The Art of Hand Tinting

“The art of photo tinting began in the 1840s, when artists first brushed colored oils on sepia-toned daguerreotypes (an early photographic method) for a touch of realism. Most often, coloring was limited to a little pink on the lips and cheeks. The more artistic tinters would color hair, clothing, flowers, and even add metallic highlights for buttons or jewelry. Many of these early tinting artists were applying skills from the preceding era, when miniature likenesses were hand-painted on ivory. Today, tinting photography is an art rarely practiced by hand, but more often as a digital enhancement technique found in some computer graphics programs.” — Taken from an Ezine Article

I began hand tinting early in my photography business because it was a option my portrait clientele demanded. They wanted the soft, sweet, vintage and heirloom look. However, the move to digital imagery several years ago was almost the death of hand tinting. Custom labs began to close all over town, very few labs printed in the darkroom anymore and even fewer printed digital images on fiber paper. In order to hand tint, the image must be printed first in sepia on fiber paper. There was one lab in town still doing that because they purchased a special digital enlarger. We were already business partners so I was glad they continued to offer this printing process when I made the transition from film to digital.

As there became more ways to beautifully colorize digital photographs with the innovative technology of Photoshop, less people began requesting hand tinted portraits. It was quickly becoming a lost art and less photographers continued to offer it. However, I have some discerning clients who still want the very traditional hand tinted fine art portraits to hang in their home and they want all of their children’s portraits to match in style. So I continue to offer it because the portraits are truly works of art, created by hand, to pass down to the next generation.

Over the years many people have inquired about the process that goes into hand tinting. It used to take me hours and hours to do just one photograph. (It’s the curse of being a detailed OCD person!) After much practice, and many hand tinted orders over the years, I am much quicker these days. Over the past year or so, I have taken less hand tinting orders because more clients are choosing digitally colorized portraits, but recently one of my clients requested 16×16 hand tints of her twins. It was time to pull out the oils and get to work! There is still something exciting about creating art with your hands instead of in a computer!

I’m so thankful to Ron Bowen, who taught me hand tinting. He is quite the artist and a little crazy too! His critiques were always painfully honest. It was a little intimidating…especially when I was SO bad at first, but he was just trying to help his students achieve the artwork we so desired to produce. Watching him hand tint was a real treat! He made every image come alive with each stroke. I still remember the most interesting thing he taught me. He said that every photograph needs a touch of blue to give the eye a rest. It’s amazing how true that is. I try to always find some place to put a touch of blue, even if the real photograph did not have any!

Tonight after dinner, the kids and I had “Art Night” in my office. Everyone had a project. I have never documented the process, so tonight while I was hand tinting the images of Anna Brooke and Tucker, I pulled out my camera to take some quick shots as I went along. At first I hesitated to post these because I can’t be sure each person’s monitor views the colors correctly. So, just realize that the colors are truest in person and can vary greatly when viewed on a computer monitor. That disclaimer being made, I am including the shots in this blog. They are laying on my art table which slants, so sorry for the weird skew.

The kids and I put on some Nick Drake tunes and enjoyed our art projects together. (At some point in the night Luke was running around the room with what he called a flying ship”…not sure what all that was about!).

I had forgotten how relaxing and therapeutic hand tinting is for me! I find such joy in the process and satisfaction in seeing the finished portrait …then when I think about it hanging in someone’s else’s home with my name on it, I feel vulnerable and want to hold on to it for a few more days, look at it in every light, and add a touch of this here and a little of that there. Then, I just take a big sigh and let it go…

Olivia working on some fashion out Heidi Klum! She just might be your next top designer on Project Runway!
Here is the photograph on my art table. You can
Original image printed sepia on fiber paper
The first step of putting on the skin color. You rough it in (scary, I know) and then you go back and clean it up. At first they look like they
Here is the image after the skin color has been cleaned up. More skin color needs to be removed. She
I removed more of the skin color to make it look more natural. Then I added color to the eyes, cheeks and lips.
I skipped photographing a few steps, but after the eyes, cheeks and lips, you then add color to the green foliage and surroundings then hair and clothing, mixing and blending the colors as you go.

The finished portrait of Anna Brooke, matted and signed

4 thoughts

  1. Those are beautiful, Heather. I’m sure the family will cherish them and the work you put into them forever.
    On a side note: I LOVED fashion plates growing up. My friend and I would have a whole “shop” filled with our designs people would “order.” I love that they are still out there for the next generation to enjoy.

  2. Great post Heather..really enjoyed looking at these are very talented! 🙂

  3. So beautiful!! I LOVE my hand-tinted portrait you did of Meri Margaret!! It is such a lost art form and I am so glad you still offer it!! Thanks for sharing the process..very informative!! 🙂

  4. Your pictures are gorgeous. My family has started a tradition 75 years ago and at age 2 every boy and girl get a their picture made in a special outfit that my grandmother purchased… One is a dress and the other is a boy’s romper. I just had my son’s picture made in the outfit and I can’t find anyone to hand tint, not even on the computer. The picture is an 11×14 could you do this for me if I sent you the images? Thanks, Kim

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