Adding Color to History

The post “The Mahogany Bomber” included a photo of Sir Keith Park in his flight suit, in front of a Spitfire.  This is a famous photo from the collections of the Imperial War Museum.  But the original is in black and white.  I have no problem with the black and white format, but I wanted the image to bridge the history of the story with the modern relevance to leadership.  I also wanted it to stand out a bit.  Although the website deals with a topic that predated wide use of color photography, I try hard not to fill it with black and white imagery.  So I decided to take the iconic image and colorize it.

Side by side comparison of the images

Left: Original image, Right: Final image in color. © IWM (CM 3513)


I used Photoshop to create this image, and based my technique on the tutorial you can find here at It’s not difficult, but it does require a bit of experience with the software, and a lot of patience.  I’ll give a rough outline of the steps here, but before attempting this you should be comfortable with the following concepts in Photoshop: layers, masks, making selections, blending modes.

When colorizing, it’s essential to divide the image into areas with different colors.  For example, in this image, the skin tone, flight suit, life jacket (Mae West), etc. should all be different colors.  Each of them should be isolated on a separate layer.  You can see in the image below that these areas each have a separate layer group.

Screenshot of Photoshop with image layer groups

Each section of the image is edited on it own layer


Each Layer Group has a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer clipped to the blank layer below it. The blank layer is where we will paint the color.

I use layer groups because for each item I colorize, I also add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer, and add a clipping mask.  This allows me to colorize a section of the image and then make adjustments to the Hue and Saturation later.  That flexibility is essential.

On the new layer, I made a selection of the area I wanted to color.  Use whatever selection tools you prefer.  I have a digitizer so I prefer Quick Mask mode and the Brush tool.

In this example I have made a selection of the Mae West.  Note that the straps are not part of the selection, they would be a different color and go on a separate layer.

Photoshop screenshot of a selection

Make a selection of each area to be colored.

After finalizing the selection, I determined the color I wanted to paint it.  I prefer to use other images as a color reference.  A quick Google search of Mae Wests gives me a wealth of reference images.  Open a reference file in Photoshop and use the Eye Dropper to select the color.

Now I paint the image using the Brush tool.  The layer Blending Mode typically works best in Overlay, but experiment with the other modes as required. Because I have clipped the Adjustment Layer attached to the color layer, I can make adjustments to the Hue and the Saturation after I am done to achieve the best results.  Subtlety is the key to effective images.  I think slightly desaturated images look best.

Screenshot of painting selection in Photoshop

Paint the color inside the selected area.


I continue added new layer groups and repeating the process above to color the other sections of the image.  Working with skin tones is the hardest.  Luckily I was able to find color photos of Park from his days in Malta.  With faces it is important to remember that the nose, cheeks, and chin have higher blood flows, so they should be more red. I pull the color right from those areas in the reference image.

Screenshot of colored areas of the image.

Adding color….


and more color….

Where there is no reference image, use historical descriptions. For example, I know from historical accounts that Park’s flight helmet was white.

Here is the finished image.  Results may vary. I like to add final global adjustments using adjustments layers.  It ties the whole image together.

Finished colorized photo of Keith Park