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How to Colorize an Old Black and White Photo with GIMP: A GIMP Tutorial

Updated on August 02, 2016

Hand Coloring Old Photos

Old black and white photographs may be colorized using digital photo editing software. GIMP is a free photo editing program available for download, and 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.

*NOTE: 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!

Add a Touch of Color to Old Photographs

The colorized and original black and white photo: Click to enlarge. Leah Lefler, 2011
The colorized and original black and white photo: Click to enlarge. Leah Lefler, 2011

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 to the right, 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.

Add a Layer for Each Color

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

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.

Adding the Layer Masks

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

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.

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.

When working with layer masks, the color white will let the color show through, and the color black will erase the color.

  1. Click on the first layer mask. This is the black box next to the first color layer.
  2. 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.
  3. Select white as the color, and scale the paintbrush size to a fairly large circumference.
  4. Hold down the mouse button, and "paint" the area of the photograph.

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. Click to enlarge.
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. Click to enlarge.

Erasing Help

To erase an area without creating harsh edges, reduce the opacity of the paintbrush when black is selected. Slowly remove color by clicking the mouse and moving the paintbrush: each click of the mouse will remove more color.

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.

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.

A Helpful Hint

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.

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.

Comments

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    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 6 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

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

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 6 years ago from Western New York

      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!

    • Vishaaa profile image

      Vishaaa 5 years ago from Somewhere on this earth..

      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?

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      A lot of people really like Adobe photoshop. I use GIMP 2.6, which is a free photo editor. If you go to GIMP.org, 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.

    • snakeslane profile image

      snakeslane 5 years ago from Canada

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

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York

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

    • snakeslane profile image

      snakeslane 5 years ago from Canada

      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?

    • snakeslane profile image

      snakeslane 5 years ago from Canada

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

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      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!

    • snakeslane profile image

      snakeslane 5 years ago from Canada

      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.

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      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!

    • snakeslane profile image

      snakeslane 5 years ago from Canada

      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

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      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!

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      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

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      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!

    • profile image

      Guest 5 years ago

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

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      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.

    • Levertis Steele profile image

      Levertis Steele 4 years ago from Southern Clime

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

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York

      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).

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York

      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!

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 4 years ago from Western NC

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

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York

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

    • snakeslane profile image

      snakeslane 3 years ago from Canada

      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. :)

    • snakeslane profile image

      snakeslane 3 years ago from Canada

      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!

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York

      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!

    • idigwebsites profile image

      idigwebsites 3 years ago from United States

      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.

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York

      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!

    • Carl8033 profile image

      Alexander Okelo 3 years ago

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

    • MichaelUS profile image

      Michael U. Santiago 3 years ago from Philippines

      This is great! : )

    • bobiecayao profile image

      Delbert cayao 3 years ago from Dumaguete city

      very nice toturial, it makes old pictures became new.

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York

      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.

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York

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

    • profile image

      2 years ago

      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.

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 2 years ago from Western New York

      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.

    • londonaccountants profile image

      Goringe Accountants 2 years ago from London, UK

      Big GIMP fan! Great tutorial :)

    • leahlefler profile image
      Author

      leahlefler 2 years ago from Western New York

      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!

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