Colorist on Color: The Introduction
Introducing the first of hopefully many articles on color. Our new columnist Marissa Louise is a colorist, but here she’s a color commentator. Why? She’ll tell you.
I love black and white drawing. When it is well done it has exceptional life, keen reduction, and strong emotive qualities. But line isn’t all there is to art. Imagine the Mona Lisa without color. Or imagine a Mondrian without color. They would still be poetic in their reduction, but they’d miss an extra element of the visual narrative that is derived from color. Color takes a drawing from a guitar solo to a full orchestration! It increases the capacity for emotional broadcasting and story pacing. It can help clarify focus and carry the eye across the page. It opens a whole new world! Imagine The Wicked & The Divine without Matt Wilson. Imagine Injection without Jordie Bellaire. Or Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur with out Tamra Bonvillain. Nextwave without Dave McCaig. They are all still beautiful books, but with these artists they are their full potential.
Throughout this year I’ll be interviewing other coloristists and chatting about what we enjoy, our tricks, and why we do what we do. But for you to understand coloring in comics it is important to understand the terms and processes of coloring. To that end I have created this brief introduction. I hope you enjoy it and I hope it helps you more fully enjoy color.
Coloring is the process that changes black and white line art to something else entirely. The people who color comics are called colorists—though not all color comics are colored by colorists. Confused yet? Good. It’ll get worse.
Let’s begin with some BASIC TERMS. Refer back to them when you need to.
All images on your computer are files. Each file format is a different way of organizing the information within the file; each of these serves a different purpose and is tailored to that purpose.
TIFFs and JPEGs
For our discussion we will mostly talk about these two file formats. TIFFs supports both CMYK and RGB. This makes it a very common and valuable form of file. You can use it for coloring and printing. The downside is you must be meticulous when you use the RGB versus CMYK file.
Colorist Tamra Bonvillain was kind enough to put together this image of what happens when a CMYK TIFF is used as a preview on a website.
Ouch! Look at those crunched colors! Odds are if you see something online with weird looking coloring someone accidentally used a CMYK TIFF instead of an RGB TIFF or RGB JPEG.
CMYK versus RGB
Fundamentally, CMYK and RGB are as different as oil paintings and laser light shows. When using CMYK on screen, the program attempts to emulate the subtractive nature of printing. Subtractive means the light bounces into the material and reflects back into your eyes.
RGB is additive, which means all the light adds together to shoot directly into your eyes.
Some colorist prefer to work on their files in RGB mode & some in CMYK mode. Either way the colorist works, the file must be converted to CMYK for print and RGB for web display.
Types of coloring
Flat coloring is exactly that: little to no rendering, carefully selected palettes, though it is very different from flatting (discussed at the end of this article). The kind of work you see in the interior of Lady Killer or in Golden Age comics. Sometimes there is a little texture. Like good minimalist art, it is deceptively simple.
Cut or Cell Shaded
This is done by selecting an area with a lasso and making an aliased change to the color. This style can be as simple as the simplified cuts you see in 1980s cartoons or as complex as Bill Crabtree’s controlled rendering. Often, texture brushes will be used in the background.
Airbrush or Soft Render
This style creates a soft rendering form with gradients created by an airbrush. Now done with soft brush tool or gradients in Photoshop, it gets its name from the traditional technique used to create awesome vans and 1980s record covers. It often utilizes highly saturated colors and wide value gamut.
Soft Cut or Cut and Grad
This is a combination of the cut style and the airbrush style. This is a style commonly used at Marvel and DC.
And here we are finally, at the meat of the article. The first tool in the colorists belt is the palette. Palette is a selection of colors. Within this term there is hue, saturation, temperature, and value.
James Gurney defines hue as the attribute of a color that allows it to be identified with yellow, red, blue, green, or other colors of the spectrum. In other words, this is what the layperson imagines when they imagine a color.
This is the perceived purity of the hue relative to grey. Desaturated colors are grey, brown, cream, and earth red. Desaturated palettes can be calming, earthy, murky, or feel emotionally separated. Dave Stewart is known for his excellent use of desaturated colors..
This is the perceived relationship to warm (tending towards orange) and cold (tending towards blue) colors. This mostly works in relationship to other colors, so a grey can be warm or cold depending on which color is next to it. Temperature can be very effectively used to create mood and planar separation.
This is a colors relation on a grey scale. Value is what are eyes are most attuned to. Good rendering comes from good value relationships.
These are the selections of colors. Usually these colors are keyed together through value, hue, and/or saturation.
This is the process of using all the tools of hue, value, saturation and palettes to create volume and light. It can be very simple or very complex.
A plane is an a two dimensional surface. You can think of space as an infinite number of planes stacked together. To recreate the illusion on a flat surface an artist creates planes. The colorist can give these planes atmospheric perspective and/or separate to further the illusion of three dimensional space. In other words, this is breaking up the background, foreground, and middle ground for clarity.
We’ll go back to James Gurney for this one: “The change in the appearance of objects as they are viewed at increasing distances through the layers of illuminated air,” water, or smog. This affect can be increased with color holds.
The effect created by changing line art from black to a non black color. This was a very expensive process before digital coloring. Now it is very common, and a lot of line art is designed to have color holds.
Coloring versus Flatting
Flatting is the process of breaking apart the shapes in the line drawing. A flatter can use wild selections, which the colorist will correct, or the flatter may use relatively accurate colors.
A flatter is a subcontractor hired by the colorist to create selections of the objects on the page under the line art using colors. The colors creating the selections can be anything. For instance, a flatter could create the selection of Superman’s skin with a blue (50c/10m/10y/0k). Obviously, the colorist will change the color to something more appropriate for Superman’s skintone (0c/15m/20y/0k). The colors used to create the selections should not repeat, although it would be perfectly fine to do Superman blue (50c/10m/10y/0k) and his emblem blue (60c/0/m/0y/0k). If the colors used to create selections repeat the colorist can accidentally undo their work.
The flatter must make sure the selections they create are aliased (hard edged), not anti-aliased (blurry edge). Two friends volunteered to show you the difference.
The most important job of a flatter is to ensure the selections—the (colors —) meet up under the line art. This is called trapping. It ensures that if the Black plate moves during printing the art won’t be blurry.
Sometimes you will see someone called a color assistant credited on a comic. A color assistant corrects the flats to the appropriate color scheme, adjusting the colors on the page to be close to the final vision and what the colorist needs so the colorist can handle rendering and finishing touches. In most cases, a color assistant does not render.
Art Skool Damage
Belliare, Jordie: Blog
Feisner, Edith Anderson and Ron Reed. Color Studies, Third Edition. Fairchild Books, New York, NY. 2014
Gurney, James. A Color and Light; A Guide for the Realist Painter.
Gurney, James. Gurney YouTube Channel
Lewis, Jason R: Blog
Robertson, Scott and Thomas Bertling. How To Render; the Fundamentals of Light and Shadow and Reflectivity.
Webster, Kyle: Kylebrush