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Photography - How to Hand Color Your Black and White Prints

Updated on December 31, 2010

Adding Color to Black and White Photographs

Handcoloring is the technique of adding color to a black and white photograph. The process dates back to the earliest days of photography and its purpose was to add realism to the prints. With the introduction and wide use of color film, handcoloring has become a creative form of expression and a unique art form.

The actual process of applying color to a black and white print is not that difficult. The artistry comes in the choices made by the colorist.  The results can be subtle or dramatic depending on whether you choose to color the whole print or just a portion of it.

Handcolored Black and White Print
Handcolored Black and White Print

The Basic Process of Handcoloring Prints

For the best results you want to start with a black and white print that has a range of tones and not too much contrast. Resin coated paper is easier and faster to process in the darkroom but is harder to work with when the intention is to handcolor your print. There are some RC (resin coated) papers that work well, however. One is Lummos RCR (resin coated rough) which has a rough, absorbent surface, however this may be hard to find. The other is Kodak P-Max Art RC, which is made specifically for handcoloring. Fiber based papers are more absorbent than RC papers and provide excellent results for handcoloring. But take a little more work in the darkroom and the paper also tends to roll during the drying process.

The supplies

Oil paints and colored pencils from Marshalls
Oil paints and colored pencils from Marshalls

Supplies Needed to Color Photographs

The most popular and effective coloring agents for handcoloring are photo oils and pencils. The popular brand, Marshall's sells these in convenient sets or by the individual color. A few other necessary tools are PMS (prepared Medium Solution), Q-tips, cotton balls and toothpicks.

The pencils are easy to use and come in a variety of colors. The oils take a little more technique but offer a wider range of hues and the ability to mix colors.

Cotton swabs make excellent application tools, as do cotton balls for large areas and cotton wrapped toothpicks for fine work.

The PMS is used to prepare the surface of the print and make it more receptive to the oils. PMS should always be used with pencils, as it softens the lead and gives the finished product a smoother look. After the PMS is applied to the entire print and the excess is rubbed away with a cotton ball, it's time to apply the color.

Pencils were used to handcolor this black and white print.
Pencils were used to handcolor this black and white print.

The amount of color applied is up to the artist based on the final look desired. You can highlight just one item in the print, leaving the rest black and white, or color the whole print. The range between the two leaves the artist with a wide range of choices.

Afraid you might make a mistake? Don't despair. Mistakes can be removed with a magic rub vinyl eraser or with PMS. Removing color with PMS is time consuming, you must wait for the print to dry before you apply more color, but it does offer the opportunity to start over if necessary.

Experimenting with technique.  Color was just applied to the foreground of this print.
Experimenting with technique. Color was just applied to the foreground of this print.

Computer Generated Color

Handcoloring is a unique and interesting way to express your creativity and make your black and white prints a work of art.

One flower and the surrounding leaves were colored, leaving the background in black and white.
One flower and the surrounding leaves were colored, leaving the background in black and white.

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During the development process, re-exposing your print to the light source adds a solarized effect to you black and white prints.

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Submit a Comment

  • mysisters profile image

    mysisters 6 years ago

    Great Hub. I have always wondered how this was done. Very interesting. I really love the first picture! So cute!

  • Steve 3.0 profile image

    Steve 3.0 7 years ago from Cornwall UK

    Nice hub, I like the look of these photos. I had an Aunt that used to do this with old photos of the family and they looked beautiful.

  • RosWebbART profile image

    Ros Webb 8 years ago from Ireland

    Like the content. Well put together!

  • khawfash profile image

    khawfash 8 years ago from U.S.A

    Very nice.

  • Montana Farm Girl profile image

    Montana Farm Girl 8 years ago from Northwestern Montana

    Wow, I too always wondered how difficult it would be to do this technique... You've answered that for me!! I will have to give it a try! I have several photos from back in the day of my youth (OH SO LONG AGO LOL!!!) where this technique had been used and always loved the way they looked! I might have to experiment with some of my three sons photos when they were young; it would make nice birthday or Christmas gifts for them! Great hub....thanks for the step by step info!!

  • frogdropping profile image

    Andria 8 years ago

    Lafenty - I wrote in this box once already and it vanished! Ahhh well - such is life.

    I find this technique fascinating. I've a couple of pictures from my babyhood, originally black and white, coloured after development. However, they don't look like yours. No idea of the method employed either. I look like a porcelain doll, to be honest.

    Thanks for this :)

  • Lgali profile image

    Lgali 9 years ago

    another good hub

  • lafenty profile image

    lafenty 9 years ago from California

    Thanks, Lou, that's my beautiful daughter.

  • Lou Belcher profile image

    Lou Belcher 9 years ago

    Great hub. As a photographer, I've gone to some demonstrations of hand coloring. It's great to see it here. I do love the photo of the girl with the dog. The brick is very subtle. Thanks for putting up an informative hub.

  • Jerilee Wei profile image

    Jerilee Wei 9 years ago from United States

    Thanks for the hub! I'd always wondered how this was done and might try my hand at it now that I know a little more.