Friday, January 6, 2012

Hand-Coloring Photos Tutorial

For many years (before digital cameras and Photoshop) I was a portrait photographer.  I shot in B&W film only and I developed and printed the photos in my basement darkroom.  I know this is making me sound reeeealy old, but it was only about 10 years ago that I retired from the portrait business.  The trend in portraits during the time that I did this was black and white (or sepia toned) photos that were color-tinted.  People liked the vintage look of it.

girl with flower copy

boys with fishbowl copy

I hand-colored each of my portraits with Marshall’s Photo Oil Paints.  I printed the photos in the darkroom on a special matte finish paper that took the oil paint well.  It was a rather long process, but one I enjoyed very much - and the price that I was able to charge for the portraits also made it worth the time it took to do them.  I also taught classes in photo-tinting at a local art center.

There are several ways to add color to photographs.  The one I now use most often is on the computer using Photoshop Elements.  Another technique I use is with pastel chalks and pastel pencils - it’s more “hands-on” than doing it digitally.  This is the technique I’m going to share with you.  It’s easy and fun to do!

Here’s what you will need...

1. A black and white photograph printed on matte finish inkjet photo or presentation paper
         (I use Staples brand, but HP, Epson, or Canon will work well). 
                Print the photo a little lighter than you normally would.
2. Pastels and/or pastel pencils
3. Cotton swabs (Q-tips) and tissues
4. Kneaded eraser

DSC_3700 copy

Before you start coloring your photo, it’s a good idea to practice using the chalks on a separate sheet of paper (the same type of paper you used to print your image on).  This will allow you to get the feel for how the chalk goes on the paper, and how the eraser removes the chalk.

For my demonstration I’ll be working on a landscape.  I start by applying color in the bigger areas of the photo such as the sky, grass, water, etc. 

To do this, I take a tissue, fold it over, and put it over my index finger...

DSC_3703 copy

Next, rub the kleenex in the pastel color of your choice, and begin to apply it to the photo.  In the sky, you want to lay down the color with a long horizontal stroke.  The chalk doesn’t always go on smoothly, so start out with a light touch, and build up the color by adding more layers until you get the look that you want. 

DSC_3705 copy

Don’t worry too much about going out of the lines - that is what the eraser is for.  A kneaded eraser works great, because you can bend and squish it to get just the right edge when erasing tiny areas.

DSC_3706 copy

Continue to apply the colors to your photo.  Something to keep in mind - the more colors and color variation that you add to the photo, the more interest and dimension it will have.  For instance, use more than one shade of blue in the sky, and maybe even a little purple or red. This is what will give it that vintage postcard look.  You can choose any colors that you want.  You could turn any sky into a sunset, change Summer trees into Autumn colors, or change clothing colors.  Use your artistic license to be as creative as you want with this! 

DSC_3712 copy

Notice the different shades of green in the leaves, and the mix of colors in the foreground grass area.

Once all of the larger areas are colored, you will start using a cotton swab to get into the more detailed areas of the photo.

DSC_3714 copy

For the very detailed areas like stones, and blades of grass, I use the pastel pencils.  These are also great for bringing a little more intense color to certain areas of the image that you want to stand out.

DSC_3715 copy

At this point it’s a good idea to step back and take a look at the entire photograph.  This is the time to touch it up by blending in some more color, or maybe taking some color away with your eraser.  I like to blend a little sky color in the grass, or maybe some rock color in the sky, etc.  This will tie the painting together for a more artistic look. 

Remember, this isn’t supposed to look like a color photo!  The tinting gives the image a unique, retro look.   Have fun with it, and make sure you sign, frame and display your work of art!

Here are a few before and after photos of some of the pictures that I colored...





I used plain colored pencils for this butterfly.  They work well for precise coloring of small areas.  However, they are not as forgiving as the chalk pastels because an eraser will not work with them).

Hope you enjoy this project!  Let me know if you have any questions.  If you give this a try, I would love to hear from you to see how it went!

Jane  <><


  1. Very cool! I remember you teaching me. I think my tinting involved a peace sign if I remember correctly. :)

  2. Those are stunning. I especially like the bottle by the window. It's so beautiful. It looks like a relaxing way to spend the afternoon (or day).

  3. How Lovely! I am a scrapbooker do you think it would work for some of my older photo's? I have made copies of them and had wanted to do something different. I love the cows. My grandfather was a farmer and I would love to paint the cows in some of the old pictures. My family would expect something like that in a few of the photo's. Thanks for the great ideas>

    1. Hi Abby,
      I think it would be great to use them in your scrapbooks! The end result has a lot to do with the paper you are printing on. You can buy chalk pastels at Michaels for less than $5.00 - I would try it. It's fun to get creative with old family pictures! Let me know how it turns out, or if you have any more questions...have fun!

  4. This is amazing. They look beautiful!

  5. What a delightful blog. I used to handtint my own hand developed photos (ah the smell of that darkroom!) I loved my Marshall Oil goodies. It was so much fun to manipulate the photos to give them a tint of color, colorwash or a bold look. Developing and tinting were so calming.

    1. Yes...I can still remember that smell! And when I sepia toned the prints, the whole house would smell like rotten eggs! I'm sure that was really healthy for us ;) I still have all of my Marshall paints...not sure what to do with them. I enjoyed the many hours spent in my darkroom, I can't say that I miss it tho.
      Thanks for your feedback!


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