WAS there ever a time when the use of pencil or knife on the photographic negative was not protested against as bad taste and bad art? We cannot recollect any such epoch. The retoucher has always been an individual under a cloud, so to speak; and this is not altogether a matter to be wondered at. Professional photographers of the common type send their negatives in batches to a trade retoucher, who, in consideration of a fee by contract of perhaps threepence or fourpence each, works his sweet will upon them. From under his hand all emerge plump, blooming, and youthful, if somewhat characterless specimens of humanity. It is not to be denied , that much retouching is bad in principle, and that a well-posed and lighted portrait ought not to need to undergo retouching at all.
On the other hand, we must concede that the average person who goes to have his photograph taken does so with the idea of securing a more or less flattering portrait. Nay more, he employs the photographer just because a really good oil-painting or etching by an accomplished artist is beyond his means. It is a well-understood convention that portraiture should be flattering: hence the necessity for a compromise between the camera and the hand artist. For the camera positively declines to stoop to flattery. The youth or maiden will often be content to take their picture printed direct from the untouched negative; the veteran of three-score-and-ten has no wish to see his wrinkles smoothed away; but what about the man or woman of forty? These it is that the camera so cruelly portrays, exaggerating the lines scarcely visible to the eye into deep furrows, showing up peculiarities of complexion as horrible disfigurements. The retoucher, it is true, looms less important than in the days of long exposure, when hardly any subject could avoid showing some signs of the torture undergone in the efforts to keep still. But we cannot altogether ignore him. All we can do is to keep him in his proper place.
The retoucher's work should consist chiefly in correcting obvious defects in the negative, contrasts between colour of dress and complexion, giving true emphasis to prominences which, owing to colour, are too dark and would appear to recede in the print, exaggeration of freckles and pock-marks, etc. Not that freckles and other complexion marks should be wholly removed, but that they should not be allowed to record themselves in the portrait as something much worse than the truth. Such judicious retouching cannot be condemned by sensible people. Of course, to be worthy of trust, the retoucher should acquire the knowledge that an artist acquires regarding the anatomy of the human figure, and, more important still, should not be expected to retouch the portrait of an individual whom he has never set eyes on. Yet this is what a thousand professional retouchers are expected to do every day; and it is just this that has brought the art into discredit.
Let him who aspires to become a retoucher first satisfy himself that he possesses the requisite artistic sense, and also an eyesight strong enough to bear the very serious strain that the work involves. Next he must get a retouching desk. A good one consists of an easel, which can be inclined to any angle at pleasure, an upper frame to shut off all front and side light, and a set of carriers, or adjustable ledge, to take the negative. One good pattern, at least, is provided with a drawer underneath to take all tools. These latter consist chiefly of pencils of varying hardness (H, HB, and B to begin with), spotting brushes, retouching knife, sandpaper to sharpen pencils finely, retouching medium, and a silk rag to rub it in with. The best retouching medium is ordinary powdered resin dissolved in turpentine, 30 grains to the ounce of the latter. It improves with age, and fresh turpentine may be added to compensate for evaporation.
The few notes given in this chapter must be rather taken as suggestions than definite directions. Every retoucher must make his own methods, and, above all, decide whether such and such a device is legitimate art or whether he can apply it to advantage. Work, if possible, at a window with a north light; incline the desk to an angle which suits your own special convenience, though about 6o° with the table is generally acceptable. Examine the negative carefully and decide, before varnishing, whether it is worth while to scrape any part away. For instance, some undesirable feature in the background may have escaped the operator's attention when he focussed the picture. Slight movement of the subject may sometimes be advantageously removed with the knife. Grayness or white patches on the upper part of the hair and over-prominence of the jaw or cheeks can often be scraped down. There are proper retouching knives, but a good sharp penknife will serve very well. Practise on old negatives before attempting anything important, but the work is not very difficult, and the thick deposit of silver lies near the surface of the film. Do not be in a hurry; tone down the heavy part slowly and cautiously. Work with the point of the knife as, for instance, when taking out the "fishyness" of blue eyes recorded on a non-orthochromatic plate, or reducing the width of fingers, demands the greatest precision and delicacy of touch.
Having satisfied yourself that all the scraping away advisable has been done, apply the medium, rubbing it on with a circular motion as finely as possible. Very little will give a surface for pencilling, if it is of the right consistency and "ripe." And now comes the difficult part of the work. With modern plates and modern lenses, the operator can convey so much that the foolhardy retoucher will destroy. Think twice before attempting the retouching of a human face. It is a question not only of lines, but of tone; not features merely, we may add, but of individual complexion. For when you commence with the pencil there is no turning back. Strengthen first the high lights before touching the shadows and half-tones, in order not to lose gradation of lighting. Each part of the face has one, and only one, bright light, and this must not be lost. When filling up obvious imperfections be careful that the modelling of the features is not altered by your additions.