Thursday, January 12, 2017

Cross Processing

Cross processing (also called x-pro) is an experimental form of photography where one kind of film stock is deliberately processed in chemicals intended for another kind of film. The resulting color schemes are weird and unnatural, offering traditional painters some interesting inspiration.

Here, slide film has been processed in C-41 print film chemicals. The result is a high contrast image, with a hue shift toward greens and yellows and a boost in saturation. There's also a considerable amount of vignetting at the edges, a result of the lens.

 Negative film processed in slide chemicals via
When negative film is processed in slide chemicals, the results can go many different ways, but this one is lo-fi, contrasty, and grainy, with a saturated warm color bleaching and infusing all the lights.

Photo by Chick Dastardly-JennR.Williams, via EpicEdits 
With X-pro, you never know how it's going to turn out. This one gets contrasty, with a green-red split in the midtones.

Photo by Laurent Butre via The Darkroom
The colors aren't always saturated. Sometimes they're relatively muted, but still with the high contrast and the hue shift. In this link the photographer describes the process he used.

If you want to check out more examples, check out any of these galleries:
Epic Edits: Ten Reasons to Love Cross Processed Film
The Darkroom: Cross Processing examples

The effect can also be simulated digitally with filters in Instagram in or with Photoshop. Here's a link to a Photoshop tutorial.

How can we use this as artists?
Traditional painters can use cross-processing as a jumping off point for exploring color schemes. One way is to use a strongly colored underpainting. The second example in this post of the guy riding the bike could be painted over an orange base color, leaving that color as the stand-in for all the light values. The scheme in the lower scene of the little kid on the Harley could be simulated with a green-red-yellow limited palette, taking care to bleach the lights, sink the darks, and vignette the edges.


John Tjia said...


Thank you for your blog. Your updates are always interesting to read and inspiring to me as a weekend artist.

On the subject of cross processing, in addition to Instagram and Photoshop effects, there are also apps on the smart phone. I recently came across Prisma for the iPhone, and have found that the app can transform my ordinary looking photos into some pretty spectacularly different renderings, both in the color scheme and also in the details of the subject itself (e.g., photos become line drawings, or mosaics, or even Mondrian-line canvases, all with color schemes I could not have dreamed up).

My question in all this is where the "artist" is in all this. If I paint a scene based on how this app has transformed it, am I "cheating"? I guess it comes down to my starting suspicion of how much I can rely on a photograph (a "ready made" scene) as a start to my painting? And if I start relying on some colors scheme produced by an app algorithm, do I then lose more of my originality, since I become, step-by-step, nothing more than a copier?

As a funny aside, I used this app to run a photo I took of a painting I did based on another photo I had taken, and I came out with a pared down digital rendition (koi in a pond) that had strangely alluring colors and was pretty good. So what kind of an artist am I in this? This has puzzled me!

James Gurney said...

John, that's a very thoughtful question. You could look at all painting as a form of degraded vision.

It's the opposite of the usual way we regard painted art. Typically people talk about it as a form of representing exactly what we see, or even enhancing what we see. In terms of detail, paintings and drawings nearly always reduce the amount of information, and I've found that the more they do, the more they people talk about them as "artistic." Think of monochromatic paintings, notan drawings, limited palettes, and paintings made with big brushes. All images follow processes that degrade and reduce information.

Of course there are highly resolved, detailed, color-enhanced styles of painting, too. But even those are usually simplified, flattened, or reduced from our genuine stereoscopic, dynamic visual experience in some way.

Photography merely presents us with another way of seeing, another way of mapping the 3D universe into 2D. And there are so many forms of lenses, films, and processes before you even get into digital manipulation. We can see infra-red images, we can stop action, we can see through things with x-rays, we can see wildlife up close. Photography has given us new eyes. That doesn't mean we have to project and copy the random detail of a single given photo, though that's OK, too, if that's what you want to do.

But the more we understand how cameras see, the more we appreciate the little "meat cameras" we were born with. And the more we know about cameras, the more we realize our eyes and our visual brain behave very differently.

In my case I'm usually either trying to interpret my experience of reality directly into a sketchbook, or I'm trying to visualize a scene from the ancient past or from a science fiction future. In some cases I want my paintings to look like a bit like photos so that they can fit into a magazine presentation that's mostly comprised of nature photos. To get that effect, I try to learn the theory behind photography, and I also surround my easel with a lot of different reference photos, taking a little from one and a little from another to make something new.

As long as your work is original and it communicates your own experience, it's not cheating.