Colorist on Color: The Introduction

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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.

Fig 1 From this to that! What a change!
Fig. 1: From this to that! What a change!

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.

A color wheel!
A color wheel!

Let’s begin with some BASIC TERMS. Refer back to them when you need to.

File Format

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.


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.

Fig. 2: Eye searing example of posting CMYK TIFF in browser.

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.

Fig 3 RGB & CMYK, this is what the coming colorist war is about.
Fig. 3: RGB and CMYK; this is what the coming colorist war is about.

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.

Fig 4 Flat coloring on Lady Killer by Laura Allred, drawn by Joelle Jones
Fig. 4: Flat coloring on Lady Killer (by Laura Allred; drawn by Joelle Jones).

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.

Examples of Matt Wilson's cut technique, très chic.
Examples of Matt Wilson’s cut technique, tres chic.

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.  

Fig 6. Gene Kong is an example of soft rendering drawn & painted by Pepe Moreno
Fig. 6: Gene Kong is an example of soft rendering (drawn and painted by Pepe Moreno).

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.

Fig 7 Helheim colored by Nick Filardi, line art by Joelle Jones
Fig. 7: Helheim (colored by Nick Filardi; line art by Joelle Jones).

Analyzing Color

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.

Fig 9 Hue, like a rainbow but different!
Fig. 9: Hue, like a rainbow, but different!


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..

Fig 10 An example of desaturated to saturated.
Fig. 10: An example of desaturated to saturated.


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.

Fig 11 A warm (yellow) vase on a cold (blue) background gives lots of focus
Fig. 11: A warm (yellow) vase on a cold (blue) background gives lots of focus.


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.

Fig 12 White, grey & black is the basis of value, but not the whole story
Fig. 12: White, grey, and black is the basis of value, but not the whole story.


These are the selections of colors. Usually these colors are keyed together through value, hue, and/or saturation.

Fig 13 Sailor Moon Backgrounds with corresponding palettes. So cute!
Fig. 13: Sailor Moon Backgrounds with corresponding palettes. So cute!


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.

Rendering process of Justin Ponsor for Guardians of the

Planar Separation

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.

fig 15 Planar Separation/atmospheric perspective illustrated by Jason Lewis
Fig. 15: Planar Separation/atmospheric perspective illustrated by Jason Lewis.

Atmospheric Perspective

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.

Color Hold

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.

Fig. 16: Animation of color holds (by Tamra Bonvillain; line art by Tess Fowler).

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.

Fig 17 an example of rainbow flats
Fig. 17: An example of rainbow flats.
fig 18 flats colored by various colorists. Line art by Kyle Latino
Fig. 18: Flats colored by various colorists (line art by Kyle Latino).

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.

An example of flats to render
Fig. 19: A panel from Escape from New York. Flats with semiopaque lines, flat no line, color and line, and color no line.

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.

Fig 19 Super Mario is aliased. Nice sideburns!
Fig. 20: Super Mario is aliased. Nice sideburns!
Fig 20 Lucatiel is looking for her brother, she is also anti-aliased
Fig. 20: Lucatiel is looking for her brother. She is also anti-aliased.

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.

fig 21 She knows how to put on lipstick, but you wouldn’t know it because the printing plates slipped.
Fig. 21: She knows how to put on lipstick, but you wouldn’t know it because the printing plates slipped.

Color Assistant

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.

fig 22 Taken from Jordie Bellaire’s blog, this shows the stages of flatting, color assisting and coloring. A big jump each time.
Fig. 22: Taken from Jordie Bellaire’s blog; this shows the stages of flatting, color assisting, and coloring. A big jump each time.


Art Skool Damage
Belliare, Jordie: Blog
Feisner, Edith Anderson and Ron Reed. Color Studies, Third Edition. Fairchild Books, New York, NY. 2014
Gurney, James

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

Series NavigationColorist on Color: Interview with Jeremy Colwell >>
Marissa Louise

Marissa Louise

Colorist for DC, Dark Horse, Others

7 thoughts on “Colorist on Color: The Introduction

  1. Hi, I’m new to the process of making comics, and I’m a little confused about something I read.

    OK, so with flattering a comic, in the article, Marissa said the most important job a flatter has is making sure each color section appears directly under the line work so that shifting plates during the printing process aren’t problematic.

    So, if the black outlines misalign during printing, wouldn’t you see the color section located right next to it if each section is meant to stop right under its respective outline? That’s where I’m confused.

    Thank you for your time, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the upcoming colorists articles! I love learning about everything that goes into a comic, it’s honestly amazing!

    -Raven V.

  2. Fantastic article! Looking forward to more. If it helps anyone in the meanwhile, I have a tutorial video covering the bare-bones of our own rendering techniques:

    Sadly in the days before we acquired a solid microphone newer videos have better audio. At any rate, I hope it comes in handy- great article, and happy coloring!

  3. Really looking forward to more of these!
    Can’t wait until you get into the history of comic coloring.

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