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Digital Hand Coloring 
by Jim McGee

Last week I spent some time cleaning up the paper explosion that is my office. In the process I came across a book on hand painting photographs by James McKinnis that we reviewed back in issue # 22. Now James does a fine job explaining how to create hand painted photo art using brushes and paints and dark room processes. There are some cool images in the book and it got me wondering about creating similar effects digitally. For every dark room process there's an alternative process for the non-chemically oriented among us. Here's what I came up with.

Back in issue #24 I wrote an article called Playing with Reality that showed how to use the layers and the hue and saturation controls to change colors of portions of an image while maintaining shadow and tonal detail. We're going to use those techniques today so if you're not familiar with those techniques check out that article and then come back here - we'll wait.

What's the Idea? 
The idea behind hand painting (or at least the part we're dealing with here) is to take part of a black and white image and highlight it with color to make it stand out from the composition.

Take the two carved stone faces shown here for example. In the color image there's just not enough contrast for the faces to stand out and they get lost in the overall image. The result is interesting but it doesn't necessarily grab you. In the second image the background is black and white and the faces are in color. 

Now they pop out of the picture, which has a three-dimensional look and even looks a bit sharper due to the contrast.

Let's Play with an Image 
Every photographer has images laying around that they like despite the fact they fall short for one or more reasons. In the case of the water pump image shown here the image is OK. But even when blown up to an 11x14 it's still just OK.

The pump gets lost in the surrounding foliage because both it and the plants are mid-tones.

So for step one we're going to select the pump and promote it to it's own layer. Step two is to remove anything from that layer that isn't part of the pump. 

The magic wand is only marginally effective on an image like this. Your best bet is to use the magic wand to remove large swatches of green and then use the eraser tool to selectively remove any remaining leaves and fronds. Flip the background layer on and off to ensure that you haven't removed any parts of the pump. This will also help you to see exactly where the edges are. When you're zoomed in this can be harder than it sounds.

Now that you've got a layer that is only the pump go back to the background layer, go to the saturation control and set it to zero. The background is now a black and white image.

But the old black painted pump still fades into the background. So to make it stand out we'll go back to the pump layer and use the saturation control again to change the color of the paint on the pump to red. Now that sucker stands out!

Well in truth it stands out a little too much. After all hand painted photos are supposed to have an old-timey look to them. To get the look of paint on a black and white print use the blending controls to let some of the black and white image bleed through the red on top. I played around with a few different settings using Paint Shop Pro and settled on an opacity of around 50% (the process is the same in PhotoShop).

The advantage of a using a simple image like this one to demonstrate the process is that it is just that - a simple image.

When you go from simple images to people you'll want to put skin tones, clothing, and other items on separate layers. That way you can control the level of blending or "painterly look" of the image. You'll find that flesh tones in particular can be a bit frustrating at first. 

But like anything else in Photoshop a little practice makes this much easier. Kids in colorful outfits make great subjects for this technique as does any kind of Americana or antiques. So experiment and have some fun! If you do something you really like send it along and let us take a look.

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