Colorizing Black-and-White Portraits

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Colorizing - add color to black and white sketches

Adding color to a black-and-white drawing is a lot like the old process of colorizing old movies. There’s something interesting about the look of colorized art. Sometimes you might even aim to achieve this kind of artificially colored look, and it’s something you can do in SketchBook. Using different blending modes, you can take a painting created with blacks and whites and add color to it. It’s important to note that simply using blending modes on a greyscale painting won’t give you the vibrant tones you would get from painting straight with color, but it’s a quick way to colorize your art. I’m going to show you how, and I’m even including a downloadable Colorize B&W Photos in SketchBook tutorial if you want to file it away until the next time you need it. We also have a video if you want to see this process in action:

Step 1: Color zones in faces

Before we dive into the painting part, since we are doing a portrait in this example, it’s important to conduct some research on the colors and tones of the face. There is a combination of different warm and cool tones that make up the face depending on the different zones and skin color. James Gurney, a master artist and author of “Color and Light”, explains the three different color zones in on a light-skinned face on his blog. The pictures above, taken from Gurney’s blog, shows an overview of the different zones of the face with light skin and which tones they tend to be. He shows how it’s more pronounced in men than women and how it’s related to how close blood vessels are to the surface of the skin.

Colorizing - three areas of face

Step 2: Starting with a base

Adding a gradient to your black-and-white sketch gives you a good base to start with, and this way you can reduce possible dull tones that would appear on top of the greyscale image. In this example, I duplicated my original sketch and using the Color Balance function. I moved the RGB sliders to add a sort of purple hue, and I decreased the opacity while still having the original greyscale painting underneath.

Colorizing steps

Step 3: ‘Color’ blending mode

Now that we have something other than black and white to start with, create a new layer with the “Color” blending mode. The Color blending mode preserves the values of the original image and uses the luminance of the base color while using the hue/saturation of the blend color. It is important to get accurate values in your sketch and have your lighing drawn out so when you use this blending mode it won’t effect the lighting but will simply add color to already existing values. However, even if you don’t think you have an accurate value sketch, it can always be fixed. During this step, a simple base hue was applied to the overall face to get a base for a warm tone. Although it may not be accurate for a light-skinned face, we can build up from this.

Step 4: Pushing colors with soft light

Here we introduce a new layer with a Soft Light blending mode. The Soft Light blending mode can darken or lighten colors based on the blending color. If the blend color is either lighter or darker than 50% grey, then the image is also lightened or darkened with that blend color.

This blending mode allows me to introduce a wider value range within my tones and control the color at the same time. It’s always a good idea to use references to study and understand. For this study, I studied a painting by Sargent — in particular the different colors he used in his portraits. (Note that the cheeks and nose tend to a redder hue as mentioned by Gurney earlier.) A desaturated bluish color was used for the eyes.

Colorizing - adding color in steps cont'd

Step 5: Taking a break from blending modes

Now that there are some more colors in the portrait, switching to Normal blending mode and simply using the color picker to choose colors from your canvas to paint begins to unify and bring life into the face. Continue refining and rendering. Make sure to keep the original light source in the sketch while making any other adjustments that need to be made.

Step 6: Adding color to background

For the background, a yellowish-orange hue was glazed over the entire canvas with a Soft Light blending mode with a 50% opacity setting on the layer.

Step 7: Final adjustments

Desaturated reds were added to get the blue looking hues into the chin area and yellow hues into the forehead. Sometimes warm hues that are very desaturated can appear to be cool when relative to their surrounding warm colors. The painting was flattened by merging all the layers in the image. Then, I created a duplicate layer and made color adjustments to the new layer. I reduced reds and brought in cooler blue tints to the image, which is then blended into the previous warmer image we had earlier by lowering the opacity.

Colorizing - final adjustments

For the final step, a Color Dodge layer was added on top with a new layer to give the painting a final glow. Now the sketch that was initially in black and white is colored! This method can be used with any painting or photo that is in greyscale. By using a combination of adjustment layers and blending modes in SketchBook, you can bring colors and vibrancy to your work. Painting in values first can help you focus on establishing proper forms and lighting, and colors can be a separate aspect you can focus on later.

There’s no substitute for painting straight in color, as you get genuine tones and blending compared to starting from a black and white sketch, but this is a great way to add color to sketches you never gave color consideration to before.

fColorizing - inished art from black and white to color