Hand-Colored Photographs

How to hand color photographs via www.ABeautifulMess.com Photography has come a long way since I can remember. In the 90s when I was in high school, I bought a disposable film camera nearly every week. I carried them with me everywhere and amassed a pretty impressive collection of random high school memories. My favorite disposable cameras were the black and white ones, which I liked to paint with a set of Dr. Ph. Martin’s paint that my mom let me borrow from her art room.

Today I’m working with Canon USA and taking a time machine back to my high school days to show you my favorite painting technique. It’s so fun! So pick out a variety of your favorite black and white images, print them out and paint with me! 

How to hand color photographs via www.ABeautifulMess.com As always I used my Canon PIXMA iP8720 printer to print my photos on luster paper. The quality is amazing! No matter what size photos I am printing, I use 13×19 paper and arrange the photos in Photoshop on a 13×19 page. Here I am printing four photos, all 5×7 inches. 

How to hand color photographs via www.ABeautifulMess.com Supplies needed: Printed black and white photos, watercolor paints (I love these Dr. Ph. Martin’s brand, which you can find at most art shops), paint brushes and water. 

How to hand color photographs via www.ABeautifulMess.com Tip 1: Start with light coats of paint, water it down a bit before applying. You can always add more color, but you can’t go back if you apply too much. 

How to hand color photographs via www.ABeautifulMess.com Tip 2: Photos with more contrast and darker areas look more realistic when painted. Photos with large blocks of white space (or very light tones) will show more brush marks and look less realistic. 

How to hand color photographs via www.ABeautifulMess.com Tip 3: Print extras so you can practice! This is probably the most important tip. Not only is it good to practice your technique, but it’s also fun to try coloring different areas of the photo or experimenting with different colors before you commit.

You can see here that I tried something kinda weird on the bike photo. It didn’t end up being my favorite, but it was fun to try. And the sky on the house photo was just too much space to fill evenly, so on the final print I decided to leave the sky and focus the color just on the buildings. 

How to hand color photographs via www.ABeautifulMess.com The thing I enjoyed most about this project was the experimenting. Laura and I printed a bunch of extra prints and tried different colors and applications. I could do this all day. The “playing” part is by far my favorite! 

How to hand color photographs via www.ABeautifulMess.com I’m super in love with the result. It’s kind of a pop art effect. A little bit of an Andy Warhol vibe due to the punchy colors. Fun! 

How to hand color photographs via www.ABeautifulMess.com How to hand color photographs via www.ABeautifulMess.com I framed my photos minimally with white mats and simple, inexpensive frames. I think they make a pretty rad grid as a set of four. 

What do you think? Do you want to try this technique? Please do. I promise you’ll have fun. We’d love to see your photos on Instagram using #mybeautifulmess XX! Elsie 

Credits//Author and Photography: Elsie Larson. Project Assistant: Laura Gummerman. Photos edited with A Beautiful Mess Actions. 

  • Hello – thank you for the advice re: hand colouring photographic prints. Have you used a matte finish print to hand colour? Which P H Martin’s watercolour paints do you recommend?
    Thank you.

  • I am a high school teacher and I’m planning on using this method for a project. I am going to take your advice and try the watercolors you recommended. There are several kits available online. Which kit would you recommend. Each one seems to have different colors. Set of 12-14 etc are available. I’m not concerned about the price because I plan on using them for my own photography as well. Thank you

  • I used to hand color photos for a studio with my mother when I was young. I used oils, and have never tried watercolor. I’m going to try. Matte finish.

  • I love this idea, and these photos make for a great keepsake! Xo


  • Did you try printing the photos on watercolor paper at all? Just wondering how that would turn out. Thanks!

  • This technique is so cute! I love it!


  • I never would have thought of this. Great idea! http://www.hannamarielei.com

  • Eu amei essa técnica, com certeza vou tentar fazer. Ficou muito criativo é lindo 😀


  • I love your hand-colored photographs!!!!!!
    And I will definitely try it…
    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Wow this is beautiful! Definitely going to give this a go Dreams and Colour Schemes

  • I found mine on sale at Hobby Lobby for 30 bucks. If you get a smaller set, you can still mix the colors yourself!
    xx- Elsie

  • I didn’t have any issues with smudging. You should try it!
    xx- Elsie

  • Oh, my goodness! This is adorable. I love how it’s classic looking with all the fun pops of color. Thank you for the beautiful idea, Elsie!

    Anna Neumann from The Whistling Willow

  • I believe it would work with any prints, but you’d have to try out each individual combo to be sure! I tried the Canon Luster paper and something more matte and I liked the Luster better for the paint application. Hope that helps!
    xx- Elsie

  • What Dr Ph Watercolors do you have? Or can you recommend a set? They seem to be a little pricey, was just wondering if you have any suggestions. I’ve never used watercolors like those before. Thanks!!

  • Such a great idea! I definitely will be trying this soon! 🙂

  • This is so fun! My grandmother used to color photos using a similar technique. Of course at the time you had to color your own photos because color photos didn’t exist yet!

  • So fun! I used to do this with my black and white photos when I was in high school too.

  • Awesome! In honor of your high school tradition maybe you could share some of your pics from back in the day! 🙂

  • Great idea! Would love to try this but I think photos from my inkjet printer would smudge with watercolours sadly. Thanks for sharing another great DIY!

    ISOSCELLA | isoscella.blogspot.co.uk

  • Really like this effect. It is something I’ve been thinking of doing with some old black and white photos I have of the family. I presume I can just scan them in and then print them off before painting. Thanks

  • Love this idea! The end result its just too cool! Can’t wait to try it.

  • These are so fun! I wouldn’t have even thought to do this.


  • Esta idea ya la hacía la fotógrafa española Ouka Leele en Madrid en los años 80 y fue todo un éxito y una revolución en el campo de la fotografía. Me alegra saber que ha traspasado fronteras, aunque haya sido tanto tiempo adelante… Saludos desde España¡¡ 😉

  • How fun, I love this!! Looks like a great project for the kiddos.

    <3 Haley @ www.beautyinthischaos.com

  • Great idea,,I never thought of painting pictures before reading your post. Oh what paper did you use for the white frame?


  • This is so cool! I might try a couple to decorate my craft room! xx

  • This is SO lovely. I seem to paint anything and everything from handmade cards to sketchbook doodles lately. Can’t wait to give this a try!


  • This is so effective and really does look great!
    I’d never have thought to do something like this, so thank you for the inspiration!!

    The Everyday Life of Rachel

  • Awesome idea! Im doing this on the weekend!


  • These turned out so brillianty!!! I agree practice is key with any kind of art and creative work, I have to take on this project. Adore the whole pop-art feel it gives to the photos!

    x Carina
    Running White Horses | Fashion + Travel

  • This is so fun!!!! I love this idea! My husband and I would have so much fun doing this together!

  • Do your photos have to be printed with pigment ink? I I’ve had problems with dye printer ink smearing in the past with traditional watercolors….

  • I wonder if you could created a dip dyed look instead of filling the whole space? These turned out amazing! Such a great idea born from an older technique.

  • This is an absolutely incredible idea. So beautiful. Thank you very much for sharing. Karla xo

  • LOVE!! I’m going to try this weekend 🙂 I want to make some for our wedding (our theme is retro + COLORFUL)

    Will share on insta 🙂 xo

  • Soooooooo cute! Can’t wait to try this!

    Kat | www.itgirlnextdoor.com

  • Great idea! I am just starting a new scrapbook and I think I’ll incorporate this into the mix. Thanks for the inspiration!


  • Wow! These look so beautiful and cool. Definitely wanna try this technique out soon 🙂


  • These are so cute! I love the houses and the bicycles, I’d never think to paint on black and white photos but it’s beautiful!

  • This is so fun – and thanks for sharing your practice work! It’s always good to know that you go through a creative process too xo

    Warm Regards,

  • Love this idea! It would be a fun project to do with kids too! Thanks for sharing!


  • When I was taking photography in high school, we actually had these photo markers we were allowed to use on our black and white prints. It was my favorite effect! I really need to try this for my next art project!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Dressing Dallas

  • Hi Ambar,
    We don’t currently have any promo codes, but when we do we will post them here!
    xx- Elsie

  • You can do it with any photo paper (as long as you allow it to dry before touching), but I found the matte paper easy to paint. 😀

    xx! Elsie

  • This is SUCH an amazing idea! I wonder if this would work on regular “glossy” prints you can buy from the store, or would the paint just smudge?


    Kyia Belle

  • this is awesome!
    by the way…are you doing any more promo codes for this printer?

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