Photographic Prints Using
Water Colours and Acrylics
(Gum Bichromate Printing)
Gum prints ‘How To‘
There is no one road to the art of the photographic print. We have the work of photographic artists from two hundred years to take as examples and, for centuries before that, if we take into account artists who used lenses.
I first became hooked on Gum Printing in the 1970’s when I was seeking to broaden my photography. Robert Demachy, one of the early masters of Gum Printing, came to gum in much the same way. It was suggested to Demachy that he should refer back to the 1850’s when ‘alternatives’ were being sought for silver photographs which were found to be fading. It was then that Pouncey and Poiteven had developed methods of using light sensitive pigmented gums to make pictures which had the tactility of paintings and drawings. Demachy went on to become one of the masters of the early Pictorial movement.
My own conversion came I went to a talk by a Mr Steinbock from Maidenhead who had worked with the some of the great names of the earlier era. He showed me my first gum print. The subject matter was conventional; it was in the school of the 1930s salon photography known as ‘the little gem’. But the technique of this black and white print, with the enhanced recession which the gum process gave, gave it a power, a tactility, a hyper-reality, that seemed to outshine many silver gelatine prints. My immediate reaction was that if he could do that in black and white, there must be a whole new world out there with colour, fine gradations and contrast that I could choose for myself. I plunged in to find how to do it. It was only when I had got my first results that I went on to find, who had done it before, who was doing it now and to work out a method taking into account earlier experience. Who were these oddities who worked in gum, the ‘gummists’ as they were known a century ago?
My second ever gum print from a paper positive.
The first dichromate print was made in 1839 by Mungo Ponton.
The first extant gum prints in the UK date from the 1850s, when the Fading Committee of The Photographic Society was deliberating. A particularly fine example is John Pouncy’s print of a country house with a couple standing by some birch trees. The print was in the RPS collection. It is a black and white print using Indian ink as the pigment. When I see the print the tactility of the surface gives the same thrill as I had when I saw my first gum print. The equivalent prints in France are by Alphonse Poitevin who was working towards a viable system of photomechanical reproduction. Until the advent of the computer in the printing industry, machine gravure printing still depended on the effects of light on dichromates.
In general, the Fading Committee found that collodion and albumen were more cost effective and that fading salt prints had not been fixed properly. Gum printing was put to one side. It was not until George Eastman gave do it yourself photography to everybody, that monied amateurs sought something that would give their photography an extra cachet.
Art movements had had a strong effect on the world of ‘art’ photography. Pre-Raphaelitism, impressionism, post impressionism, art nouveau, and the arts and crafts movement all influenced photography. It was a fruitful time for art of which photography formed part.
As gum and other pigment processes gave the photographer great control over the image, they lent themselves very much to the mood of the time. One has only to look at copies of ‘Camerawork’ , the magazine of the Photo Secession, to gain an idea of the healthy interchange of influences. The work of Rodin, Matisse and Picasso is there with Strand, Evans and Steichen. Stieglitz, Dudley Johnson, Alvin Langdon Coburn and Gertrude Kasebier all worked in gum from time to time.
The British equivalent to the Photo-Secession, with some common membership, was The Linked Ring. Margaret Harker’s history of the Linked Ring, has many fine reproductions of gums by Dudley Johnston, Heinrich Kuhn, George Davison, Agnes Warburg and Demachy. The originals can often be found in the RPS collection at Bradford.
Demachy had technical mastery of the process. He knew how to retain photographic quality while producing an image with the tone, line and contrast of a renaissance drawing. (Gum Print by Demachy).
His landscapes and townscapes make full use of the control over contrast that the medium gives. Sometimes his photographs of women lack taste. Puyo, a colleague of Demachy in the Photo Club de Paris, was capable of even greater delicacy in his gum printing technique.
Thames and Hudson’s Library of World Photography series contains fine gum prints in the volumes on ‘Landscape’ and ‘Photography as Art’ as does ‘The Imaginary Photo Museum’ published by Penguin.
But fashions changed, as they are changing now. ‘Pure’ photography began to gain the upper hand. Beautiful work came from Weston and Walker. But the purist approach tended towards the parochial and the sterile in those who followed the fashion unthinkingly.
Today we are living in the world of the digital revolution but a reaction is setting in. Photography is now more a tool for the making of an image. It is part of the training of a painter or a sculptor to learn how to use photography as a pencil or a brush. There is less sterility. Gum and other pigment processes have become useful tools for the print maker while the photographer often wishes to return to the craft skills that are the foundation of photography. But craft skills alone do not make a picture,
In terms of picture making there is no justification for trying to make a gum bichromate print look like a shiny four colour photograph. Artists’ pigments used in gum printing do not include the process colours needed to reproduce a standard colour photographic print. It is a far more rewarding to use gum and pigments to extend your own creativity and to extend things beyond the monochromatic romanticism of the early Pictorialists.
This picture of Richmond Bridge was my first large gum print, 20 x 16 inches, which, although monochrome, came close to achieving those objectives..
The print has a romantic and a timeless quality invoked by the mistiness and the exclusion of items that would easily date the photograph. I am aware of influences from pictures, both paintings and photographs, from the past five hundred years. Even the railings, which accentuate the illusion of depth, appear in paintings and photographs of the 1850s.
I particularly wanted to in achieve the fine gradations that are the test of competence in the medium. You may be able to perceive the two very faint Lombardy poplar trees to the left of the pigeon; these trees are almost imperceptible but are essential to the composition.
The print was made on Bockingford 140 lb watercolour paper using three coats of burnt sienna artists’ watercolour as pigment.
It was developed using different sizes of sable watercolour brushes, ( I now use hake brushes and jets of water to control development).
Birmingham, West Midlands, England
This 20 x 14 “ gum print, is made using acrylic rather than watercolour pigment. There are blue greys in the lighter tones working through burnt sienna in the middle tones to darkened burnt umber in the shadows to give the recession from the grimy midland brick of the foreground.
The print was made on Fabriano Artistico hot pressed 300gsm paper using a substrate of acrylic titanium white.
Another Birmingham Print
Looking from the early 19th into the late 20th century
This gum print is again a photograph taken in heavy rain which accentuates recession. Savernake is an ancient Norman hunting forest; the shattered tree on the left is not only compositionally important but it draws attention to the transitory nature of our environment. Influences would include the plein air and Rre-Raphaelite photographers of the 1840s and fifties, the new realists of the 1930s and decades of looking and seeing.
The print is in watercolour on Bockingford 300 gsm paper. Size 19 x 14 inches
This is another early gum print which is an accurate record of what was seen at the time. The power station on the left has now gone to be replaced by Fulham Sainsbury’s.The Chelsea Harbour development now occupies the middle distance. The time, the weather conditions and the state of the tide all contribute. The man made objects are hung like notes on a stave along the middle of the picture, enclosed by areas of gentle gradation in the sky with their reflections in the foreground of the smoke from the chimneys. Some have commented that there is a lot of foreground but is is the expanse of foreground which makes the picture. The image is about tranquillity. Two people to whom I have sold versions of this image have told me that they had been seriously considering suicide but had decided not to after contemplating this picture on their walls. A copy has been donated to the Westminster and Chelsea Hospital Mental Health Department.
The image was made up of a combination of permanent rose and yellow ochre for the highlights in the sky and then three coats of indigo and ultramarine on Bockingford 140 lb paper.
Gum prints ‘How To’