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A hand-coloured daguerreotype by J. Garnier, ca. 1850

Hand-colouring refers to any of a number of methods of manually adding colour to a black-and-white photograph or other image - generally either to heighten its realism or for artistic reasons.

Typically, water-colours, oils and other paints or dyes are applied to the image surface using brushes, fingers, cotton swabs or airbrushes. Some photographic genres, particularly landscapes and portraits, have been more often hand-coloured than others, and hand-coloured photographs have been popular enough that some firms specialised in producing them.




Early years of hand-colouring

Until the middle of the 20th century, nearly all photography was monochrome – essentially black-and-white, as exemplified by the gelatin silver print. Some photographic processes inherently produced images with an overall colour as, for example, the blue of cyanotypes, and photographic processes were altered by various techniques to produce variations in tone.

Swiss painter and printmaker Johann Baptist Isenring used a mixture of gum arabic and pigments to make the first coloured daguerreotype in 1840 or 1841. The coloured powder was fixed on the delicate surface of the daguerreotype by the application of heat. Variations of this technique were patented in England by Richard Beard in 1842 and in France by Étienne Lecchi in 1842 and Léotard de Leuze in 1845. Later, hand-colouring was used with successive photographic innovations, from albumen and gelatin silver prints to lantern slides and transparency photography.

Parallel efforts to produced coloured photographic images in the camera necessarily had an impact on the popularity of hand-colouring. In 1842 Daniel Davis Jr. patented a method for colouring daguerreotypes through electroplating, and his work was refined by Warren Thompson the following year. The results of the work of Davis and Thompson are not clear, but with the announcement in 1850 by daguerreotypist Levi L. Hill of his invention of a "process of daguerreotyping in the colours of nature", sales of conventional uncoloured and hand-coloured daguerreotypes fell in anticipation of the new technology (quoted in Elliott). Hill delayed publication of the details of his process for several years, however, and his claims soon came to be considered fraudulent. When he finally did publish his treatise in 1856, the process – whether bona fide or not – was certainly impractically dangerous.

Hand-colouring remained the easiest and most effective method to produce full-colour photographic images until the 20th century, and hand-colouring of photographs and Daguerrotypes became very popular in the mid to late 19th century and remained so up to the widespread introduction of colour photographic film. The French Society of Photography banned hand-coloured Daguerrotypes from its exhibitions.[1]

Hand-colouring in Japan

Though the hand-colouring of photographs was introduced in Europe, it was never as popular there as in Japan, where the practice became a respected and refined art form from the 1860s. It is possible that photographer Charles Parker and his artist partner William Parke Andrew were the first to produce such works in Japan, but the first to consistently employ hand-colouring in the country may well have been Felice Beato – possibly at the suggestion of his artist-friend Charles Wirgman. In Beato's studio the refined skills of Japanese watercolourists and woodblock printmakers were successfully applied to European photography, as evidenced in Beato's volume of hand-coloured portraits, Native Types.

A monochrome albumen print from a Stillfried & Andersen album; negative exposed between 1862 and 1885
A hand-coloured print from the same negative, hand-coloured by Stillfried & Andersen between 1875 and 1885

Another notable early photographer in Japan to use hand-colouring was Yokoyama Matsusaburō. Yokoyama had trained as a painter and lithographer as well as a photographer, and he took advantage of his extensive repertoire of skills and techniques to create what he called shashin abura-e (写真油絵) or "photographic oil paintings", in which the paper support of a photograph was cut away and oil paints then applied to the remaining emulsion.

Later practitioners of hand-colouring in Japan included the firm of Stillfried & Andersen, which acquired Beato's studio in 1877 and hand-coloured many of his negatives in addition to its own. Hand-coloured photographs were also produced by Kusakabe Kimbei, Tamamura Kozaburō, Adolfo Farsari, Uchida Kuichi, Ogawa Kazumasa and others. Many high-quality hand-coloured photographs continued to be made in Japan well into the 20th century.

Hand-colouring after 1900

In the West the practice of hand-colouring began to decline after about 1900, from which time it came increasingly to be viewed only as an element of amateur and commercial portrait photography. By the 1950s and the ready availability of colour film, even this vestige diminished. Between 1920 and 1970, hand-colouring was rarely employed by serious artists and photographers. Hans Bellmer's 1940s hand-coloured photographs [1] of his own doll sculptures from the 1930s provide one exception to this trend.

Since about 1970 there has been something of a revival of hand-colouring, as seen in the work of such artist-photographers as Elizabeth Lennard, Jan Saudek, Kathy Vargas and Rita Dibert. Robert Rauschenberg's and others' use of combined photographic and painting media in their art represents a precursor to this revival.

In spite of the ready availability of high-quality colour processes, hand-coloured photographs (often combined with sepia-toning) are still popular for aesthetic reasons and because the pigments used have great permanence. In many countries where colour film remained rare or was expensive or where colour processing was unavailable, hand-colouring continued to be used and sometimes preferred into the 1980s. More recently, digital image processing has been used – particularly in advertising – to recreate the appearance and effects of hand-colouring.

Materials and techniques


When hand-colouring with dyes, a weak solution of dyes was preferred, and colours were built up with repeated washes rather than being applied all at once. The approach was to stain or dye the print rather than to paint it. Too much dye would obscure photographic details. Blotting paper was used to control the amount of dye on the surface by absorbing any excess.


Water-colours had the virtue of being more permanent than dyes, but they were less transparent and so more likely to obscure details. Water-colours were also more expensive than dyes. Hand-colouring with water-colours required the use of a medium to prevent the colours from drying with a dull and lifeless finish. Before the paint could be applied, the surface of the print had to be primed so that the colours would not be repelled. Since different pigments have varying degrees of transparency, the choice of colours had to be considered carefully. The more transparent pigments were preferred, since they ensured greater visibility of the photographic image.


The use of oils was particularly a professional practice, as the conventions and techniques involved demanded knowledge of drawing and painting. When hand-colouring with oils, the approach was more often to use the photographic image simply as a base for a painted image. As with water-colours, the choice of oil colours was governed by the relative transparency of the pigments. It was necessary to size the print first to prevent absorption of the colours into the paper. Photographic lantern slides were often coloured by the manufacturer, though sometimes by the user, with variable results. Usually, oil colours were used for such slides, though in the collodion era – from 1848 to the end of the 19th century – sometimes water-colours were used as well.

Hand-coloured photographs often combined these media, with dyes, water-colours and oils in turn being used to different effect in different parts of the image. Whichever medium was used, the main tools to apply colour were the brush and fingertip. Often the dabbing finger was covered to ensure that no fingerprints were left on the image.

Related techniques

Hand-colouring should be distinguished from tinting, toning and retouching. Tinted photographs are made with dyed printing papers produced by commercial manufacturers. A single overall colour underlies the image and is most apparent in the highlights and mid-tones. From the 1870s albumen printing papers were available in pale pink or blue, and from the 1890s gelatin-silver printing-out papers in pale mauve or pink were available. There were other kinds of tinted papers as well. Over time such colouration often becomes very faded.

Toning refers to a variety of methods for altering the overall colour of the photographic image itself. Compounds of gold, platinum or other metals are used in combination with variations in development time, temperature and other factors to produce a range of tones, including warm browns, purples, sepias, blues, olives, red-browns and blue-blacks. A well-known type of toning is sepia tone. Besides adding colour to a monochromatic print, toning often improves image stability and increases contrast.

Retouching uses many of the same tools and techniques as hand-colouring, but with the intent of covering damage, hiding unwanted features, accentuating details, or adding missing elements in a photographic print. In a portrait retouching could be used to improve a sitter's appearance, for instance, by removing facial blemishes, and in a landscape with an overexposed sky, clouds could be painted into the image. Water-colours, inks, dyes and chemical reducers are used with such tools as scalpels, pointed brushes, airbrushes and retouching pencils.

Hand-colouring has also been used in printmaking, such as engraving and lithography, and in other non-photographic processes, as well as in work produced by photocopying.

See also


  1. ^ Buerger, Janet E. (1989). French Daguerreotypes. University of Chicago Press. p. 148. ISBN 0226079856.  



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