Photoshop Color Splash Effect Tutorial

Easy Photoshop Color Splash Effect

No time for making selections? Learn how to create a quick and easy Color Splash effect in Photoshop with just a Gradient Map adjustment and a layer mask! Great for nature and landscape photos. For Photoshop CC and CS6.

Written by Steve Patterson. In this Photoshop tutorial, we'll learn a super easy way to add a color splash effect to a photo! A "color splash", also known as "selective color", is where we convert an image to black and white and then restore the color in just one area. Usually, we restore the color in a specific object, like a dress or a flower. In fact, I cover a simple way to do that in our Easy Selective Color Effect tutorial where I bring back the color in a woman's red dress.

But for certain types of photos, especially outdoor landscapes, it can be more effective to restore the color not in any one object but in a general area. Often, landscape photos lack a clear subject, leaving the viewer's eye to wander. By limiting the color to just one area, like the leaves on a tree or the water under a bridge, we simplify the scene by bringing focus to that area. This can be a great way to create a more interesting and compelling image, and it's also just a really cool effect and a lot of fun! And, because we're not choosing anything specific in the image, there's no need to make any time-consuming selections. Usually, a single click with a brush is all we need!

What You'll Learn

To create the color splash effect, we'll use a Gradient Map adjustment layer to quickly convert our image to black and white. Then, we'll use the Gradient Map's built-in layer mask, along with Photoshop's Brush Tool, to instantly restore the color in a single area. Finally, we'll fade the color so that it blends in better with its black and white surroundings, and we'll do that using the layer mask options in the Properties panel. Once you know the steps, the entire color splash effect takes only a few minutes from start to finish. Let's see how it works! I'll be using Photoshop CC but everything is fully compatible with Photoshop CS6.

Here's an example of what the final color splash effect will look like when we're done. Notice that only the trees on the left are in color while the rest of the image remains in black and white. We'll learn how to adjust the intensity of the color to better match your specific image at the end of the tutorial:

Photoshop color splash photo effect
The final "color splash" effect.

This tutorial is part of our Photo Effects collection. Let's get started!

How To Create A Color Splash Effect

Step 1: Open Your Image

Start by opening an image into Photoshop. Here's the image I'll be using (autumn foliage photo from Adobe Stock)

Autumn foliage photo from Adobe Stock
The original image. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

Step 2: Set Your Foreground And Background Colors To The Defaults

In a moment, we'll use a Gradient Map adjustment layer to convert our color image to black and white. But in order for it to work, we first need to make sure that our Foreground and Background colors are set to their defaults. You can see your current Foreground and Background colors in the color swatches near the bottom of the Toolbar. By default, the Foreground color (upper left swatch) should be black and the Background color (lower right swatch) should be white. If you're seeing different colors, press the letter D on your keyboard ("D" for "Defaults") to reset them:

Photoshop's default Foreground and Background colors
The default Foreground (upper left) and Background (lower right) colors.

Step 3: Add A Gradient Map Adjustment Layer

If we look in the Layers panel, we see our image sitting on the Background layer:

The Layers panel showing the original image
The Layers panel showing the original image.

We need to convert our image to black and white, and we can do that very quickly using a Gradient Map image adjustment. But rather than making a permanent change to the image, we'll apply the Gradient Map as a non-destructive adjustment layer. Click on the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:

Click the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon
Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon.

Then, choose Gradient Map from the list:

Selecting a Gradient Map adjustment layer in Photoshop
Choosing "Gradient Map" from the menu.

Photoshop adds a Gradient Map adjustment layer named "Gradient Map 1" above the image on the Background layer:

The Gradient Map adjustment layer in the Layers panel
The Layers panel showing the new Gradient Map adjustment layer.

And, the Gradient Map instantly converts our image from color to black and white. For more control over the black and white conversion, you can also use a Black & White adjustment layer. But in most cases, the Gradient Map works fine for our color splash effect and gives us great results:

The black and white version of the image using a Gradient Map adjustment layer
The image after converting it to black and white using the Gradient Map adjustment layer.

Step 4: Select The Brush Tool

If we look again in the Layers panel, we see a layer mask thumbnail on our Gradient Map adjustment layer. That's because adjustment layers in Photoshop include a built-in layer mask. Notice that the thumbnail shows a white highlight border around it, which tells us that the layer mask is currently selected. We'll use this layer mask to bring back the color in part of the image:

The layer mask thumbnail for the Gradient Map adjustment layer
The layer mask thumbnail for the Gradient Map adjustment layer.

To do that, we'll paint on the layer mask with black. Select the Brush Tool from the Toolbar:

Selecting the Brush Tool from the Toolbar
Selecting the Brush Tool.

Step 5: Set Your Foreground Color To Black

Photoshop uses your current Foreground color as the brush color. So to paint with black, we need to set our Foreground color to black. Earlier, when we reset our Foreground and Background colors to their defaults, Photoshop set the Foreground color to black and the Background color to white. So you might think we're good to go.

But if we look again at the color swatches in the Toolbar, we see that Photoshop has swapped the colors on us. The Foreground color is now white and the Background color is black. That's because we now have a layer mask selected. It gets confusing, but the default colors when working with layer masks are the opposite of what they normally are:

The new Foreground and Background colors in Photoshop
The Foreground and Background colors have been reversed.

To set the Foreground color back to black (and the Background color back to white), press the letter X on your keyboard to swap them:

Swapping the Foreground and Background colors in Photoshop
Press "X" to swap the Foreground and Background colors.

Step 6: Lower The Hardness Of The Brush To 0%

With the Brush Tool selected, right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) anywhere inside the document window. This opens Photoshop's Brush Preset Picker. Make sure that the Hardness value is lowered all the way down to 0%. This gives our brush a soft, feathered edge so that when we paint, we'll create smooth transitions between the colored area of the image and it's black and white surroundings. Press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) on your keyboard to close the Brush Preset Picker:

The brush Hardness value in Photoshop
Lower the brush hardness down to 0%.

Step 7: Check Your Brush Options

Before we paint, make sure that your Brush Tool options in the Options Bar are set to their defaults. The Mode option (short for Blend Mode) should be set to Normal, Opacity should be at 100%, and Flow should also be set to 100%:

The Brush Tool options in the Options Bar in Photoshop
The Brush Tool options in the Options Bar.

Step 8: Resize Your Brush

Position your brush cursor over the area where you want to restore the color. Then, resize your brush using the left and bracket keys on your keyboard. The right bracket key ( ] ) makes the brush larger and the left bracket key ( [ ) makes it smaller. You'll want the brush to be just large enough to surround the area you want to colorize. In my case, I'll position and resize my brush so that it surrounds the trees on the right, as well as the reflection of the trees in the water:

Resize and position the Brush Tool over the area to colorize
Resizing and positioning the brush cursor over the area to colorize.

Step 9: Click To Restore The Color

Then, with black as your brush color, click on the area to restore its original color. You can also click and drag to paint with the Brush Tool, but the effect usually looks best with just a single click:

The initial Photoshop color splash effect
The color in the trees on the right has been restored.

If you're not happy with the result, undo your click by going up to the Edit menu in the Menu Bar and choosing Undo Brush Tool. Or, choose the Undo command from your keyboard by pressing Ctrl+Z (Win) / Command+Z (Mac). Either way works:

Selecting the Undo Brush Tool command in Photoshop
Selecting "Undo Brush Tool" from under the Edit menu.

Then, resize or reposition your brush cursor as needed and try again. This time, I'll position my brush over the trees on the left, and I'll make the brush a bit smaller by pressing the left bracket key ( [ ) a few times on my keyboard:

Moving and resizing the brush over a different area
Moving and resizing the brush over a different area.

I'll click with my brush to restore the color, and here's the result. I like this second look better:

The color in a different area has been restored
The color in a different area has been restored.

Step 10: Fade The Color Using The Density Slider

If we look at the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers panel, we see the area of black where we clicked. This is the area where the effects of the Gradient Map are hidden, allowing the original colors from the image on the Background layer to show through:

The layer mask thumbnail showing where we clicked
The layer mask thumbnail showing where we clicked.

If you find that the colors you've restored look too intense against the otherwise black and white image, or you just want to create a more subtle effect, you can fade the color using the Density slider in the Properties panel. If we look in the Properties panel, we see that we're currently viewing options for the Gradient Map. To switch to the layer mask options, click on the Layer Mask icon at the top:

The Layer Mask icon in the Properties panel in Photoshop
Clicking the Layer Mask icon in the Properties panel.

The Density slider is sort of like an Opacity option for the layer mask. Lowering the density fades the effect of the mask so it has less of an impact. Since we're using the layer mask to restore the original color, we can fade the color just by lowering the Density value. To lower it, click on the Density slider and drag it to the left. The further you drag, the more you'll fade the color. I'll lower mine down to 75%:

Lowering the Density value in the Properties panel
Lowering the Density value in the Properties panel.

And here, after fading the color with the Density slider, is my final color splash result:

Photoshop color splash effect
The final "color splash" effect.