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Coloring with Photoshop – Skin

Software Training Online

Janine’s course, Photo Restoration with Photoshop, is available on Lynda.com

Coloring black and white images is not as easy as it seems. For one thing, finding realistic skin tones is just darn hard! The same with hair colors; the reason for this is that in the real world, hair and skin colors are made up of many different colors and tones. Using just one color will make the tones one dimensional, not realistic at all. Also, there’s a tendency to try to make skin tones either too pink, resulting in a lovely lobster-esque look, or too “peachy” which usually comes out more grey, resulting in the Corpse Bride look.  Not very attractive, to say the least. To get a realistic skin or hair color, therefore, we need to layer different tones, tweak, tweak again, go away, add more, take some away…well, you see, it’s not easy.

There are many different ways to colorize an image that result in very different looks

I’m going to take a minute, here, to point out that the steps I’m going to show you are just a drop in the vast bucket of ways to do this. It seems everyone has their own way that they feel gets the best results. I’ve developed my own way of working (not “invented”, mind you, just developed a process…) that gets me the results I’m looking for after trying various other methods and not being happy with the results. So, again, this is only one way, not the right way, not the wrong way, just a different way to color skin.

The first thing I do is to create a Black and White Adjustment layer. I’m not necessarily going to convert the image to B&W, I do this to give myself options. Select the image layer. If your background is distinct and clear enough, use one of the selection tools to select it (I used the Quick Selection Brush), and then, with black as your foreground color click on the mask icon (to select it) and use keyboard shortcut Opt (Mac) or Alt (PC) + Backspace to fill the selected area with black.


If you can’t easily select the background you may have to paint the mask in. Invert the mask layer (Cmd or Ctrl + I) so it’s black, then use white to paint in the entire person, leaving just the background black. Turn this layer off, for now.


Before we apply any skin color, here’s a quick tip: Go online to find makeup and hair color charts. Either download and use those (since you’re using these for your own reference purposes, only!), or sample the tones to make your own color charts! Feel free to save this one to your hard drive, if you like.

Now add a new, blank layer. Select a light, ivory foundation color and paint over the areas of skin; I used the lightest color in the chart, above. Avoid the eyes, hair and clothing as much as you can but, of course, you can always go back and clean it up. Remember, you’re adding the color on the blank layer.


This is where I play with the Layer Blend Modes and Opacity settings. You’ll more than likely use the Soft Light or Color Blend Modes, but sometimes one of the others might surprise you and it doesn’t cost anything but a few seconds to go through them all! I used Color on this particular layer, but can always change that if it suits me at any point. I start off at Opacity at 50% on all the layers, then go back and adjust them later. Once you have your Blend Mode and Opacity level set, turn your Black & White Adjustment Layer on and compare it. There’s a difference, of course, with the original color tone behind it. I always do this and keep the B&W mask on behind it, but always check it at the end to see if, for some reason, the color cast makes it look better.



Obviously we’ve just gotten started. Next time we’ll talk about taking inspiration from history and finish layering on the skin color.

About Janine Smith (114 Articles)
Janine Smith is the owner of Landailyn Research and Restoration, a Fort Worth, Texas based company whose services include family history research and photo restoration. Janine honed her skills in restoring badly damaged photos as a volunteer with Operation Photo Rescue, a non-profit organization whose mission is to repair photographs damaged by unforeseen circumstances such as house fires and natural disasters. <br> Janine’s work is well-known in the world of genealogical and historical societies, museums, libraries, university archives, and non-profit organizations; appearing on the board of directors for several organizations and institutions. She is a sought-after lecturer on photo restoration and preservation to libraries, genealogical and historical societies. <br> In addition to being a Lynda.com author, Janine is the author of many articles on research and restoration appearing in newspapers and magazines, both on and offline. Janine's history and photo restoration columns appear regularly on TipSquirrel.com and in the popular Shades Of The Departed Digital Magazine. <br> Janine is the winner of the 2010 “Photoshop User Award” in the photo-restoration category.

2 Comments on Coloring with Photoshop – Skin

  1. Dave S // 20/04/2012 at 1:56 pm //

    Excellent advice Janine! Looking forward to the next part 🙂

  2. BJ TX // 22/04/2012 at 3:52 pm //

    Janine, thank you so much for this restoration tutorial & for all the others you have shared.
    Looking forward to more helpful articles.

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