How Do Artists Pick the Right Colors for Colorization?

When it comes to colorizing black and white photos, one of the most important tasks that photo colorization artists face is selecting the right colors. It is a delicate process that requires both technical skills and an understanding of how colors work.

In this article, we will explore the various techniques and considerations that photo colorization artists use to select the perfect colors for their projects.

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Styles of Photo Colorization

Let’s first learn about the different types of photo colorization before we get into how artists choose colors.

People are unique, and we all have different tastes and interests. While some people prefer very historical accurate colorization, others are less concerned with accuracy as long as the final photo is beautiful and has main features like eyes, hair, and skin color corrected more or less accurately.

To summarize, artists can choose between three colorization styles:

  1. Historically accurate (as close to original as possible)
  2. Artistic colorization (further from original, but often, prettier)
  3. Mixed (best of both worlds, still realistic, but with touch of artist)

There is no single correct answer because this is a highly subjective subject. We prefer mixed coloration, in which we try to stay as true to the original colors as possible before making them prettier while retaining their originality.

Those artists who choose artistic coloration do not need to research the original because they will alter original details to make the final photo look as good as art. As a result, the chapters that follow are all applicable to all colorization styles. They are, however, primarily used by artists who employ historically accurate colorization and mixed coloration.


Color Referencing

The easiest and the mot precise technique used for photo colorization is color referencing. This technique implies use of other images of same person or subject, that already have natural color, or were colorized previously with the high precision. 


How Artists Pick Colors - Color Referencing

References for color can be different things, like other photos videos, realistic paintings or well documented information about color, like color codes, color pallets from some specific and sources, like clothing companies and so on.

If there is no direct reference to an object or person, we can use one that is very similar. In the case of people, a photo of a close relative can be used to match the skin tone. It can only be done if their family member has very similar skin tone, which can be determined by comparing their skin “tonal value” (how bright or dark their skin is, and how it reflects color).


Color Research

If there is no references provided by the client, next step for selecting the right colors for a photo colorization project is to conduct research on the historical context of the photograph.

How Artists Pick Colors - Color Research

This includes researching the time period in which the photo was taken and the fashion and color trends of that time. If it is available, artists must also research the location where the photo was taken and study the natural colors present in that environment.


Color Theory

Color theory is an important aspect of color selection in photo colorization. Artists must have a good understanding of the color wheel and the relationships between different colors.

How Artists Pick Colors - Color Theory

They must also understand the different color models, such as the RGB and CMYK color models and the Munsell color system. This knowledge allows artists to make informed decisions about color selection and to create harmonious and natural-looking results.


Color Sampling

Another important technique used by photo colorization artists is color sampling. This involves selecting a small area of the photo and sampling the colors present within it.

How Artists Pick Colors - Color Sampling

Artists can then use this sample to guide the colorization of the rest of the photo. This technique allows artists to achieve a more consistent and accurate result.


Adjusting and Experimenting

Once the basic colors have been selected, photo colorization artists must then make further adjustments to fine-tune the colorization. This can include adjusting the brightness, saturation and contrast of the colors to achieve the best possible result. Artists must also be willing to experiment with different colors and techniques to achieve the desired effect.



Selecting the right colors for a photo colorization project is a complex and challenging task. It requires a combination of technical skills and an understanding of color theory, as well as an understanding of the historical context of the photograph and the preferences of the intended audience.

Photo colorization artists must be willing to experiment and make adjustments to achieve the best possible result.


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