How to Colorize an Old Black and White Photo With GIMP: A GIMP Tutorial
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
Step 1:Select Photo and Change to RGB Mode
- Go to FILE and OPEN the black and white image.
- Go to IMAGE and select MODE. Change the mode to RGB.
- 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.
- Go to WINDOWS and select DOCKABLE DIALOGS. Choose the LAYERS option to open the layers window.
Add a Layer for Each Color
Step 2: Creating the Color Layers
- In the layers window, change the mode from NORMAL to MULTIPLY.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 the Layer Mask
- 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
- Verify all layers are visible (i.e. the eye symbol appears next to each layer).
- 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.
- Click on the first layer mask. This is the black box next to the first color layer.
- 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.
- Select white as the color, and scale the paintbrush size to a fairly large circumference.
- 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.
Erase Areas of Unwanted Color
- To erase color that has "gone outside the lines," select black in the color palette. Set the opacity to 100%
- Use the paintbrush and carefully erase color that has extended beyond the desired area.
Helpful hint: 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.
Repeat the Steps for Each Color Layer
- 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.
- Continue these steps until all the desired colors are added.
- 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
- 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.
- Go to IMAGE and FLATTEN IMAGE. This will merge all the layers together. Do not perform this step until the colorization is complete.
- Go to FILE and select SAVE AS. Save the image with an identifying name.