Photo Detective: Hand-Colored Images

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

As early as 1841, photographers experimented with adding color to their images. As much as the popular press praised the first photographs, people criticized the absence of color. So photographers sought ways to increase the realism of their images, and they used colored powders, watercolors, oil paints, crayons and charcoal to add color. They even hand-colored cased images such as daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.

Hand coloring served several purposes. Early photographers wanted to impress their customers with high-quality images, and color was just another way to lure new clients. Adding color also created contrast and improved any imperfections in images. Since early paper prints had a tendency to fade, colorists used charcoal to outline them. They also used a variety of substances to paint over the image to reduce fading.

Artists added color to photographs to emphasize details. In some cases, the artists added so much color that it’s difficult to determine whether the pictures are paintings or photographs. You may have images in your collection that appear to be paintings but are actually hand-colored images.

Photography manuals contained specific instructions on what features to color. For instance, on the face, artists colored the cheeks, nostrils, bridge of the nose, brow and chin. Other commonly colored parts of a photograph were hands, clothing and the background of the image.

The palette of colors depended on what was being colored. Artists enhanced jewelry and buttons with gold, and they created rosy cheeks with pink. Skilled technicians added color to clothing, as well. Everything from white collars to plaid garments could be improved with a little color.

Different photographic methods required different coloring techniques. A daguerreotype’s metal surface could be enhanced with colored powders, applied with a brush or gently blown onto the surface. Paper prints required only brushes and colored paints.

While hand coloring doesn’t help you identify or date an image, it does enhance a photograph’s appearance and add to its history. In Betty Ann Tyson’s tintype portrait of a child tentatively identified as “Grandma Tyson,” the coloring draws attention to the child’s pink cheeks and blue bows. Rather than coloring the entire image—a time-consuming task—the photographer carefully selected details that would make the image lively and attractive.

The dating clues for this image are the child’s dress and chair. Children younger than 5 often wore long dresses that allowed for play. This young girl wears a white summer dress with ruffled (perhaps eyelet) trim, with bows on either shoulder. When I consulted The Child in Fashion 1750-1920 by Kristina Harris (Schiffer, $29.95) and Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 by Joan Severa (Kent State University Press, $60), I found that wide necklines, as seen on this dress, were popular in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

Chairs, such as the one in this image, were common props during the same time period, as evidenced by the photographs in Severa’s book. Since photo sessions usually took a few minutes, photographers used furniture or special braces to hold subjects still for an exposure.

Tyson’s grandmother, Lizzie, was born in 1867. The child in this picture appears to be younger than 5, which means the photograph should have been taken between 1870 and 1872. The costume and props fit that time period.