‘Colour’ Before Colour

Every single photo coloured by hand? Using cotton wool? Yes, such was the era of hand-coloured photography – a painting and photograph in one – the way you got a high-quality colour photo before colour photography became mainstream. For some, there’ll still be a lingering doubt: was every photo really painted by hand? Such was the quality of the best hand-coloured work, along with contemporary amnesia of photography constraints hand-colouring used to work around.

Now, it’s a digital age. Hand-colouring, once a global phenomenon, has all but-died, but the aesthetic lives on resurrected by digital means. This contemporary revival is, on one hand, a radical departure from hand-colouring of old but, on the other hand, nothing but a new brand of cotton wool. Importantly, digital-colouring can also ensure the continuation of a colouring legacy for decades to come.


A set of Winsor & Newton paints for hand-colouring photographs. A bottle of turpentine can be seen on the right of the tray, with cotton wool and sticks in the bottom to be used as the “brush”.

The colouring story started alongside the advent of photography itself. While the first photo was created in 1826, by Nicéphore Niépce in France, the first photography system available to the public was the daguerreotype in 1839, named after French artist Louis Daguerre. Soon after, the first daguerreotypes were coloured by hand, attributed to Johann Baptist Isenring, a Swiss painter and print-maker who mixed pigments and gum arabic to form a colouring agent that was fixed by heat. Given both the cost and newness of photography, owning a coloured daguerreotype quickly became a ‘status symbol and … coveted item for those wealthy enough to afford them’. The attractiveness of colour wasn’t, however, for everyone; some seeing colouring as a ‘rank perversion of photography’.


The earliest examples of hand-colouring were daguerreotypes (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, O.042681). Whether coloured or not, an interesting and counter-intuitive fact about daguerreotypes is their incredibly high image resolution.

As black-and-white photography evolved – calotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes and albumen prints, to name a few – so too did hand-colouring while the pursuit for a ‘true’ colour photo remained. Internationally, exceptional hand-coloured work from Japan – particularly by Felice Beato, Adolfo Farsari and Yokoyama Matsusaburō – was formative, influential and exceptional in terms of results. In the case of Farsari (1841–1898), an Italian photographer based in Japan, ‘his works were published in books, periodicals and widely distributed during the time.’ In the case of photos of people, ‘due to the photographic techniques of the day, these subjects would have had to remain still for four or five seconds in order for the picture to be captured without blurring’.


Hand-coloured photography from Japan set an early and high benchmark for hand-coloured work; this example by Adolfo Farsari (c.1880, Wikimedia commons). Work from a similar period in Japan by Felice Beato, one of the early masters of hand-colouring, was the subject of a 2014 exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, travelling on to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography– the significance of these institutions an obvious endorsement of Beato’s work.

In 1888, the Kodak camera marked a major evolution of photography’s accessibility to the public (along with the Kodak ‘Brownie’ in 1900), but still didn’t meet the growing desire for a marketable process for colour photography. While a colour photo was first produced in 1861 by Scotsman James Maxwell – and, to some degree, a decade earlier by American Levi Hill (claims that were dismissed at the time but later proven to have ‘a limited ability to reproduce the colors of nature’) – the first marketable process was the Lumiére brothers’ autochrome in 1907. It was ‘a dream come true for photographers longing to discover a way of making photographs in a process that was able to represent natural colours’.


Colour photography, as a perceived enhancement on hand-colouring, was pursued from the very outset of photography. The first marketable process was the autochrome in 1907. The example above was taken by Robert Walrond in Auckland, New Zealand (1913, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, A.018201). Despite the introduction of colour photography, hand-colouring remained popular due to the weaknesses of early colour techniques and the distinctive aesthetic of hand-colouring itself.

While exciting, the arrival of colour through the autochrome was far from the end of hand-colouring, which had much to lose and, therefore, much to gain from hanging on. Autochromes had their own limitations: ‘the inability to reproduce images, … alongside the awkwardness of viewing the plates with an illuminated light source, hindered the popularity of the process.’ Fragile glass plates also held things back. An article also noted that ‘the interest recently attracted to the various forms of colour photography has in turn revived interest in the hand colouring of monochrome prints’. This was the start of an enduring debate about, in effect, ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ colour. Proud proponents of colour photography actively put the alternative down: ‘The marvellous natural colouring taken from life by the camera, not hand tinted or painted, leads to … absolute realism.’ Such proclamations, however, while intended to assert the superiority of colour, paradoxically reinforced how enduring and well-known hand-colouring remained.

The biggest threat to hand-coloured photography – and one that ultimately led to its death – was the arrival of marketable colour film, Kodachrome, in 1935. As a result of this event, international research typically refers to 1940 as the end of hand-colouring’s ‘golden age’. Within that period, 1900-40, American Wallace Nutting is singled out as ‘the best-selling hand-coloured photographer of all time’. Yet, for some countries, their most popular phase of hand-coloured photography hadn’t even begun. In New Zealand, the most well-known and popular hand-colouring studio – Whites Aviation – commenced in 1945 and continued colouring photos for over 50 years. ‘In the 1950s and 60s [in particular], the company’s hand-coloured scenic images … were a familiar item in homes and corporate foyers. [At that time] their popularity established the Whites “look” as the standard photographic representation of New Zealand landscape.’


Hand-coloured photograph by Whites Aviation (‘Ohau Road’, 1953, 560x1010mm, Collection of Peter Alsop, Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL) Negative WA-32638-F.

In 1963, a rare behind-the-scenes account was published of life in the Whites’ colouring studio. Interestingly, the article didn’t appear in a photography magazine or any publication related to art or design. Instead, the article graced the pages of a Women’s Weekly magazine. It was a good fit; all the members of the colouring studio were women, as was often the case elsewhere. The article was titled ‘Steady Hand, Keen Eye and a Retentive Memory Needed for Tinting’; all matter-of-fact attributes though the title could have easily contained more artistic spice. However, in the art paradigms of the day, these women weren’t ‘artists’, and nor for that matter were those who took the photos. More importantly, though, the women were devoted to their art form, proud of their achievements and immensely happy in their work.



The ‘colouring girls’ of Whites Aviation at work (top: 1948, ATL, WA-16074a-F; bottom: 1955, ATL, WA-39940)

The article also provided a useful insight to the delicate and intricate nature of hand-coloured work: ‘The sea was washed with blue, highlights were added in green and a darker blue. [The island of] Rangitoto was a combination of green and mauve for the base and blue and mauve at the top. Highlights were of raw sienna. The yachts were mainly scraped up with shadows on the sails and the hulls brown. The tree in the foreground was washed with a darkish green with the highlights of a paler tone of the same colour. The flowers were done last. … For bush, four shades of green were used, several tones of yellow, browns and pinks.’ One gets the picture that it was complex work but, like most hard things, made to look easy by people at the top of their game.


The Colourist

Cover Image:‘Swan Lake’ (c.1950, Kaikoura, New Zealand) by Ellis Dudgeon, hand-coloured by Mrs Dudgeon.