This image, partially black and white and partially in color, is an example of Marina Amaral's ability to color old monotone photos using Adobe Photoshop.

Marina Amaral: A Splash of Color

By Scott Kirkwood

Marina Amaral wasn’t much of a student until she discovered history. And she wasn’t much of an artist until she discovered Photoshop. Now she makes a living injecting color into centuries-old images—bringing new life to Ellis Island immigrants, World War II generals, politicians felled by assassins’ bullets, and even the occasional Hollywood starlet.

 “I’ve been fascinated by history since I was a kid—it was the only class where I could get good grades,” Amaral admits. “I’d tried to draw and paint [when I was younger] but it was a total disaster, so when I discovered my artistic skills when starting to colorize photos, it was a complete surprise.”

It all started with a portrait of a Civil War soldier that showed up in a Google image search, long before Amaral knew anything about copyright issues. Now, thanks to the Library of Congress and other online sources of high-resolution public-domain images, she has a computer folder with thousands of historic photos she can dip into whenever she likes. 

Amaral supports herself with private commissions ranging from restoring old family wedding photos to assignments from magazine editors and the occasional PBS documentary. But she spends much of her time on self-initiated work that often finds its way to her online store, where you’ll see framed portraits of Abraham Lincoln and King George V alongside Albert Einstein phone cases and Sigmund Freud throw pillows. 

Most days, Amaral spends hours working on her Wacom tablet, meticulously adding layers and selecting colors from her home office in Belo Horizonte, a city of 1.4 million nestled in the mountains north of Rio de Janeiro. But before she turns every monochrome Kansas into a Technicolor Oz, she begins with research. 

“If I’m working on a WWII photograph,” she says, “I’ll research the original colors of the uniforms, the medals, the ribbons, the patches, even the subject’s hair color. I’m not an expert in military history, so I’ll email historians, asking for help; I’ll also try to find modern photographs from wherever the picture was taken and visual descriptions in books and historical documents.”

After she completes the research (a process that can take days or weeks), Amaral cleans up any scratches or flaws in the image, makes minor adjustments to brightness and contrast, and then starts blocking out basic colors as they would appear without the influence of ambient lighting.

From there, she says each project is akin to “a gigantic coloring book.” She relies on Adobe Photoshop CC’s Brush tool, Adjustment layers, and the Hue/Saturation tool to find the perfect tone. A simple portrait can take an hour; a more complicated piece with crowds—like New York’s banana docks circa 1900 or the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II—can take four or five solid days of work.

Coloring book comparisons aside, it’s far more than a mindless activity.

“When I first started, skin tones were the most difficult thing to get right because human skin is not composed of a single color—it has lots of different hues and small color variations that you can’t see unless you pay a lot of attention,” she says. “But now the most difficult things to perfect are water and sky; they may look simple, but every single cloud can have a big impact on the color and lighting.” Natural objects with complicated textures, such as trees and food, also make it difficult to render tones realistically.  

Although her art form would seem a niche among niches, Amaral has amassed a large number of social media followers—lovers of both history and photography. When she asked her 47,000 Twitter followers to suggest possible subjects for colorization, she quickly received more than 300 responses ranging from Paris street scenes to British soccer players; portraits of writers and philosophers like Nietzsche, Marx, and Whitman; and famed women’s baseball team, the Rockford Peaches. 

Much of the fascination that powers that social-media following likely derives from the emotional impact that a splash of color provides to a simple black-and-white image. Sometimes that intimacy can be a little too much: Amaral often spends days staring at bloodied soldiers, John Wilkes Booth co-conspirators, and most recently, a pair of Holocaust victims photographed in a concentration camp. That may explain why those harrowing images are offset by lighter fare, including Thomas Edison relaxing on a camping trip, John and Jacqueline Kennedy on their wedding day, and Elvis and Richard Nixon shaking hands at the White House. 

“When you see a photo in color, you instantly feel more connected to the subject,” says Amaral. “It’s so hard to relate to a historical figure in black and white because it creates the sensation that this person only existed in history books, which is absolutely not true—the colors build a bridge to the past.”