Getting Around in GIMP - Muted Colors

There seems to be a relatively recent interest in photo post-processing that is centered around recreating the look and feel of vintage photo elements. With the explosion of popularity around applications like, quite a few photos have been showing up on Flickr and elsewhere that have these vintage types of effects applied to them.

Not surprisingly, this has led to an interest in photographers about how to achieve similar effects in their post processing workflow. In fact, more often than not I've noticed on the Flickr Photoshop Support Group questions pertaining to color toning/grading (especially prevalent are questions like "How do I do this?"). There are many ways to approach image color toning, and starting with something simple might help get people started.

In this post I want to talk about muting colors in an image. Below you'll find three different approaches to muting the colors in an image...

Original starting image.

Colors muted using a desaturated luminosity layer laid over the original with opacity.

Colors muted using layer masks and blending modes.

Colors muted using curves and blending modes.

I will provide a tutorial for using each of these different methods. The one you use is highly dependent on your subjective interpretations of what you want your final image to look like (and in some cases you may use more than one, and blend the result).

Desaturated Layer Method

This is the most straightforward and easiest method for desaturating the colors in your images. It basically consists of duplicating your layer, desaturating it (Colors → Desaturate), putting it above your full color layer, and changing the opacity of the desaturated layer to taste.

The step-by-step procedure is:
  1. Create a duplicate layer of the color layer you want to mute.

  2. Run Colors → Desaturate, and choose either Lightness, Luminosity, or Average (it's a personal preference - more detailed info can be found here).

  3. Adjust the opacity of the desaturated layer to taste.

Layer Blend Modes Method

From Muted color effect, if you like that kind of stuff thread at the Photoshop Support Group on Flickr the user Tennessee_Gator describes an interesting method of muting colors using solid fill layers with masks applied to them. I had to do a little translation from the Photoshop-centric instructions, but I think I was finally able to replicate the same effect in GIMP.

There were two different methods of approaching this that I was working on, but thanks to some quick math by imagdoofus123 it turns out that both methods produce identical results, so I'll describe the easier of the two.

The basic idea is to use a luminosity copy of the color image, and to set two layers of this luminosity over your color image. One of the layers will be on a Multiply blending mode, and the other will be on Screen.
  1. Create a duplicate of your color layer, and run Colors → Desaturate on it, using Luminosity.

  2. Change the blending mode of this layer to Multiply.

  3. Duplicate this Multiply layer, and change the new layer blending mode to Screen.

Color Curves Method

This method was mentioned in the discussion page linked to above as another possible approach (and allows for some more flexibility in tweaking the final results directly).

  1. Duplicate your color layer, and set the blending mode of the new layer to Color.

  2. Run Color → Curves...

  3. Tweak an Inverted S-curve on the Value channel to taste.

  4. Duplicate this layer, and set its blending mode to Value.

  5. Run Color → Curves... again on this Value layer.

  6. Modify the curve (slightly!) to a regular S-curve to adjust the contrast to taste.

These are just a couple of methods for desaturating an image, but I find them to cover most of what I need when doing this. As always, try experimenting with different layer opacity options to adjust the strength of the final effect. It's usually highly subjective just how much to mute, but the nice thing is that it's easy to vary the amounts with opacity and/or layer masks!

Easy Cheating Method (via my script)

If you've stuck with me this long (and you're a champ for reading all of this!), then I have one last little treat. I recently learned some quick script-fu to describe this to others on the GIMP users forum on Flickr - and it was just easier to go ahead and write a script to do the effect.

The script is called Muted Colors, and you can download it from the GIMP registry here.

You can choose any of the methods I've described above, with the exception of using curves. Hopefully some people find this helpful!


  1. Hey man, I just found your blog through the GIMP plugin registry. GIMP is awesome, but there are a dearth of really high quality tutorials out there, especially for the most recent versions of the software. Got you subscribed in my Reader. I look forward to reading through your awesome stuff here.

    PS, I'm commenting with my Google account, but I'm not on Blogger any more. I wasn't able to comment with just my url. Thanks!

  2. Thank you! Layer blend mode method rocks! It is easy and beautiful. Keep them coming please!

  3. Hello,
    I've just read your tutorial and then tried script "Muted colors".
    It seems that script do the "Layer Blend Modes Method" in different way because it places "Multiply layer" on the top and "Screen" below but above original image.
    In tutorial I think you wrote to place Screen layer on the top!


  4. Hi Patrick,
    Thanks a lot for sharing such a useful and informative post on Gimp. In fact, blending method is one of the competitive feature of Gimp for which I am using it for last 2 years. Please keep writing this kind of interesting tricks of Gimp.