How to Change One Color to Another in GIMP

Did you ever wonder what Earth would look like with a red Martian sky? Or if a cerulean rose would smell — I mean, look — as sweet? Maybe you just want to see how cool you’d look with the golden eyes of a cat (spoiler alert: it doesn’t really look good on me, but maybe it’ll work for you).

Like so many things in GIMP, there are a lot of different ways you can adjust the colors in your image. Every editor has their own favorite way, but let’s take a closer look at some of the simplest ways you can replace color in GIMP. 

There are two basic approaches, and choosing the “best” one depends on the contents of the image you’re editing. You can directly select a specific color and replace it, which works best on simple images, or you can choose a range of hues and adjust all of them relative to the rest of the image. 

The Quick Guide to Changing Colors in GIMP

This isn’t always the best way for every image, but here’s the quickest way to change one color into another in GIMP:

  • Step 1: Use the Select by Color tool to select all the pixels containing the color you want to change.
  • Step 2: Open the Colors menu, select the Hue/Chroma filter, adjust the Hue slider until you’re satisfied with the results, and then click OK.
  • Step 3: Pat yourself on the back, because you’re already done!

This guide is intended for GIMP users who are already fully familiar with the ins and outs of the program, but I’ll explain the steps in more detail down below for those of you who want a bit more detail, along with a technique for creating more gentle color shifts for complex images like photographs. 

Replacing Simple Solid Colors

This method works best on a relatively simple image that only has a few colors, such as a GIF or other image that has a limited color palette. When I say a few colors, I mean from a numerical value perspective: each color should be consistent across the whole image to get the best results.

Pixel art, logos, and outlined text are great examples that are perfect for this technique, but they won’t work on pictures with too many aliased pixels. Here’s how you can apply it:

Step 1: Create Your Selection

The first step in the color change process is selecting the pixels that you want to modify. There are a couple of different ways to select colors in GIMP, but they’re both found in the same spot in the toolbox: the Select by Color tool and the Fuzzy Select (Magic Wand) tool.

They work almost identically, except Fuzzy Select only selects contiguous areas of color while Select by Color can create multiple selection areas at once. 

Wilber’s paintbrush could use a change, don’t you think? Now that it’s selected, we’re ready to go

Step 2: Choose Your Fighter Filter 

There are numerous filters dedicated to color adjustment in GIMP: Hue/Chroma, Hue/Saturation, Color Exchange, and Colorize, to name just a few. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses, but it’s hard to beat the Hue/Chroma filter for pure simplicity. 

Hue/Chroma is only one of many color tools in GIMP

Open the Colors menu, and select Hue/Chroma from the list of options. 

As you can see in the screenshot below, it offers you three sliders for adjusting your selected pixels: Hue, Chroma, and Lightness, often referred to as the HCL or Lch color model in GIMP. It’s an alternative way of representing the RGB color space used in most digital images, and it’s capable of describing all the same colors.

The Hue slider lets you set the color, the Chroma slider sets the intensity of the color between 100% grey and 100% color, and Lightness determines (you guessed it) how bright or dark the color is. It can take a second to get used to thinking about color in this way, but it works well once you’re familiar with it. 

Pushing the Hue slider up to 120 or so gives Wilber a fetching teal paintbrush! So much nicer than the orange/brown from before. 

Step 3: Recycle Jokes

There is no Step 3 – you’re already done! 

Hue Adjustments in Complex Scenes

When you’re editing more complex images like digital photos, it’s a bit more unusual to get large sections of the same color next to each other. 

Subtle variations in color tone can make it very hard to get good results with the Select By Color tool, and it looks more natural to have gradual color transitions in a photo. Sharp lines look great in a logo, but they really stand out in a photo. 

You could spend your time with the Select By Color tool and then feather your selection edges to create a softer transition, but it’s easier to use the Hue/Saturation filter to adjust a whole range of similar hues all at once. It’s a bit tricky, but here’s how it works:

Open the Colors menu and select Hue/Saturation from the list. GIMP will open the Hue/Saturation dialog box so you can configure your adjustment. 

The Hue/Saturation dialog box in GIMP 2.10 

If this dialog makes no sense to you at all, don’t worry – I’ll explain. It’s probably one of the most counter-intuitive implementations of a Hue/Saturation adjustment filter I’ve ever seen, largely because it copies the circular hue map that you might have seen in other programs, but without actually showing it to you in all its detail.

You can adjust the HSL values of the entire scene as a whole by selecting the Master button in the middle of the color wheel, or you can choose to focus on a specific section of the color wheel by selecting the appropriate color. 

Since most photos don’t contain just these six pure primary colors, the Overlap slider allows you to expand your adjustments. If you want to adjust orange tones in your image, you can select either the Red or Yellow option and adjust the Overlap slider until you’re affecting the desired tones when you adjust the Hue slider. 

Adjusting the Master Hue to +90 turns this grey November panorama into an alien world

The Hue slider setting ranges from -180 to +180, covering the full 360 degrees of a color wheel. You’ll probably notice that setting the master to -180 results in the same color change as you’ll get from +180 because there are only 360 possible degrees in the color wheel. 

As you adjust your Hue slider, you’ll see the affected colors change in the Hue/Saturation dialog box, as you can see in the screenshot above. The Red option at the top has shifted to some kind of horrible chartreuse like a neon Kermit the frog, and all the others have shifted just as far. 

Of course, I’m pushing the adjustments to the extreme in order to make them as clear as possible, but most of the time, you’ll get the best results when you keep your adjustments fairly close to the original. The greater the adjustment, the more care you need to take in order to keep everything looking realistic!

A Final Word on Digital Color

The technical aspects of color models and color theory are often overlooked by new image editors, but if you really want to make yourself a better digital artist, you’ll need to at least understand the basics. I know that it’s much more fun to spend your time editing, but a bit of grounding in the theory can really help.

If you want to do some extra credit reading about color models, there’s an excellently exhaustive collection of color resources available compiled by David Briggs over the span of many years. Some of the content is extremely advanced, but there is lots of good info for beginners in the mix too. 

That’s everything you need to know about how to recolor in GIMP – and a little bit extra on top for those of you who are dedicated students.

Do you have a different method for adjusting colors in GIMP that you prefer? Let us know in the comments, and I’ll take a closer look. 

About Thomas Boldt
I’ve been working with digital images since the year 2000 or so, when I got my first digital camera. I've tried many image editing programs. GIMP is a free and powerful software, but not exactly user-friendly until you get comfortable with it, and I wanted to make the learning process easier for you here.

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  • YourNeighbourBob

    How do you select a colour on a drawing and change all pixels with that H,C,L to another colour without having to select each and every one? For example I have a logo and I want to change all the brown pixels with (H1,C1,L1/R,G,B) to yellow (H2,C2,L2)?

    • Thomas Boldt

      Hi Bob, if I understand your project correctly, the best tool to use is the Color Exchange tool. You can find this option in the Colors menu -> Map sub-menu.

      You just have to select the first color that you want to target, and set a new color to exchange it with. The dialog window is fairly self-explanatory, but if you run into trouble, make another post and I’ll see what I can do.

      Hope that helps!

  • Sasha

    This only works if you want to change the color to yellow. How do you do this for other colors?

    • Thomas Boldt

      Hi Sasha, you can use these techniques to change any color to any other color. If you can tell me a bit more about your project, I will try to help clarify things for you.

  • Almo

    Great article. The other one I found was a video, and those just take to long.

    • Thomas Boldt

      Thanks, Almo, glad you found the article useful! I totally agree with you about video tutorials, people speak so much more slowly than I can read, lol =)

  • Jeff Riedl

    Concise and accurate help – THANK YOU!

    • Thomas Boldt

      You’re welcome Jeff, glad to help!

  • Steve Murdoch

    Great tutorial, I have an image of a large sprinkler with the sun in the background and i want to make the water have the colors of the rainbow in them…is this possible?


    • Thomas Boldt

      Hi Steve, that sounds like a great project, but it could also be a bit challenging!

      It’s hard to suggest the best strategy when I can’t see the image, but here goes: you could create an empty new layer, fill it with a rainbow gradient using the gradient tool, and then change the layer’s blend mode to Overlay in the Layers panel (this turns the layer and its rainbow colors semi-transparent). Then use a layer mask to hide the rainbow in the areas that don’t overlap the sprinkler water, and see how that looks! If you’re not familiar with layer masks, there’s a tutorial here:

      This is just a guess, but something along those lines should work.