THE PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF CANADA

The Art of Bromoil & Transfer

David W Lewis

BROMOIL is one of the rarest and the most permanent of the photographic printing processes. Basically the silver image is replaced by lithographic ink. Bromoil was invented in 1907 by Wellbourne Piper on a suggestion from E J Wall, and building on the earlier Rawlins Process. Two years later the bromoil transfer process was invented by Fred Judge and popularized by Robert Demachy.

The Loft by David Lewis - Bromoil

The bromoil technique works because the treated gelatin in the photographic paper varies in hardness with the amount of silver removed during bleaching. The artist begins by making a silver bromide or chlorobromide print by contact or enlargement. The photo paper is developed and fixed as usual, then the silver image is bleached out. During bleaching the dense shadow areas create a hard gelatin while the highlights result in soft gelatin with the greys proportional in between. The bleached print or matrix, is fixed once more and washed. Just before applying the greasy ink, the matrix is soaked in water. The highlight area soaks up water and will reject the ink while the hard shadow areas will readily accept the ink. The grays of the original print accept ink in proportion to the amount of silver bleached out. A special stag foot-shaped brush is charged with a hard ink and the ink is "hopped" on the delicate surface in a series of layers. Every few inkings, the matrix is re-soaked and excess water carefully removed. Ink can be added to darken shadows or hopped with an uncharged brush to clear highlights or lighten shadows. It takes many hours to build up a depth of ink layer by layer to create the desired image.

The bromoil technique allows an artistic print to be made under complete control of the artist. The choice of brush and paper texture determines the image quality which ranges from near photographic to textured drawing. Various ink colours can be used (even spot colours). During the 1920s when pictorialism was in vogue, bromoils reached their peak popularity. In the next decade, purists and the desire for photographic sharpness pushed bromoils out of popularity and out of history. The growth of interest in the miniature camera (minicam) and 35mm photography with its relatively instant results ended general interest in bromoil.

Old Car by David Lewis - Bromoil
Fire on shore - Bromoil
Dry River Gulch, Santa Fe, New Mexico - David Lewis - Bromoil
Portrait - David Lewis - Bromoil

DAVID LEWIS OF CALLANDER, Ontario is one of the few active bromoil artists. Fascinated with bromoils since his 20s, his first exhibition was in a Bowmanville gallery in the 1970s. Only a few masters of the process were around then and David was fortunate enough to meet and learn from Georgia Procter-Gregg in England, Trevor Jones in Wales, and Ralph Davis in New York among others. David was fortunate to inherit finished works, materials, and brushes from older artists wishing to preserve their art. He has a copy of every known book and magazine about bromoil.

David prints bromoil pictorials, portraits, and figure studies many of which have been exhibited in galleries across North America. His images are unique works of art sold by word of mouth from galleries in Toronto and Cape Cod. He captures his images on film with a traditional camera, then scans the negatives into his computer using Photoshop to scale and adjust image density before printing with pigment inks on transparent media. He uses his cold light Omega D6 as a light source for printing.

Given the slow and methodical effort necessary to make outstanding bromoils, it is not surprising that David's second passion is fly-fishing especially near his home in northern Ontario. David's other interests include holding workshops, book publication, theme exhibitions, and the sale of bromoil products.

Muskrats - David Lewis - Bromoil
Hosta Garden by David Lewis - Bromoil
Wiping excess water from matrix
Steps to Ink up a Bromoil Matrix Steps to Ink up a Bromoil Matrix Steps to Ink up a Bromoil Matrix Steps to Ink up a Bromoil Matrix Steps to Ink up a Bromoil Matrix

WORKSHOPS. In his early days as a photographer, David worked for well known Toronto photographer Al Gilbert. He credits Al with introducing him to the Photographic Society of America (PSA) which led to speaking engagements and workshops the first of which was held in Bowmanville in 1972. One attendee was another early member of the PHSC, Pat Agnew (editor of Photographic Canadiana 1981-5). Today his workshops are held almost entirely in the United States where interest in bromoil runs high.

Hog Hair Stag Foot Brush Hog Hair Stag Foot Brush Hog Hair Stag Foot Brush Hog Hair Stag Foot Brush Hog Hair Stag Foot Brush

SALE OF BROMOIL PRODUCTS. James A Sinclair & Company Limited in England was the prime supplier of bromoil materials. The process, which relies on soft gelatin photo papers, hog hair stag brushes, Fitch brushes, and lithographic inks of a special hardness, fell victim to the evolution of photography and commercial printing. Photo papers moved to hardened gelatin surfaces and the selection shrunk as colour printing replaced black & white. Progress in Lithography eliminated most of the suitable inks. The Sinclair company slowly faded away after WW2 taking with it the prime source of bromoil materials. A Sinclair ad in the 1955 BJP Almanac has only a brief paragraph on bromoil vs. four illustrated pages two decades earlier.

Bromoil brushes are special. The stag foot shape, bristle softness, and spring are all important. Working the soft gelatin surfaces with the wrong brush ruins the image. In the 1980s David began sourcing and selling bromoil brushes. His first effort ended in failure when the brush maker cut the brush bristles to the stag foot shape resulting in sharp edges that scarred the delicate gelatin surface. David eventually found a source for long hog hair in China and located a craftsman in Germany who transforms the bristles into bromoil brushes. Ink was another problem. It must be neither too runny nor too stiff for correct transfer to the matrix.

David now offers a full selection of materials for the bromoil artist. Visit him at www.bromoil.com.

James A Sinclair 1935 James A Sinclair 1935 James A Sinclair 1935 James A Sinclair 1935 James A Sinclair 1935
James A Sinclair 1955 - twenty years later
The Art of Bromoil and Transfer by David Lewis

BOOK PUBLICATION. Encouraged by participants in his workshops, David wrote a modern treatise on the art of bromoil in late 1994. The book addresses working with modern materials--techniques not covered in traditional texts. The small book is illustrated with a wonderful selection of plates from bromoil and transfer originals. David sells his self-published book "The Art of Bromoil & Transfer" (Nov 1994) for $35 US plus $6 shipping at www.bromoil.com. Other sources offer used copies for $65 to $200+ dollars US.

A chance stop to photograph an old drive-in theatre sparked an 80,000 mile trip around the US and Canada to photograph these landmarks of our youth - 90% have been demolished. The resulting book - "The Passion Pit" contains images from some bromoils, a couple of carbon prints and mostly silver prints. Quality printed in Italy, David noted that sales are close to the break even point.

The Passion Pit by David Lewis

RUST BELT ROMANTIC. A personal project to photograph old cars and wrecks abandoned around the country led to a larger commercial project to record the de-industrialization of America. In the United States the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules make it prohibitively expensive to tear down factories and restore the polluted land. As a result, there are miles of abandoned steel mills, car plants and other factories along highways and streets. David noted the hazards of this project, not from pollution, but squatters. He was confronted by youthful inner city gang members in one abandoned five story auto factory. At another southern location consisting of 50 acres of abandoned buildings, his sixth sense kept him out of one building. It turned out to be an illegal crystal meth lab that shortly thereafter burnt to the ground. It took two and a half years of travel throughout the United States and parts of Canada to record the images. An exhibition of the pigment inkjet and bromoil prints opens in 2007. Negotiations are currently underway with the University of Michigan to publish a book of the exhibition prints and story.

FOREST INDUSTRY. Another project in collaboration with a professor at Concordia University in Montreal records the oral history of the North American forest industry - its successes and problems. The project is partly funded by the government of Quebec. In one anecdote, David told the story of getting into the Weyhauser plant at Sturgeon Falls and photographing before it was torn down. Emotions were running high in the community as the plant was still making money when it was closed.

1929 Model A Ford Pick-up by David Lewis - Bromoil
Abandoned Factory by David Lewis - Bromoil

DIGITAL. A large portion of studio business was photographing executives making career moves. The $180 price included the sitting, negative touch-up and a few prints. The executive's corporation would send the prints off to the newspapers. Today, such portraits are taken with a digital camera and a CD of images is given to the executive to review and email to the press. Most of today's photographers are embracing Photoshop and the digital world, avoiding the traditional processes. He noted that only four colour labs are left in Toronto, a number that will drop even further in the coming years.

Contact Negative - inkjet pigment ink Contact Negative - inkjet pigment ink Removing excess water Removing excess water Removing excess water
Charging the hog hair stag foot brush hopping the ink onto the matrix hopping the ink onto the matrix hopping the ink onto the matrix hopping the ink onto the matrix

INKING UP DEMO. The steps to create a matrix are familiar to anyone who has enlarged and processed black & white prints. The bleaching step is not that different from other darkroom processing. However; the application of ink to the matrix takes the photographer deep into unfamiliar territory. Brush, ink, paper and skill come together to spell success or failure. With this in mind, David spent a leisurely, fact-filled 45 minutes showing us first hand just how to successfully ink up a matrix. The technique is not for the impatient--it can take hours to reach the desired depth and contrast in a print.

The artist soaks the paper matrix, wipes off excess water - carefully, charges the brush with ink and gently hops the matrix both to transfer ink and to remove any excess. After adding a few ink layers the matrix dries out and must be re-soaked and wiped. Then the hopping process is repeated to build up density. David's demo showed what a book cannot: the way he holds a brush, the speed and weight of hopping to add just the amount of ink the matrix can handle without ruining the result. David noted that his demo image would be destroyed because the density wasn't sufficient by the end of the demo and the print would dry our before he returned home, destroying the ability to add more layers successfully.

charging the brush removing excess moisture hopping the matrix ink palette and excess ink removal dot partially inked matrix
hopping the matrix hopping the matrix - close up hopping the matrix - close up partially inked matrix partially inked matrix
partially inked matrix - close up partially inked matrix at end of demo getting a close look checking the bromoils post demo discussion
post demo discussion post demo discussion post demo discussion getting a close look Bob Lansdale taking a portrait of David Lewis for the record

The evening wrapped up with a chance to hold and view David's prints, chat with him about bromoils, and of course help Bob Lansdale take a formal portrait for the record.


All images on this page were taken with a Sony F828 digital still camera and subsequently adjusted in Photoshop CS2. Contents and images (except bromoils) are ©2005 PHSC and may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Contact David Lewis if you wish to use any illustrations showing his bromoils.

Click on any small image to see it larger in a separate window.

Bob Carter

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