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Photo Tinting - Four Ways to Achive the Vintage Look

Photo tinting adds soft, otherworldly colors to a black and white photo or illustration, and can lend an antique feel to even the most modern subjects. The subtle colors can add a life-like blush to the cheeks of a child, or draw attention to a single element, like a bride's bouquet or a sunset sky. Whether you are incorporating a photo into a craft or composing a scrapbook page, consider using this effective technique for making your images special.

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.

You can tint your own black and white photos or illustrations in several ways.

  1. Purchase photo tinting pens or markers at your craft store. They are made in many color shades and several tip sizes. Most work best with matte finished images. Go lightly and let it dry before inking over the same spot, since getting the paper too saturated may blemish the photo.
  2. Photo-tinting oils can be applied with a brush or cotton swab. For this method, you should spray the photo surface with a matte-finish protective coating first. The colored oils have a long drying time, so it is possible to blot or even wipe off excess color as you work. Let these photos dry for several days before handling them.
  3. Watercolors, oil pastels and oil colored pencils can be used to add subtle color. With watercolors, some tinters recommend soaking the photo paper in water for 15 minutes, then blotting it dry before you brush on watercolor paint. This allows the paint to be absorbed into the paper rather than sit on the surface, making a softer shade. Oil pastels are most effective when you saturate the area to be colored with a solvent (turpentine or mineral spirits) before you apply the pastel with a cotton swab, cotton ball or brush. If the image is very detailed, you can use oil-based colored pencils, using the same solvent method as for pastels. Always apply lightly at first to control the color intensity.
  4. For digital images, use your computer graphics program (like Adobe Photoshop or Corel PaintShopPro) to add color. You can even start with a color photo, duplicate the photo as a second layer, change the top layer to black and white (desaturate the color), and then selectively erase the top layer where you want the original color layer to show through. Alternatively, you can turn your original image to black and white (desaturate the color) and then colorize elements in your photo using the colorfill or brush tools in the graphics program. You will have to create a new layer for each color you add.
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When altering photos, protect your original and work with a copy. With any of these methods or products, follow the manufacturer's labeling and instructions. You'll be rewarded with a photographic effect both nostalgic and beautiful.

For an example of hand-tinting a black and white illustration, see our Wedding Scrapbook project.

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