Adding Color to Photographs: Keeping it Accurate from Screen to Print

I get a lot of questions about how I create my Photographic Artwork, with most of the questions around how I achieve the colors I do in the finished printed images. I thought it would be worthwhile to attempt to explain the elements that I use that affect the colors and textures in the images, and how I ensure they translate accurately from my computer screen to the final printed product. This is a basic overview that works but of course aspects of this generalized instruction can get become more in depth.

Pictured above is the original photograph of a Jimson Weed and the finished photographic artwork called “Datura.” So, how does one get from one to the other?

The first step is to make sure your monitor is properly color calibrated. The calibrating equipment itself does not have to be expensive and fancy. Middle of the road works well. Secondly, you will want to globally color correct the original image using the method of your choice to get accurate tone and color. Below I show that I am using the color correction by numbers method. The image below shows that a slight magenta cast has been eliminated from the original above.  You can see that it is helpful here to use a mask for your luminosity, color correction, and hue & saturation layers. This is pictured below. This gives you a non-destructive base to start with so that everything else including color to the image is accurate without a cyan or magenta cast. These casts will impact how bright and independent the separate colors will appear in your final printed product

Weaving in Colors and Textures

Once you have proper color calibration you can start to sculpt your vision by building textures and colors and work towards the emotion you are trying to express. I usually begin each piece by adding textures. You can use the texture layer properties to weave them above and below the image. You can also play with the hue or saturation to further manipulate color. All of this pushes the image towards your ultimate vision. Below is an example of how I do this, by adding texture layers and changing the hue on some of them.

Adding Color and Additional Texture Through Brushes

The real magic involves the use of digital brushes and using  their ability to act like a real paint brush by adding pressure or different speeds to your strokes.  A tablet/pad of some kind, like a Wacom tablet or an Apple iPad with a stylus helps to achieve the pressure sensitive capabilities. I personally use an iPad with Astropad Studios accompanied by the Apple pencil to manipulate many of my photoshop brushes. The Astropad app allows me to connect my iMac to my iPad wirelessly and take advantage of the pressure sensitivity of the iPad and Apple pencil. At this point, the freelance painting can begin throughout the image. You can experiment with different brushes with different RGB colors to build your artwork and achieve your desired outcome.

Below is an example of the kind of brush activity and color you can achieve. In the final “Datura” piece, the particular “drips of blue” were created by picking the color selection shown and combining it with a brush. This particular brush is a watercolor effect type of brush and is enhanced greatly by using the tablet and pencil to utilize the pressure and speed to the strokes. The lighter parts of the drip are from a very light touch and the darker parts of the brush are created using a firmer touch. You can see in the top image again how this drip ends up looking in the end composition. I keep all of the brush strokes and colors on separate layers in photoshop as you can manipulate where throughout the image it works best as well as change the layer properties.

Concluding Notes

You should keep in mind that the very large file sizes of these pieces mean that this process takes up a good bit of computer “strength” to happen in real time. This makes it possible for very large prints to be rendered from these large files. The more layers of paint you create the larger the file size increases. I always work with 16bit files as to retain as much color and data information while creating the pieces.

I would also suggest that you calibrate your computer monitor at least once a month. This effort, in conjunction with working with a great printer who keeps his or her printers and equipment calibrated and up to date will result in your final printed piece matching your vision on screen. Another very important factor in achieving accurate color in your image is using high quality printers and quality pigment inks. When working with my printers, I often have proofs printed first to ensure the final look is what I am envisioning.

When saving your finished image, make sure you have used an appropriate color space like Adobe RBG (1998). This is a good compromise between screen colors and what is physically printable by printers and visible to the human eye.

Another essential aspect to making your printed color images “pop” accurately is your paper choice. The whiter the base paper is the more vivid the colors in the print will appear. Your printer should be able to supply you with samples of your paper options.

And finally, the framing and matting of your piece will play a large role in how it is presented in shows, galleries, exhibits, or just hanging on the living room wall in your mother’s house. Using a high-quality framer who can guide you in your mat, frame and glass choices is the final step in seeing your vision come to life.