Revised 1 October 2006
Preliminary Notes on Bromoil
For contemporary workers who wish to learn bromoil, I highly recommend Gene Laughter's book Bromoil 101 and David Lewis' book The Art of Bromoil & Transfer. Richard Farber’s book, Historic Photographic Processes, also contains much useful information. There is new book available, which I have not yet had a chance to look at: Bromoil, A Foundation Course, by Derek Watkins. Before these books were published, the most recent book available was Geoffrey. F. Whalley's Bromoil and Transfer, published in 1961. His book can still be found used, but often commands a high price due to its scarcity.
There are so many variables in the bromoil process, that it is rare for any two bromoilists to follow exactly the same procedure in detail. However, there are recommended starting points that have not changed much in the century since the process was invented.
Given below are the major steps, in order.
1. Paper. Virtually any silver gelatin paper could be utilized in the early days of bromoil, though the fast bromide papers were generally preferred. At some point, manufacturers began to superharden the gelatin in their papers as well as make papers with very smooth, glossy surfaces. Bromoilists found such papers more difficult to ink, so manufacturers began making special bromoil papers with non -superhardened emulsions and matte or semi-matte surfaces. By the mid 1930’s bromoilists had discovered methods that enabled them to utilize supercoated papers for the process, and eventually the many special bromoil papers were discontinued due to declining sales.
Today there are a few manufacturers that produce papers especially intended for the bromoil process, including Kentmere, J&C Photographic, and David Lewis. In addition, almost any silver-gelatin paper with a semi-matte or matte surface can be utilized, following the procedure outlined below. I have had excellent results with Kentmere Art Classic, J&C Bromoprint, Bergger Brom 240, David Lewis paper, Agfa Multicontrast Classic, Forte Elegance Polywarmtone, Ilford Multigrade, and several other papers.
To start with, find the exposure that gives full detail in the most significant areas of the print. The general rule of thumb is to double that exposure to make a print suitable for bromoil. With non-superhardened bromoil papers the exposure increase may be only 50%. If you wish to reproduce fine high value detail--such as in a high key image or a nude--an exposure increase of 300% may be required. For most superhardened papers, doubling the exposure is a good place to begin. Pretend you have a “dark” aesthetic and prefer all your prints to be dark and moody--make a nice, dark print, then double that exposure to make the bromoil matrix, and you will certainly be close. With experience, you will be able to tell when a print is not dark enough--or too dark. This can vary from paper to paper.
With variable contrast papers, Gene Laughter recommends using one contrast grade lower than normal for most
prints. This is because the bromoil process tends to increase contrast. Using a lower contrast grade is not usually
necessary with pyro negatives, because the yellow stain acts as a contrast reduction filter--in fact, sometimes I have to use one to two grades higher than normal contrast for pyro negatives.
An alternative method for use with contemporary superhardened papers is to make a normal print, develop it normally, bleach it but don’t fix it, redevelop it in fresh developer, and bleach it a second time. This technique effectively does the same thing as doubling the initial exposure. It also allows you to easily salvage prints that did not receive adequate exposure. The bleach and redevelopment may be repeated several times, if necessary. If the paper whites are degraded by the redevelopment process, a quick dip in a very dilute solution of Farmer’s reducer prior to fixing will restore them.
3. Development. Development should take place with continuous agitation in a very dilute paper developer such as Dektol (1:8), Ethol LPD (1:8), Kodak D-163 (1:8), or in a compensating developer such as Ansco 120. Some workers even use Rodinal at 1:25 or 1:30, though I have not tried it. The high dilution of the developer (or use of a compensating developer) is necessary to keep the low values from blocking up.
Many old bromoilists state that you can use any developer but their favorite is an amidol formula--of which there are many. Amidol was (and still is) favored by many bromoilists because it causes no staining or tanning of the gelatin. As a test, I developed one print in Dektol (1:8) and another in the amidol formula given below, using the exact same exposure and development times. These two prints inked identically--I could tell no difference between them. Though I obtain excellent results with amidol, I don’t regard it as essential for making good bromoils.
If you wish to use an amidol formula, I can recommend the one given by David Lewis, which is simple and quite old.
I have tried using factorial development, as is recommended in some old manuals, but ultimately I found that a
development time of about three minutes seems to be optimal with Dektol (1:8) or D-163 (1:8). For soft working developers such as R77M , Ansco 120, Amidol, or higher dilutions of Dektol, I develop for 4 minutes.
6. Drying and Superdrying. Prints should be air dryed for six hours. (There are quick methods that recommend drying with heat, but most bromoilists over the years have recommended air drying for the beginner at bromoil. The quick method is for expert bromoilists.) After the prints have dried slowly in the air, they can then be superdried. If you have a dry mount press, preheat it to 250° and press the print between two matte boards for 2 or 3 minutes. You can also move the print over a gas stove burner on medium heat for 20 to 30 seconds. This drives all remnants of moisture out of the print and leaves it bone dry--it is also said to soften the gelatin and make it take ink more easily. Superdrying is done again to the matrix just before it is soaked for inking. If you live in an area where the humidity is very low, superdrying can be omitted. However, if you live in an area where the humidity is very high, I strongly recommend superdrying.
7. Bleaching & Tanning. Mix three solutions as follows:
Today this is the most widely-used bleach formula, though there are a number of variations. One liter of working
solution will bleach ten 8x10 prints or five 11x14 prints. Do not print a black border around your prints, as this will
reduce the efficacy of the bleach. The optimum time with this bleach is 8 minutes, but don't be afraid to continue to 10 or even 15 minutes if necessary.
An alternative bleach is the Venn two solution bleach. H.J.P. Venn probably did more research on bleaching and tanning of bromoils than anyone else. His bleach/tan solutions are widely used by bromoilists in Britain. They are easy to mix because you can use the three solutions from the Trevor Jones formula, above.
Mix the used tanning solution with used fix or used hypo clearing agent and a little sodium sulfite or sodium bisulfite before pouring down the drain--this helps convert the dichromate to a less dangerous form.
Wash the print thoroughly until all traces of the yellow bichromate color is gone from the water.
8. Refixing. The bleached matrix must be refixed at this point. As before, fix each print for 5 minutes, with continuous agitation, in a 10% solution of plain hypo (sodium thiosulfate). If this fixing step is omitted, the matrices will slowly turn grey when exposed to light. Again, wash the print thoroughly to remove residual fix--at least a half-hour with several complete changes of water.
9. Acid Bath. The fixed matrix has a slight grey-green color, caused by residual chromium oxide. This can be removed by a bath of 1% sulfuric acid or 1% EDTA. Most modern workers omit this step. David Lewis recommends an acid bath after fixing, rather than before, as was often recommended by early bromoilists. More than one writer on bromoil has stated that the acid bath allows the matrix to accept ink more easily--however, my own experience is exactly the opposite--the acid bath softens the gelatin so much that I find the matrix very difficult to ink. I have noticed that sometimes the grey-green color shows through in delicate highlights, such as are often seen in nudes, so I sometimes use an acid bath on such prints, but I do it after the print has been inked and the ink has dried. It usually takes less than a minute to remove the chrome oxide color. I then wash the print for an hour to remove the acid.
10. Drying and Superdrying. Air dry for 6 hours and superdry as before. Expert bromoilists state that the more wet/dry cycles a matrix goes through, the more readily it takes the ink.
I usually place the glass flat on a table, but some people who ink exclusively with brushes prefer to work with the print at an angle. Traditional workers often use a board covered with blotting paper or material, and pin the matrix to the board. Some workers recommend moistening the blotting paper to keep the back of the print from drying out. I’ve also seen a wet chamois used beneath the print to keep it moist. This is particularly useful when working with very soft ink, because if the print dries too quickly it will take too much of the soft ink in the high values.
A very quick method for getting started with inking is to use a large boar bristle brush and ink the entire matrix until it
is completely covered, with no regard for high or low values. Remove the matrix from the inking area and place it on a flat surface. Roll the matrix carefully with a wet sponge roller (I prefer the high quality white sponge rollers used
by painters, available in the United States at Lowe’s). The wet roller redistributes the ink very quickly--it increases
contrast considerably and removes almost all ink from the high values. At this point, the print can be resoaked and
the highlights inked appropriately. For a lesser increase in contrast, roll the print underwater. Be careful not to crease the wet matrix, as this is very easy to do under water.