We had a chance to talk to longtime colorist Matt Wilson. You can follow Matt on Twitter and buy his shirts and prints on Big Cartel. You work in CMYK, but a lot of young artists are used to the rich purples of RGB. How do you maintain such lush purples in CMYK? I looked at
You work in CMYK, but a lot of young artists are used to the rich purples of RGB. How do you maintain such lush purples in CMYK?
I looked at some of my pages that use purple (the first three issues of Waid/Samnee Daredevil focused on The Purple Man). It’s more about the other colors on the page besides the purple. When I want to use purple as the most important color on the page, I make sure everything else around those purples are doing everything they can to make the purple look better. So, plenty of purple’s complementary color (orange) or a triadic color scheme: purple, green, orange. Another thing is the color’s value. Each color’s value range acts different. You can take some colors to their lighter values, and they still look like a great version of that color. Blue and yellow are like that. Then you’ve got colors like red, which turns pink when you lighten it’s value, and that isn’t always what you want. When purple goes lighter, it can get kind of grey and look a bit dull. So being mindful of that and avoiding it or using it purposefully when needed is crucial when using purple. I think I end up mostly using purple in the middle of it’s value range, where it’s at it’s most potent as a color. Then, when I need to go darker or lighter, I’ll start to slide in to other colors that look good in those value ranges. Since blue looks good both light and dark I’ll lean in to that to aid my purples.
There are times when you use palettes very closely keyed, to the point of almost being monochromatic. How do you decide when to use those? What techniques do you use to keep a wide range of value in Photoshop?
Whenever that approach seems to suit the story is the short answer. I mean, I think it’s super common to use a monochromatic palette in a flashback. Lots of colorists do that. It lets the reader know they’re somewhere or sometime else pretty quickly. Sometimes monochromatic palettes are a good substitute for dark colors in a night scene. The thinking being is that in the dark you see less colors and less contrast. But not always, because maybe the story dictates something else for a night scene. Anyways, I also like to use it to set up a bright pop of color later in a scene. Contrast is crucial to good coloring. So finding ways to play colors, or values, or saturation off each other to make one thing pop and draw the reader’s eye is key to being a good colorist.
Do you read the script?
I read it to get ideas, for sure. I don’t do a lot of rendering in my work, so I’ve got to lean on storytelling with color choices to make my work more interesting. Reading the script helps me do that. Not to say it’s anything special to me. I think most colorists read the script and try to enhance the storytelling. But yeah, the obvious things are enhancing the emotions of the scene with your color choices. Or really selling a setting, like a cold environment. It’s also helpful to have an idea of what’s coming later in the issue, so you can best set yourself up for interesting contrasts and color changes, like going from inside a sterile laboratory and then exiting into a lush jungle. Knowing a jungle is coming up, I’ll steer away from greens in the laboratory seen.
Are there any lighting situations you find particularly challenging?
Somewhere that’s totally red, like in a submarine or something. Red’s a tough color to work with, at least for me it is.
What is your preferred method for dealing with night scenes with out making the coloring too dark?
Oh, I kind of talked about this a bit already. Sometimes I’ll use a smaller value range with less contrast, which can be a good substitute for darker colors. Color temperatures, leaning in to cool colors. Another thing I think colorists don’t realize or forget when they’re starting out is that if the artist has laid down a lot of black in a night scene, that’s the dark color for your night scene. So you can use that to your advantage. The heavy use of black will convey most of that night scene to the reader, and then the colors can play more with saturation and temperature instead of dark values.
How many layers do you work on?
Differs depending on the project. But, my base that’s kind of common no matter what is, from bottom to top, a layer with flat colors in it, a layer to color on, a layer for color holds, a layer for the line art, and then a layer for glows/FX that go above the lineart. Sometimes a few of those layers multiply in to 2 or 3 layers, if I want to keep certain elements separate. Like I want to keep two different colored glows separate in case I want to change my mind later, I’ll put them on separate layers. Sometimes I’ll add some texture layers, or broad atmospheric gradients, or something like that. Those will be in their own layers. On The Mighty Thor, I have a group of layers just above the colors, but below the lineart usually called “Texture/atmos.” That’ll be a layer with a texture in it set to something like Overlay, and then two other layers (one for shadows and one for highlights) in which I do, kind of broad environmental darkening or lightening in a scene. So three to five minimum, and then up to as many as needed. Um, I guess good examples of both ends of the spectrum would be a Paper Girls page on the low end, and Thor or a glow-heavy page of The Wicked + The Divine would be on the high end.
Do you make your on Photoshop brushes?
Barely. I’ve made a few, but use a ton of different brushes from various places. So a very small percentage are made by me. I think that’s a neat process, but I just don’t take the time to do that. I have a lot of brushes that do what I need, and I’ll experiment with new ones as I find them, but overall, I feel like I have almost everything I really need.
What do you do when you get stuck on a page?
Move on and work something else, like color a cover or something small and totally different from what I’m stuck on. Or not work at all. Like, take the dogs for a walk. I feel like the problem will work itself out in my head while I do other things. It’s rare for me to get completely stuck on a page or scene. It’s usually just one aspect of a page and often I can just work my way through a block like that. But the times where it’s just not working at all, then yeah, it’s best just to get up and do something else for a while.
Wonder Woman and Paper Girls with Cliff Chiang are a really great example of how color can affect the mood of the line art. Both books have similar line art, similar palettes, similar choices in rendering, but look totally different. Can you speak on the differences of WW & PG?
Yeah, big difference to the approach in those two books. When we set out to do Wonder Woman, Cliff and I worked a lot on the look before we finally felt like we figured it out. We had never worked together, so there’s always a process to figure out each others likes and dislikes in that situation and that can take some time. If I remember correctly, it was mostly about the approach to rendering the characters that we played with the most. Specific palettes weren’t really a concern when building the look for Wonder Woman. We didn’t shy away from saturated colors, because that often plays well in superhero books, but we didn’t put desaturated palettes off limits either. I was pretty much free to wander from palette to palette, applying whatever suited the scene best. That said, we did have a kind of overall direction in mind which was kind of “Pixar pretty,” basically. We wanted it to feel very alive and vibrant, and in a sophisticated way.
In terms of rendering, my approach was again inspired by something like a Pixar movie. I painted a fair amount of texture and detail in to the backgrounds and kept the characters a bit more simple. That said, certain aspects of characters would receive a bit more rendering, often to accentuate a certain material (like the metal of WW’s bracelets/tiara) or enhance a unique surface texture (Hephastus’ skin). So, a simpler approach to the characters, but with attention paid to a lot of little details, which contrasted nicely with the more heavily textured backgrounds. If you look at our whole run on Wonder Woman, you can see we adjust some of the rendering on characters, particularly the way we handled their skin. We simplified it more and more as the run went on, having a shift about once a year (so twice that I can remember over the three-year run). A lot of this was driven by Cliff and wanting to slowly simplify certain things in his drawings.
In my job, I color a lot of different art styles and color most of them in different ways. So creatively speaking, I’m almost always satisfied with the variety I get to have in my work. If there are certain things I can’t do on one book, I can most likely play with those on another book. So I’m seldom bored, and I’m never tempted to try and force a style or approach on the wrong art. Another benefit to this is, if the artist on a book has something they’d like to try I’m always open to trying it. If it’s not what I first had in mind, that’s okay. I can try what I had in mind on another book at another time.
So, when Cliff says, “I’d love to see this type of rendering,” I’m happy to take his note and give him my version of it. It’s never extremely strict like, “Make this shadow exactly like this.” More like a loose framework for me to launch my ideas off of. Since Cliff’s input has to pass through my brain, and my instincts, and my preferences, the end result is very much a hybrid of both of our ideas. Anyways, all that’s to say that Cliff’s input was never seen as me being “told what to do.” It was always a great give and take between two creative people, bouncing their ideas off each other, and coming up with an end product we were both very happy with. [This is] how a good collaborative partnership should work, for those just starting out or not as familiar with the comic drawing and coloring process.
So, by the time we get to our last year of Wonder Woman, we are already trying things that would go on to inform how we approach Paper Girls. Cliff started making the interior lines on characters easy for me to select and make a color, rather than leaving them black. I began to flatten out the rendering on character’s skin more and more. I even tried out a much more monochromatic palette in one of our final scenes in Wonder Woman.
Starting Paper Girls, Cliff and I had the benefit of having a three-year long working relationship and a pretty good technical process down (in terms of how he sets up files before giving them to me). So we didn’t have to build all of that up like we did when starting Wonder Woman. However, Cliff knew from the beginning that he wanted Paper Girls to have a completely different look than Wonder Woman. He made changes in the way he was drawing and wanted me to change my approach to the coloring to fit the vision he had for our new series. We talked about it when we’d see each other at cons or on the phone. We started a private Pinterest board so Cliff could show me examples of specific things he was thinking about. We gave ourselves so much lead time that the first issue was half colored, then recolored, and then completely tweaked again once I colored all the pages months before it ever hit the stands.
In contrast to figuring out Wonder Woman’s colors, we focused specifically on the kinds of palettes we wanted Paper Girls to have. As you can see, palettes is the defining feature of the color in Paper Girls. We’ve gone even simpler in Paper Girls and stripped almost all of the rendering out of the colors. But before we talk about the rendering, let’s start with our palettes. Cliff envisioned a very pale and often desaturated look to the colors, with interesting accent colors used in less literal ways and more in service to the design. We wanted to reduce our palettes down, simplify them, and rely heavily on playing contrasting color temperatures off of each other. A lot of muted cools-to-neutrals and then a pop of pastel warmth, things like that. With the overall palette being so desaturated our more saturated pops of colors don’t actually have to be that saturated on their own to stand out surrounded by the muted colors. There are some interesting color combinations playing in that space.
We talked about things like how in illustration when you only have one image you can often use colors in some interesting ways that are harder to pull off in sequential art. Because you don’t have to worry about how a color will sit in a scene that goes on for many panels over many pages. You can place an interesting accent in a particular spot in an illustration and because you’ve framed everything just so, you know it will work. But move the camera around the scene and that color may not work as well in certain panels if it’s not thoroughly thought out before hand. I wanted to try and find interesting accents that are mostly there because of how they work in color theory, and if I can find a way that they make sense in the environment as well, then that’s great. But we’re much less interested in our Paper Girls palettes conveying an animated reality, like Pixar does and like we did in Wonder Woman. It also helps that the first arc of our story takes place in the ’80s, which are well known for the use of pastel colors. Another aspect to the palettes is using fewer actual colors. Reducing them as far as I can and still convey all the info that needs to be conveyed. Cliff and I are both very interested in playing with graphic shapes in the inks and colors. So that had a lot to do with the palettes and approach to the colors as a whole.
Speaking of simple graphic shapes, we weren’t looking to interrupt those shapes with a lot of rendering. The heavier use of texture I put in the backgrounds of Wonder Woman is gone. Instead are small ticks and a much lighter texture used in fewer, much more specific cases. I try to limit my gradients as well and see if I can convey the same feeling with flat colors. The characters clothing often has the most mark-making on the page, showing the folds of heavy fabric. But even then, we want the contrast between the shadows and non shadow to be pretty low. Nothing too high contrast in this book. Subtlety is key in the colors to Paper Girls. Subtle palettes and subtle rendering, an overall light touch. Which is much different than the more painterly style employed in Wonder Woman.