My own father’s hands are like that. Not huge, but slab-fingered, and with clean, perfectly shaped nails. Yet when I look down past my wrists, it’s not my father’s hands I see but my mother’s. They are smallish for my height, my pinkies narrow for a man (to my perspective, anyway), my thumbs almost hourglass-shaped (“Wallins thumbs,” my mother would say, referring to a genetic characteristic of one side of her family). My hands looks and feel fairly dainty. Too hairy to be a woman’s hands, but not the romantic ideal of a man’s hands. They are bigger than my mother’s, but far from being fists of steel.
My parents knew an artist, the Expressionist painter Hyman Bloom. I met him a couple of times and found him to be a quiet, quirky person. But I’ll never forget what my mother once said about him, that he had beautiful hands, an artist’s hands. I tried to remember what his hands looked like. I recalled that his fingers were long and thin, feminine even. Was that the ideal for an artist?
After graduating from the Jeremiah E. Burke High School for Girls in Dorchester – the same high school Donna Summer later went to (by then it was co-ed) – where she did so poorly in math that she was encouraged to take art classes instead of continuing to waste the math teacher’s time, my mother went to the Massachusetts College of Art. All through her life, until she became ill with a neurological disorder that made it difficult and then impossible for her to use her hands, she would doodle her art school exercises on scrap paper, making ovals and drawing this same female figure with a tiny waist, pursed mouth, and fluffy hair. She never worked as a professional artist but she did paint professionally. She practiced an art now nearly dead, that of coloring black-and-white photographs with oil paints.
She worked for a photographer who would take the portraits and if the client wanted them colored, he gave my mother the prints and the coloring requests. She set up a tiny studio in what had been a bathroom on the first floor of our house. I used to love watching her because she painted in a way I’d never seen anyone paint before. She had rolls of cotton and boxes of toothpicks. She would tear off small bits of the cotton and twist them tightly around one end of a toothpick, making a delicate cotton swab that she used to convey precise details, such as the white dot of light in a person’s iris.
She would mix the oils in just the right combinations, then apply the colors to the print and wipe them with a cotton ball, leaving a sort of pastel tone that screamed the 1950s and 1960s. I would sometimes think she was being sloppy with the paint but they always looked perfect when she was done. She had done many of our own photos and they are treasured mementos of her skill. Once, she was at somebody’s house socially and saw their wedding photo on the wall. She was certain she had painted it years before; sure enough, when it was removed from its frame, my mother’s initials were on the back.
(This photo taken with my phone doesn’t provide a true sense for the shadings my mother applied to this portrait of me when I was maybe three years old, but lacking a scanner it’s the best I can do.)
I’ve lately been curious about this lost art of hand-coloring photographs. It was apparently quite the fad decades ago but is rarely seen today. In fact, just the mention of it seems to bring to mind the cheesy colorization of black-and-white movies that has to stand as Ted Turner’s most idiotic venture. But a well-done hand-colored photograph has a very real charm about it, and as black-and-white photography has been making a comeback, so perhaps will hand-coloring.
Searching the Internet, an unavoidable and often successful task, I found a number of people offering their hand-coloring services. One, a former professional illustrator named Mary Ann Erickson, had some useful information on her home page:
Hand-colored photos are, for the most part, a lost art form. The technique of painting on black and white photos originated back in the day before color photography existed and flourished for many years. When I was an illustrator in New York City during the 1970s-1990s this art form made a comeback as its own stylistic look. The development of amazing computer programs like Photoshop generally put an end to the art of painting directly on photographs.
I decided to write to her to ask if she had more information about the history of hand-coloring. Here is what she wrote to me:
Thanks for getting in touch. I was an illustrator in NYC for a number of years and took up hand coloring because I knew a bunch of art directors who wanted that look - before Photoshop obviously! Basically hand coloring was used to tint photos before color photography was invented. Then it hung around as more of an artform and a look that was unique after that. I think it must have allowed the photographers to manipulate the images more than they could in the darkroom as well - sort of a retouching tool. Again, computers and Photoshop have changed everything, but I still think there's a place in the world for a beautifully colored photograph - they become paintings! Anything done digitally will have a quality of its own, but it never will be something that's been painted by hand.
The coloring on my mother’s portraits is quite a bit subtler and more natural than Ms. Erickson’s work, but I like how they both take the realism of objective photography to another level of visual intrigue. I didn’t ask Ms. Erickson what her hands looked like, but at the same time I wouldn’t describe my mother’s hands as “beautiful hands, an artist’s hands.” They were good at what they did, whether it was painting, cooking, or soothing. It was the heart and mind behind her hands that was important, and I guess that makes me feel better about my hands, too.