Make Colors Pop: Mingling Color Scales in Photoshop

by Wes Kozalla on July 21, 2009 · 6 comments

in How-To,Photoshop Tutorials

Pick up any magazine, or sift among the movies at the video store, and we often see black and white images with elements in color. Advertisements, comics, films and more set apart people, objects, just about anything as a way to draw our eyes to exactly what the artist wants us to focus on. This is usually done in Photoshop by adding color to black and white photographs. This often produces a retro hand-tinted effect.

What if we want more organic natural color to leap out from the grayscale? The answer is not to add color to black and white, but rather to add black and white to color. We will also use filters and layer effects to insure that we manipulate the color spectrum to set the tone we are looking for.

Do You Hear Me, Butterfly?

First we’ll show the basic technique to add black and white. Using this photograph provided by Elisa Boomhower, we’ll make this butterfly leap off the screen.

First, we l go to Layer/New/Layer so we can paint over our image. Next, in the layer palette, we set the layer style to Color from the dropdown menu leaving the layer opacity at 100%. As the new layer is painted over, we can see the shades of gray take hold.

Once we have our flora and fauna in black and white, we go to Layer/Layer Mask/Reveal All. The foreground color on the brush tool should still be black and then we set the brush to a comfortable size to work up close to draw that colorful creature back out.

It is essential we take a deep breath, use a steady hand and be patient. We have to zoom in and make sure we get those little butterfly legs and the very edges of the wings in color while not going outside the lines on the flower or the grass in the background. If there’s a slipup it’s no big deal, simply change the foreground brush color to white to correct the errant cursor strokes and keep on colorizing. When our creature is completely set apart from the background, its natural hues should stand out. After we return what Mother Nature’s paintbrush gave, the finished product should look like this.

Now that we have the basic technique down, we will incorporate it with other effects to get something a little more abstract going on.

Turning a Gray World Purple

Below is a stock photo by Brittany Lincoln that we will use not just to make color stand out, but also bleed out into the surrounding water. For this the purple veil will be what is brought out for the effect.

Before we use the layer techniques and masks incorporated on the butterfly, we must first get the veil’s color to stand out a bit more. Go to Layers/New Adjustment Layer/Color Balance. We make the purple more rich by first, checking the “Preserve Luminosity” box and next ramping up the sliders for red and blue in “Midtones” up by 50 each. Finally we will have the veil ready to go after increasing the red and blue by 50 in “Shadows.”

“But,” you say. “You made the girl in the pool totally pink. What’s up with that?” The model’s extremely rosy complexion isn’t going to be a factor because we going to make a new layer and set the style in the layer palette to Color, just as we did with the butterfly photograph earlier,then paint it black. When we’re done we will have an apparently grayscale picture of our lady in the pool. Next we add that layer mask set to Reveal All, take a deep breath and patiently bring the fabric’s color back out.

Now, we need to do something a little differently compared to the straightforward emergence employed in the butterfly photograph. We see fabric just below the surface as well as parts at the far left where some of it is submerged next to parts floating on top. Keep your brush opacity set to 100% to bring out what’s above the surface but bring the brush opacity down to 20% to colorize what we can see in the water, as well as the reflection in the pool. Make sure you smoothly blend the transition points where the veil meets water by enabling the airbrush function.

When we’ve sweated enough blood making sure our pixels are straight, and have all the purple we need to emerge, our Lady in Liquid Mourning should look something like this:

The veil is set, so now what? We made the veil’s color more vibrant so it gives the impression it is almost as alive as the model wearing it, then we added our grayscale layer. We carefully brought the purple back out in another layer, making sure that even the reflection and the submerged fabric were also in color. Now we are going to make the pigment stain the gray water around it. First, we add another layer, set to Soft Light and make sure it is above the background and Layer 1.

Working in Layer 2, we’ll use our eyedropper tool to take a point sample from the veil-not too dark, but not to light either.

Now that we have our correct foreground color we are ready to make it diffuse into the water. Our paintbrush is set to 100% opacity on normal with airbrush enabled. We set the brush size big and fat to 300 and gently paint over the water in front of the model, making sure to also add the color around the model’s chest, just above the water also. For good measure we also paint a little of the water behind her to further enhance the bleeding purple effect. Next, we break out the eraser tool, set the opacity to 15% on airbrush and go over the edges of the purple field to make the diffusion a little more random.

Once we have diffused the color into the pool, our picture is almost complete, and looks like this:

Really, this picture could stand alone as it is, but purple is a rather somber color and the pool is a rather happy place, at least for those of us sweating it out in July. We’re going to finish this one off by going to Filters/Sketch/Water Paper, then setting the Fiber Length slider to 15, Brightness to 60 and contrast to 80.

When we have done that, our Lady in Liquid Mourning is complete.

We learned with this exercise that eye-popping combinations of color and grayscale can be achieved by not just adding color, but by adding black and white. We also are empowered to use the techniques above, along with other tools available to us in Photoshop, to set mood and tone in our designs after we highlight desired elements in a picture.

Whether creating more abstract pieces as we did here, or in professional designs, we are sure to create a lasting impression with anyone who is looking.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

phyllis May 20, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Beautiful and informative!

raf January 15, 2011 at 6:06 am


It’s informative and useful article. Thanks so much.

sam October 5, 2012 at 12:43 pm

My friend had a lot of sex with that “Lady in Liquid Mourning” model…

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