Hand-Coloring to Add Life

By Jill Enfield Back to


When I went to Sicily for a show of my work several years ago, I tacked on some time for travel so that I could shoot without interruption. The gallery owner took me on a daytrip to Taormina, a beautiful coastal town not far from where she lived. However, once we got to Taormina, it began to rain.

Even though Kodak infrared film was called High Speed, it was anything but that. I always shot at ISO 250 with a #25 red filter, which knocked the ISO down another two stops. Given the dark storm clouds, I did not have much light, but shot as much as I could before conditions made it impossible. Most of what I shot that day was as slow as 1⁄15 second—handheld.

The storm had its benefits: the town was empty. It is usually so overcrowded that it would have taken much more energy to take photos without people in the way. At the time of this photograph, I mostly was shooting landscapes and rarely included people in my images.

I hardly ever work on images before a year has passed—mainly because I want to try and remember how it felt to be in a place before I print and paint an image. I still prefer to do it this way, even with my digital images. (I look at them, but don’t print them for quite some time.) Once an image is printed, whether it’s from film or a digital source, it may take awhile for me to paint it. I have to decide if I want to leave it black-and-white or if I want to add color.

Once I make the decision to paint an image, I can start as soon as my desk is set up. I have my paints in a box, my pencils and pastel chalks easily accessible, and my lighting as bright as I can get it. I use a piece of mat board to hold my print in place and protect my desk from paint marks. I use a white piece of mat board with wax paper taped to it as a palette to mix colors on. I use a daylight-balanced light to make sure I am viewing the colors correctly.

I printed Taormina on black-and- white silver gelatin paper in a dark- room. The paper surface is much different then inkjet papers, and I was able to use oil paints, pencils, and chalks. I tend to make a mess with my paints: putting the color on in big patches and then rubbing it in with cotton. I can then remove areas that I don’t want with Turpenoid (an odorless turpentine). You can really use anything on silver gelatin papers—including water colors, dyes, and pens—but I like oils, pencils, and chalks.

One of my favorite methods is layering color. It makes the image look more three-dimensional and come to life for me. I normally start with a solid color, then choose spots to go back and paint on with more oil, pencils, or chalks to build up different areas. If I only use oils and pencils, I don’t have to spray the image. I just let its it for a few days, face up on a drying screen, away from dust. However, if I use chalks, I need to let the print dry for a few weeks to make sure all layers of paint are totally dry before spraying the print with fixative (usually Winsor & Newton or Krylon artists’ fixative). If sprayed too soon, the fixative causes the oil paint to bead up and leave spots on top of the image. This never dries or settles down—the print is ruined. If you don’t spray the print, the chalks eventually flake off. If you frame an image with Plexiglas, the plexi will actually pull the chalk away from the print.

You have to be careful when removing paint with an eraser or Turpenoid. Anything you use has some drawbacks. An eraser can leave residue that looks like a film over your print. Using a light touch is very important. I notice this problem with the work of most of my students. They work the materials too hard and end up with the emulsion rubbed off (whether silver or digital), or a mess left on the surface. Turpenoid can leave a greasy film on top if you don’t rub it in well enough—or if you use too much.

For people that have never been in the darkroom and want to paint on inkjet papers, I would try the various papers you like and see which work best for you. You can usually try different materials at art supply stores, so I brought a few prints in with me and tried out watercolors and chalks. Chalks work—and you can remove them with your fingers. Easy, fun, and (almost) as good as oil paints on silver.

It really just takes practice to find the best way you can work to get the result you want.

About the Author

Jill Enfield
Jill Enfield is the author of Photo Imaging: A Visual Guide to Alternative Processes and Techniques.