I recently had a conversation with Bob Keefer – a talented photographer who has decided to hang on to some traditional techniques in a world which is accelerating at full speed toward better, faster, stronger… His party trick is impressive: Take a black-and-white photograph, and colour them. By hand.
Creating gorgeous, real-yet-unreal photo-based art which redefines how you’ll think about photography and digital retouching? Obviously, I had to catch up with Bob to see what, how – and perhaps, most importantly – why…
Why bother with hand-colouring?
From the beginning of the 20th century, right up through the 1950s or so, commercial hand colouring was relatively common. Today, there are a few photographers who keep the spirit alive.
“I’m old enough to have grown up with some old hand coloured photos around the house when I was a kid in Alabama.”, says Bob. “There was a beautiful hand coloured portrait of my grandfather, a genuine Southern rogue, in our family album. One of my early baby pictures was hand coloured as well.”
The easiest way to get started in hand colouring photos is to use coloured pencils and an oily solvent, which can be anything from mineral spirits to cooking oil. Materials aren’t everything, of course: “Use the pencils to colour in areas on the print and then dab a little of the solvent onto a clean cotton ball to blend the pencil work. It’s amazingly easy to get good results with coloured pencil”, explains Bob. The only catch is that whatever you use for colouring, you really need to work on a photo printed on old-fashioned fibre-based paper.
Traditional-looking hand coloured photographs were done with special oil paints that are similar to artist oil paints but have a much higher pigment load. The company that made them is still around so you can still buy Marshall’s photo oils. If you use these paints, you end up with a palette that looks very much like old-fashioned hand colour photography. Why? Simple – it’s the palette the photographers of times gone by used.
Continuing the tradition wasn’t good enough for Bob, however – he decided to evolve the techniques to create his own creative look: “I soon started using regular artist oil paints for my work, giving me a broader colour palette to choose from.”
“In the last few years I’ve switched almost entirely to artist’s acrylics”, Bob admits. “They’re much less toxic than oil paints and they dry quicker. I also believe they are less likely to degrade photo paper, in the long haul, than oil paints, though those early 20th century hand-coloured photos have stood up pretty well”. Of course, using acrylics brings in a brand new challenge, too: “Acrylics are harder to use well”, Bob says, “in part because of that quick drying time.”
Refining the process
Of course, there are a lot of books out there which might help you to get started. They can only get you so far, however: “After reading my way through most of the currently published books on hand coloured photography, all of which seem to deal mostly with dreamy boudoir photographs on one hand, and bright, over-saturated pictures of cars on the other”, Bob recalls, “I spent some time serving a self-imposed apprenticeship in hand-colouring that taught me more than any book ever will”.
As with so many other things, the quickest way to masterdom is practice, practice, practice. Oh and did I mention practice? “I pulled out a stack of one hundred of my own photographs, rejects one and all, and sat down to hand colour them all as quickly as possible”, Bob smiles, “The only rule was not to be self-critical of anything, no matter what. I coloured that first hundred, and then coloured a hundred more.”
“I still have them all”, he says, and gestures vaguely towards a set of drawers in the corner of the room. “They’re mostly awful. Truly, unabashedly awful”, he laughs, “But some of them were a little bit good, and the steady practice of painting day after day after day taught me a huge amount about what I wanted to do.”
Most art photographers have made transition from taking photos to making photos – Bob has simply taken that adage another step forward. “What fascinates me about hand colouring”, Bob reflects, “is the subtle interplay between the cool, modern, machine-age precision of photography and the softer, more expressive and deeply primal art of painting.”
Less is more. Some of my best hand coloured photographs look at first glance like they might be pure black and white, but they’re a kind of black-and-white you’ve never seen.
Don’t be literal. This is not a time to colour within the lines. It’s also good to add in a few impossible colours here and there to keep the eye interested.
Break the mould. The usual stuffy criteria applied by camera club photographers don’t apply. Sharp focus is unnecessary. Zone system exposure isn’t needed. Perfect darkroom technique is also an extravagance. An interesting print that’s deeply flawed in technical terms may be much more interesting as a hand coloured photo than a technically perfect print of the same image would be. I never throw out my darkroom mistakes.
Go back to basics. The best way for photographers to improve their photography is to stop spending money on the latest camera gear and, instead, get solid training in the basics of art: Take a community college class in drawing, and then another one in colour theory, and finally one in basic design. Your pictures will become immeasurably better as a result.
How to hand colour your photographs
Now that you know the what and why, Bob kindly agreed to show you, step by step, how he does a hand-coloured photograph, from start to finished. Prepare to be astonished… Take it away, Bob!
This 8×10-inch black and white photo of summer leaves was shot on Tri-X and developed in Rodinal, a good combination for hand coloring, and printed on Luminos Charcoal paper, which, sadly, is no longer available. Here it’s taped to a work table to be colored.
I use regular artist acrylic paints and brushes for my work.
After quickly sealing the surface of the photo with clear matte acrylic medium and letting it dry, I begin by painting areas of transparent yellow acrylic on the leaves….
..Then I start mixing darker olive green into some of the other leaves.
At this point the image looks a little ragged.
I pick up a wash of ultramarine blue and clear medium on a brush; the color is an excellent one for darkening and deepening shadow areas.
At this point I’m just incrementally adding color, drying the paint, stepping back, taking a look, and adding some more.
Here I’ve just painted in some burnt sienna, a good warm reddish color, in some of the leafs. This really adds some subtle sparkle.
I sign my work on the front, in paint.
The final product.
About Bob Keefer
Bob has a degree in the study of religion from Harvard University. He’s been a newspaper writer for 30 years and now writes about art for The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon. In 2006 he was a fellow at National Endowment for the Arts workshop on theater and musical theatre. He crafts fine hand-colored photographs the old-fashioned way, using film. He uses a chemical darkroom, fiber-based paper and artist’s paints, without using Photoshop or any such new-fangled technology. No PhotoShop involved. Each resulting print is a unique work of art.
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