and friends. They make great gifts, and also look great on notecards and calendars. Have fun with your new hobby!

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