Kennedy Hilton – Retro Style Hand Coloring
The Kennedy Hilton Outhouse was a classic single seater outhouse. The outhouse was located on the grounds of the Kennedy Hilton Estate along the banks of Lake Chapman in northern Indiana. The reality of the situation was that of a very small cabin with a huge shared front lawn. The lake was a stone’s throw from the front porch. I managed to snag this image in the spring of 1987. How I did that is another story. The hand coloring is what we are here to talk about now.
The decision to hand color a black and white photograph is not one I take lightly. Each image is selected based upon the final outcome. The process to hand color can be very labor intensive. This image was no exception. The first task when hand coloring is to select a color scheme. The colors don’t need to match the original scene. This is what I like to refer to as the “artistic license”. Selecting the colors is not an easy process. The colors you see in the image were pushed, pulled, tweaked and otherwise fine-tuned to get the final color. Applying the initial colors to a black and white photograph will always end up with a result that is very fake looking. The real artistry comes with refining the color to get that classic retro look. The description that follows is simply a brief overview and is in no way intended to be a tutorial.
Once the colors are selected, the real work begins. Each major element that is colored requires some type of mask. There are various ways to create a mask. In this case I used a channel in Photoshop as a mask for each element that was hand colored. The channel allowed me to see the area to be masked. The mask starts out as a solid black fill. I worked backwards by cutting the mask away from the area to be colored. I did this by using a combination of the airbrush tool and the Bezier (pronounced Bez ee a) curve. The term Bezier curve roughly translates from French as “pen that draws crazy curves”. The origins and use of the Bezier curve are beyond the scope of this article. Using the Bezier curve allows placing various points along any shape. The approach is much like connecting the dots. The points of the curve are closed allowing the shape to be filled with a solid color to create the mask. More on that in a minute.
This image shows the mask I used for the leaves. The mask is the red portion. Every element that shows as red is masked out and isolated from the green color I used for the leaves. Here is the process to get the masked area colored.
- A new channel is created in Photoshop. That takes a few clicks of the mouse.
- The mask is created in the new channel by hand using the Bezier curve tool. This is the most time consuming part of the process. The mask starts as a black channel and is filled with a white. The white portion on the completed mask is actually transparent and will allow elements under the white portion to be colored. Easier to see then explain.
- The completed mask is loaded as a selection in Photoshop. A selection is simply the area that is to be affected. This is another few clicks of the mouse to load the selection.
- The color is then selected in the Photoshop color pallet. I typically select the colors prior to starting any masking work.
- The masked area is then filled with the desired color. Typically the fill color is a weaker percentage of the selected color. Filling the mask with the color is another few clicks of the mouse.
- The color is now adjusted for hue, saturation, brightness and contrast. This is by far the most critical portion of the process. The best mask is worthless when a poor color selection is applied.
The masking technique worked for about 80% of this image. The real business end turned out to be the Photoshop airbrush. The first step is to load the airbrush with the desired color and opacity. This is where the coloring can get to be very tricky. The color must be applied to each portion of the image without stopping. This is not like applying a few coats of house paint. Only one pass with the airbrush will work. A second pass can and will often change the color where the first and second pass of color meet. I have given up on trying to figure out the specifics of why, how and when this happens. Over time the ability to keep the airbrush moving does get easier. I can also fade the percentage of color if I use one pass. Trust me when I say that the entire process of using the airbrush gets very complicated. There were areas on the outhouse that needed a very fine brush. These areas were done without a mask so the brush was at times on the anorexic side. The negative was scanned at 5,000 pixels per inch. I was using a brush as thin as 9 pixels. Think of how small that really is on a 5k ppi image. That's 1/18th of one percent. Forget the needle in the haystack comparison. More like the human hair in the hay stack. Mind boggling that technology will allow such precision.
Over a period of 36 hours I worked to apply refine and tweak the colors and tint's used. The door alone took me around 8 hours to keep the subtle details from being washed away. You won't catch me straining my arm from patting myself on the back, yet I am very pleased with the outcome. I find myself even liking the hand colored version more than the black and white (gasp).... Perhaps there will be more images to color in time. I am also pondering a video that shows a time lapsed slice of how this is done. Comments are always welcome.