Skip to main content

How to Use GIMP to Colorize an Old Black-and-White Photo

After working as a chemist at a biotechnology company, Leah now enjoys writing about science and technology.

Hand Coloring Old Photos

Old black-and-white photographs can be colorized using digital photo editing software. GIMP is a free photo-editing program that is available for download, and it can be used to add a touch of color to old photographs. This same technique can be applied to modern black-and-white pictures to add an artistic, hand-colored feel.

This is accomplished by creating a layer for each color applied to the photograph, and using a layer mask to apply the color with a brush. The steps for accomplishing this feat are detailed below.

How to Select a Photo for This Project

Select a photograph with enough detail and sharpness to determine where the edges of each object are located. When coloring a photo by hand, the sharper the image, the better!

The colorized and original black-and-white photo.

The colorized and original black-and-white photo.

Step 1: Select Photo and Change to RGB Mode

  1. Go to FILE and OPEN the black-and-white image.
  2. Go to IMAGE and select MODE. Change the mode to RGB.
  3. Look at the image and decide how many different colors will be needed. In the photo above, a maroon color was chosen for the dress, blue for the overalls, green for the house trim, etc. The total number of colors desired will determine the number of layers needed.
  4. Go to WINDOWS and select DOCKABLE DIALOGS. Choose the LAYERS option to open the layers window.
Adding layers for each color (each layer is "fill with foreground color").

Adding layers for each color (each layer is "fill with foreground color").

Step 2: Creating the Color Layers

  1. In the layers window, change the mode from NORMAL to MULTIPLY.
  2. Click on the black-and-white color swatch in the toolbox. This will bring up a color palette. Select a color for the first layer. For example, choose a blue tone for colorizing denim.
  3. Go to the layers window and click on the icon to ADD NEW LAYER. Choose the option to fill the layer with the foreground color.
  4. The image will be covered by the new layer color. This is expected, and will be remedied at a later time.

Select a new color, and repeat the steps above.

Choose a new color, and add another layer. Fill with the foreground color. For example, a brown tone may be chosen to colorize hair.

The original photograph may be viewed by clicking on the eye symbol next to each layer: this will "hide" the color layers from view.

Continue adding color layers until all the desired colors are added.

Add a layer mask to each layer (fill with black/transparent).

Add a layer mask to each layer (fill with black/transparent).

Step 3: Add the Layer Mask

  1. Right click on each layer and select: ADD LAYER MASK. Choose to fill with black/transparency for each layer mask from the drop-down window. A black square will appear next to each layer.

Step 4: Use the Brush to Paint in Each Color

  1. Verify all layers are visible (i.e. the eye symbol appears next to each layer).
  2. Reset the color palette to the original black-and-white squares. To do this, go to the toolbox and click on the small black-and-white color squares at the bottom of the window.
  3. When working with layer masks, the color white will let the color show through, and the color black will erase the color. Click on the first layer mask. This is the black box next to the first color layer.
  4. Select the PAINTBRUSH from the toolbox. Set the opacity to approximately 30% (this can vary according to individual taste: the more opaque, the darker the color will be). The opacity of the paintbrush is located at the bottom of the toolbox when the paintbrush tool is selected.
  5. Select white as the color, and scale the paintbrush size to a fairly large circumference.
  6. Hold down the mouse button, and "paint" the area of the photograph.

Note: Do not release the mouse button and begin repainting. This will cause overlapping opacity levels and will create uneven color. It is just fine to go "outside the lines," as the extra color can be erased later. If the mouse button is accidentally released, simply go to EDIT and select UNDO.

Change the paintbrush to black to erase areas that should not be the chosen layer color. For example, the eyes and glasses will have to be "erased" from the beige color.

Change the paintbrush to black to erase areas that should not be the chosen layer color. For example, the eyes and glasses will have to be "erased" from the beige color.

Step 5: Erase Areas of Unwanted Color

  1. To erase color that has "gone outside the lines," select black in the color palette. Set the opacity to 100%
  2. Use the paintbrush and carefully erase color that has extended beyond the desired area.

Step 6: Repeat the Steps for Each Color Layer

  1. When the first color is successfully added, select the next layer mask color. Repeat the painting with white/erasing with black for the next object to be colorized. Adjust the opacity as needed.
  2. Continue these steps until all the desired colors are added.
  3. The final hue and saturation of the image can be adjusted when the colorization of the picture is complete. To brighten and deepen the colors of the image, simply adjust the saturation by going to COLOR and selecting HUE-SATURATION from the drop-down window. Adjust as desired.

Step 7: Finish the Photo and Save

  1. For any harsh lines between color areas, the "heal" tool (the bandaid in the toolbox) will help soften the edges. Click on a nearby area and click control. Then take the heal tool and click around the edges of the harsh edges: this is particularly useful when coloring in cheeks with a color, as a circle with hard edges is undesirable.
  2. Go to IMAGE and FLATTEN IMAGE. This will merge all the layers together. Do not perform this step until the colorization is complete.
  3. Go to FILE and select SAVE AS. Save the image with an identifying name.
A colorized image.

A colorized image.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on December 10, 2019:

I really enjoy using GIMP, Jeff. It is free to use and has similar capabilities to Photoshop. I use it to edit all of my photos!

Jeff B on December 09, 2019:

Many thanks, Leah! Well written. This was my introduction to gimp / photoshop.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on June 02, 2019:

What a great application for colorizing photos, Shimo! I am a little jealous as I would love to use a scanning electron microscope. I work in the IVD field and we do use regular microscopes for IFA slides, but we don't have scanning electrons in our lab. I'd love to colorize images of viruses - what a cool reason to use this technique!

Shimo on May 31, 2019:

Thank you, Leah, for posting the easy-to-follow instruction. I used this webpage as a reference for my student's coloring practice using scanning electron microscope images in my class.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on July 05, 2018:

I'm glad it was helpful, Raizy! Adding more color can definitely require many layers. I once had one with over 30 layers. It is a fun thing to do with old photos or to add an effect to newer photos!

Raizy on July 05, 2018:

Thank you so much! This was really helpful. I added a lot of layers as I was going along though when I realized I needed more colors.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 05, 2017:

I am so glad that worked, Lauren! It is such a tedious process and can be frustrating when something doesn't work as expected!

Lauren on November 04, 2017:

Leah, thank you for solving the problem. Once I was sure I was on the correct layer by toggling the icon that looks like an eye on and off a few times (I could see the color go on and off as I toggled the eye icon), it worked just fine. Thank you for your help.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 04, 2017:

There might be an issue with layer visibility, Lauren. First, make sure you actually clicked on the layer (sometimes I have an issue because I think I am on the layer, but I haven't clicked on it so my tool is actually on a different layer). There is also the eye icon that will toggle layer visibility. Try these things and let me know if it works!

Lauren on November 02, 2017:

Thank you very much for this tutorial. It is working great, except I can't figure out how to re-use a color I have already used. For example, I have a layer with navy blue I used for jeans. After working with other colors, I wanted to use the navy blue for another part of the photo. I clicked on the navy blue layer, set the rectangle to WHITE, paintbrush opacity to 30, but I wasn't able to paint with navy blue. I am sure there must be an easy answer, I just can't figure it out.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 04, 2017:

Thank you Abdul - I hope the tutorial is helpful! I use GIMP for almost all of my photo editing needs.

Abdul Shaikh on September 30, 2017:

Nice job

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on September 29, 2014:

I am a huge fan of GIMP, londonaccountants. I have edited many of our photos using the program, and we have all enjoyed the results!

Goringe Accountants from London, UK on September 22, 2014:

Big GIMP fan! Great tutorial :)

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on August 10, 2014:

Hi K, I like the old "wash" hand coloration look a lot. I also like being able to edit out mistakes made while "painting" with one color without affecting the other colors (i.e. using the eraser to fix an error with a green section without accidentally erasing a portion of a blue area I have already finished). You can always merge down finished layers to reduce the number you are dealing with at one time, though others might prefer a more realistic look and use one layer. I found it very difficult to work with, however, and prefer the single-layer-per-color technique.

K on August 08, 2014:

Curious to know why the decision to use one layer per color. Wouldn't a single layer, painted directly with the desired colors, and placed over the original layer with Multiply mode, or else under the layer with the original layer in Color mode, be a lot simpler and provide a lot more color variability? You're locked into a fixed set of colors. It might resemble early "wash" hand colorizations, and perhaps that's why you recommend it, but if you're trying to emulate true color, all the layers you'll need are going to be a nightmare.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on July 10, 2013:

I hope you find the tutorial useful, MichaelUS and bobiecayao!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on July 10, 2013:

Thanks, Carl8033 - the process is fairly simple with modern photo editing tools! In the days before digital editing, the color had to be added by hand.

Delbert cayao from Dumaguete city on July 01, 2013:

very nice toturial, it makes old pictures became new.

Michael U. Santiago from Philippines on July 01, 2013:

This is great! : )

Carl Junior on June 30, 2013:

I always wondered how they managed to add color to very old photos. Very interesting, and thank you for sharing.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on June 27, 2013:

Thanks, idigwebsites! I colorized a few older photos for fun - I love the original black and white, but adding a punch of color can be a way to create a unique look. I hope you find it helpful!

idigwebsites from United States on June 27, 2013:

Thanks for introducing GIMP. Now I have more knowledge while having my crash course at digital arts and photography. Nice work there my friend. Up, useful, shared and bookmarked.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on April 19, 2013:

I'm glad you were able to get two colors saved, snakeslane - odd that the third layer wouldn't allow you to add a mask. I need to make videos for these hubs (the GIMP ones), but I've been so busy on the home front that I haven't gotten around to it. My biggest problem with GIMP is that it occasionally crashes, but that might have more to do with our aging computer than the software program.

I hope you are able to get the mask on the third layer - it should work just as the first two did - I'm not quite sure why it won't let you add it!

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on April 18, 2013:

I actually was able to able to save two colors, but the third layer didn't give me an option of adding a mask, probably just need practice! Sorry to bug you. Lots of little glitches!

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on April 18, 2013:

Hi leahlefler, I'm back...still trying...but I seem to be missing a step, and when I try to paint, the image is blocked, covered by a mask (I think). So frustrating. I hope you will see my comment. :)

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 07, 2012:

Thanks, cclitgirl. GIMP is my favorite photo editor (probably because it is free)!

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on November 06, 2012:

This is a great tutorial! I love using GIMP. Thanks for sharing.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 18, 2012:

Hi Levertis - it is a fun thing to do! You can add a little color to those old black and white photos, and give them a new feel. Or you can desaturate a new, color photo and then reapply new color for an artistic look!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 18, 2012:

I am going to try to get a screenshot movie done of the process - it will take a while, but I do this fairly regularly... I'm trying to figure out where the problem is occurring (i.e. why your paintbrush isn't making a mark).

Levertis Steele from Southern Clime on May 18, 2012:

What great information! I have always wondered how color enhancing was done. It is my pleasure to share this. Thanks.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 15, 2012:

Hi - I just wanted to make sure you created the layer masks and selected black/transparency for each one, and the paintbrush is set to "white." Did you reset the color box to the default black/white squares before painting? Is the image in RGB mode? Is there an "eye" symbol next to each layer (making sure that the layer is visible - if the eye is off, you won't see the color). I need to put a video up of this process, as there are quite a few steps required to set the layer masks up properly.

Guest on March 15, 2012:

I have a problem when using the paintbrush, it won't make any marking at all after i've selected the layer masks

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 15, 2011:

Good luck with it, Movie Master! It is easier to choose just a few colors the first time you play with it. It can be a little time consuming, but it is fun to add color to old photos!

Movie Master from United Kingdom on November 15, 2011:

I have just come from snakeslane's link, what a wonderful hub, I am so looking forward to trying this, thank you, best wishes MM

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 13, 2011:

We have had several issues with everything freezing up. I have a feeling it is our computer, which is six years old. We'll have to buy a new one at some point, but we're hanging on to this one for as long as possible! I hope everything works out for you!

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on October 13, 2011:

Thanks for the warning about crashing! I actually had to buy a repair software yesterday afternoon, things just got mixed up, but no crash. Pushing the limits on the old laptop here. Also still learning the basics of using Windows7. Combined it's just one loopy experiment, but when it works, beautiful! Thanks for your time and tips. I have bookmarked this page and will be returning often until I "get it". Cheers, snakeslane

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 13, 2011:

Eight hours! That is a long time - another option is to only work on one color at a time. You can open the image, work on one color (say, blue), merge the layers down and save the file under a different name. Then open it up again when you feel like it and work on a different color - this would break up the work. It does get faster as you get used to doing the technique. The picture I did in the article probably took around 45 minutes. The more "detailed" the work, the longer it will take, though. I sometimes have a problem with GIMP crashing our computer (it is an old computer), and that can get frustrating, too!

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on October 13, 2011:

Hey leahlefler, good morning! I worked on this program for about eight hours non-stop (I know that's too much) and I ended up just straight hand tinting the images sort of. I just got lost in the layering, but I will keep trying. The image I did turned out great (for a first effort) much better than anything I was able to do in paint. I think I've got the basics, but my back hurts from sitting too long, oh well.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 13, 2011:

Hi Snakeslane,

It takes a while to get "used" to GIMP. It is a little more complicated than using photoshop, etc. but it does work!

To make the paintbrush larger, look in the toolbox and there should be a slider-bar with "scale." Sometimes it is good to work on a duplicate image so that you don't accidentally save over an original.

You can always hit "edit" and "undo" or simply close the image without saving any changes, and that will let you start over from scratch. Colorizing is one of the more complicated things you can do on GIMP, so kudos to you for starting with this technique!

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on October 12, 2011:

Hi again leahlefler, I think I figured it out, this program is really neat, thanks again, snakeslane

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on October 12, 2011:

Thank you, I've got the software now and trying out an image, but have hit a few bumps. 1.can't figure out how to make the paint brush larger or to set white as the colour. 2. can't figure out how to reset the colour palette. Also wondering how to go back to the original photo and just start all over again?

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 12, 2011:

Thank you, snakeslane. Colorizing photos takes some patience and time, but it isn't difficult to do! I am glad you found this helpful.

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on October 12, 2011:

Thank you leahlefler for this information, beautifully done. Regards, snakeslane

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on April 28, 2011:

A lot of people really like Adobe photoshop. I use GIMP 2.6, which is a free photo editor. If you go to, you can download the program for free. The instructions given in this article are meant for GIMP users, as the controls and screenshots are from the GIMP program.

Vishaaa from Somewhere on this earth.. on April 28, 2011:

Just amazing. I have heard people talking about colorizing black and white photos. but this is the first time I learnt how to do it.

Can I ask you something, if you don't mind? What is the photo editor that you are using, which version? I'm not talking about for this particular methodology. But I wish to know about photo editing softwares. Can you recommend me a good one with some good features? I thought of purchasing Adobe photoshop CS5, but then heard CS5 extended will be released soon. Should I wait for this?

How about Adobe photoshop element 9?

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on February 06, 2011:

It can be a little tricky to get the color set inside the lines, but it does work well. I end up making the brush "too large" and then color the entire area, going outside the lines. Then I use the black brush (eraser) to eliminate the extra color: taking care not to over-erase, since adding the color back will leave a line where the opacity overlaps. It is a very time consuming process, but it can be fun to do!

BkCreative from Brooklyn, New York City on February 05, 2011:

This is so great. I have been wondering how to do this. You have super hubs. Thanks a million and rated way up!