The BROMOIL Process
Bromoil is a 100 year old process that bridges painting & photography. The final image is a hand crafted original – akin to an oil painting.
I start by taking a photograph on film without a digital proof. After processing the film, I make a photograph using nineteenth century chemistry. The next day I bleach the photograph away using an historic formula that leaves a latent image in the emulsion of the photographic paper. I then refix this matrix and wash it for an hour.
At this point I still am not sure how the final image will look. On the third day I take the matrix and put it in a water bath for 15 minutes to swell the emulsion. Now the process begins.
I lay out the paper on a glass, squeegee away the water, and begin to apply an oil pigment with a hogsfoot shaped brush by walking it vertically and horizontally along the paper. After applying the oil pigment I begin to stipple the image and I get the first sight of the final bromoil. As I stipple the surface I am clearing the highlights and adding more pigment to the shadow areas of the original photograph. This process continues until the image feels right to me.
I limit the number of bromoils from each negative to no more than six but no two interpretations are alike - each image in the edition is unique and cannot be duplicated. Digital images may be beautiful but they are fundamentally a product of a machine which are mass produced, whereas each bromoil is a hand crafted original.
“There is a genuine and well-founded dislike for …the average bromoil …(because) the method is difficult…What we may call the strictly photographic processes demand a skill of one sort, whereas the handwork (of the bromoil) process require a skill of another. A great many photographers object to certain defects seen in work by the bromoil process. We have a lurking suspicion that those workers who are most devoted to bromoil have set their hearts on these very faults….”
—From “Photo-Era” – the American Journal of Photography 1918 on Oil and Bromoil Printing
Leaving an Impression
Reprint from the Big Sky Journal interview with Randall Roberts
Deep in the legend-filled backcountry of the Pryor mountains, bromoil artist
Randall Roberts follows one of the few wild horse herds left in the United States. Roberts photographs these untamed mustangs, scarred and uninhibited in sheltered woods or rocky slopes. It is not only these quixotic horses that capture Roberts’ focus, he is also drawn to things relinquished, left behind, mysterious. But as a bromoil artist, taking the photograph is only the first part of the process.
In his studio, Roberts pulls a curled & bleached photograph from a mounded pile. He has already developed a slough of black and white photos and is ready to begin the bromoil process. Bromoil is a combination of photography & painting – although not in the strict sense of the word. Each image begins as a photograph. The image is then bleached in copper sulfate, potassium bromide, & a teaspoon of a 1% solution of potassium dichromate, leaving a specter of the image behind. It is then darkened with a pigment, like lithographic ink, that leaves no single image the same. Each is as individual as a painting.
The process itself explores the nature of the image – by erasing it and bringing it back, it is a constant evaluation of completion – addition & subtraction, touching & removing the stroke. Roberts works by instinct, feeling around the edge of the reminiscence until a thin sliver comes to the fore. It is a pulling, a balance of positive & negative. And it is exactly that continual weighing that makes Roberts’ work so exquisite.
In a piece he calls, Left Hanging, a forsaken group of wire hangers dangle in an abandoned church. An umbra seems to reach beyond their boundaries, bleeding onto the crevices of the untended plaster, scratching down the wall on lapsed trails. The coat hooks fade out like water stains against the graying image. It is prose illustrated.
Extracting a sopping wet paper embedded with a latent nearly invisible wild horse image, Roberts lays it on his worktable, smoothing out the warp as much as possible with a sponge. “The water soaks in the paper in proportion to the lights & darks of the original photograph,” he explains, pondering which brush he’ll start with, not thinking about standing alone in the Arrowhead mountains watching the wild horses.
“I’m adamant to not do this in an objective way – all the books that are out about mustangs are just data -& all my images are about the mythology,” he says, choosing a rounded hogsfoot brush. “I’m trying to convey what it feels like to be out there; I’m not trying to capture anything the way a photojournalist would.”
On a tile, beside his wet 8x10 inch paper, he rolls out a swath of brownish black ink, then taps the brush in the ink & hits the latent image with granules of color, haltingly, rhythmically, walking the brush up & down the piece. Tiny dots of sepia adhere to the shadows & a grainy form begins to rise to the surface. A horse’s flank, one long head, a flowing mane. There’s more to the image, but it hasn’t emerged yet.
Roberts steps back and turns his head, observing the piece, listening to it.
Because he did take the photograph, he knows what’s supposed to be there…however, that doesn’t always come across in the finished piece. In this case he photographed three horses, but only one is clear at this point.
Lifting the paper from his bench, he places it back in the warm bath for about 30 seconds. Some the ink falls away in the water, but most of it remains. He takes a clean, uncharged brush & begins to tap away at the image. “ This picks up the ink from the highlights & deposits it into the shadows, which clarifies the image,” he says. And although he says he’s picking up ink, it looks more like he’s hammering the ink into the picture.
“At a certain point I have to make a decision,” he says, standing back & evaluating the piece again. “I have to decide whether to keep going or to stop. I’m not trying to make it look like a photograph. I just keep going until it feels right.”
He picks up the sponge & lightly circles the photo with it, barely touching the paper and, within moments, the image pops, & a second flank appears.
“Sometimes I like to deconstruct things,” Roberts says, “Sometimes it gets to the point of an impressionist or even abstract painting. I don’t come to the piece with a preconceived notion. I just want to leave an impression – let the piece talk – I just want it to happen & see where it wants to go.”
Diane Krasnow, an art collector who owns eight pieces by Roberts, was drawn to his bromoils immediately.
“We bought a place in Whitefish, Montana & started collecting some of the regional work,” Krasnow says. “I was taken with the work the minute I laid eyes on it.” Krasnow, an artist herself, appreciates the amount of work that goes into each piece. “His technique is so unique, so painstaking; as a result it’s a piece of art, like a painting rather than a photograph,” she says. “I find his work very spiritual. I adore the pieces we have & I look forward to seeing his newest work every year. As a rule I don’t collect a single artist, but I am addicted to his work.”
“I love that I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Roberts says opening an overhead cabinet. Like a cook searching for the right spice, he surveys its contents, finally coming away with a thick roll of brown tape. Ripping of a few inches he returns to the work, picking at the ink with the adhesive. Somewhere in the bromoil there is a third horse but it’s still not visible. “That’s nice. And it didn’t change the nature of it.”
Roberts loves the spontaneity of the process.
“This piece has the potential to be more impressionistic – that third horse – I may just take it out & call it Three horses,” he says with a smile.
Picking up a small fitch hair brush, Roberts continues to dance between the light & darks. It’s an elegant step. A turn of the wrist. A dip of the head. Until both the artist & the work is near exhaustion. The result is a lamenting inference – a secret ephemeral glimpse into the meaning of life.
Julie Gustafson, of the Gallatin River Gallery in Big Sky, Montana says, “He’s so passionate about his work that it just spills over, he’s a gentle voice of poetry in this crazy world.” After three solo shows at the gallery, Julie says, “I feel he’s shooting pictures of a time past and his images are really deep. It’s almost like he’s an old soul. As one of the last bromoilists working today he is a purist & that’s what makes his work spiritual.”
Exhibitions and Gallerys
- Gallatin River Gallery, Big Sky, Montana solo exhibit 2004, 2006, 2011
- Common Ground Gallery, Red Lodge, Montana, current exhibitor
- Paris Ethos, Whitefish, Montana solo exhibit 2011
- Paris Gibson Museum of Art, Great Falls, Montana solo show
- Emerson Art Center, Bozeman, Montana, solo exhibit on Czech Republic 2002
- Danforth Gallery, Livingston, Montana 2001, 2002, 2003
- Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana 2002 group photography exhibit
- Bridge Creek Restaurant, Red Lodge, Montana solo exhibit, 2000, 2003
- American Gallery, Billings, Montana, solo show1999
- Lewis and Clark Center for the Arts, Lewiston, Idaho 2000
- Graphix Gallery, Billings, Montana solo exhibit, landscapes 1999
Fine Art Shows
- Cherry Creek, Denver, Colorado 2012
- St. James Art Fair, Louisville, Kentucky 2011
- Art in the Pearl, Portland, Oregon 2011
- Kings Mountain Art Festival, Woodside, California 12 years
- Spokane Artfest
- Bozeman Sweet Pea Festival, Montana
- Bellevue Art fair, Washington
Contact Randall for current schedule