Illustration, Oil Paint, Painting

Hand-Coloring Photos: How to Paint on Photographs with Oil Paints

June 4, 2014

By Alina Bradford

handcolored photograph by Luis Márquez, 1937 (1)

Image by Luis Márquez, 1937.

 Painting on photographs is called hand-coloring photos. This process is usually done on black and white photographs printed on a sturdy matte or pearl finish photography paper.

Most artists tend to only hand-color certain aspects of a photo to make certain aspects stand out. For example, a photograph with a rose as the subject may only have the rose colored, while the rest of the photo remains black and white. Once the artist determines what areas of the photo to color, the rest of the process is fairly simple.

Art Supplies for Hand-Coloring Photographs

The art supplies an artist will need for hand-coloring photos with oil paints is basic. Oil painters may find that they already have all of the supplies in their studio.

Here is a list of the art supplies for this painting technique:

  • Microfiber cloth
  • Oil paints
  • Cotton swab
  • Colored pencils
  • Mineral spirits (or other oil painting diluents)
  • Artist palette
Hand-coloured cabinet photograph (c. 1875) from the State Library of New South Wales.

Hand-coloured cabinet photograph (c. 1875) from the State Library of New South Wales.

Basic Photograph Painting Technique

  1.  Before doing any painting, make sure the photo is clean by wipe any dust or grime from the photo with a microfiber cloth.
  2. Place a pea-sized dollop of paint on the artist palette and mix the oil paint with a few drops of mineral oil. This will make the paint transparent so that the lines of the photo will still show through.
  3. Load a cotton swab with paint and start painting the top of the subject. Paint the subject as if you are coloring in a coloring book. Stay in-between the lines of the subject, covering the surface from the top down to the bottom.
  4. To add washes of color for skies or larger areas, load a cotton ball with paint and smear the color onto the photo with light, even strokes.

Finishing a Photo Painting

  1. Clean up any areas that are painted accidentally by rubbing the area with a clean cotton swab. Mistakes that won’t come off can be covered up with a dab of white paint.
  2. When the painting is done, set the photo aside to dry. The drying time will vary depending on how much paint was used on the photo.
  3. Once the paint is dry, use the colored pencils to outline the subject or to add extra color. Outline any details to make them stand out.

Using this technique, artists can cross the lines between photography and fine art to create a work of art that combines the two artistic disciplines.

Reference: “How To Hand-Color a B&W Print”; Elizabeth Opalenik; 2005

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