Today I’m going to go over how I color comics in n Photoshop. I put a slideshow of the stages I go through in the header. It’ll loop if you miss a slide.

I don’t use flats. I approach coloring digitally, like I paint. When I paint, the first thing I seek to do is get rid of the white of the canvas. Classically, painters tone the canvas with an earth color, or in the Venetian tradition, sometimes a warm or cool color. Then everything is built from that middle tone. All the major problems of a painting are solved as drawing. You can see this in the Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci, and in Rembrandt’s unfinished Christ Before Pilate. Both are monochromatic, and I take my cue from studying these images. I place a warm middle tone over the entire page, after masking out the panel borders. I don’t use anything fancy for the masks, just a layer above the color panel and then I lay in white where I want the panel borders. Then I lock the layer.


Rembrandt’s unfinished Christ Before Pilate.

Then I roughly place the desired colors where I want them. In the case of the falling flowers and pile of flowers, I remember my old painting professor told me to vary the temperature of red when used in a painting. Red is a tricky color, since it can’t be ignored, visually. I use a warm red and then a cool red, which is simply reds that tend toward magenta and veer toward orange. It has everything to do with how much yellow is in it. Pure unmitigated red has no yellow in it, but that is not perceptual red. Perceptual red is stop sign, bleeding red. Kansas City Chiefs red (GO CHIEFS!).

I’m an old school comics color kind of guy. I don’t like color that overcomes the drawing, so I try, I try, to keep the coloring a balance between the kind of color seen in Alex Toth’s ZORRO from the 1950s, and using dodging and burning, and a shadow layer above the color to give the comics some sense of volume. My pages where Grandpa Blue is out in the woods, with sun dappling through the tree canopy, uses a lot of the cool things you can do with digital layering.

After I lay in the general color scheme, I zoom in on each panel and play around with edges. I LIKE the squirrely coloring of Silver Age comics, with misregistering and goofy mistakes printers make. I also am thinking of the way Matisse and Raoul Dufy colored their paintings. My years as a painter keep coming back into my experience of doing this comics series. Sitting in front of The Piano Player at the MOMA has its effect.

Detail from page 26 of Blueboy Brown.

I learned much of the digital stuff from studying the work of Rick Berry, old friend of nearly fifty years. He began the digital illustration age in the early 80s with his cover of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. He tells me the computer he used to make the cover was the size of a fifteen-foot Uhaul trailer. This is before the Mac and desktop publishing. Did it at MIT. Who else had the hardware?

I’m glad I don’t have to go through all that. I do all the drawing that is the meat and potatoes on bristol board with a Bic mechanical pencil. Thank you Alex Toth. I owe a lot to him, including learning to read from his ZORRO in 1957. He is truly grand. My main influences in drawing are every master artist I’ve seen whose work could inform mine, but especially Rembrandt, da Vinci, Picasso (classical period and Vollard Suite), and Matisse’s simplicity. In comics, probably Alex Toth and Curt Swan. For both artists, IMHO, I believe their best work was in the late 50s and early 60s. I’m nuts about Toth and Swan when he was inked by Stan Kaye and Ray Burnley.


Curt Swan/Stan Kaye Superman daily.

Okay, so now I’m playing around with edges. I have a detail here that explains that. I don’t want perfect edges, like current digital coloring, which is great, but in my comics, I’m evoking a time over a century ago, and so I want a retro feel to it. I grew up in the 50s and 60s, and my favorite comics are from that era, Curt Swan’s Supes, Carmine Infantino’s The Flash, Gil Kane’s The Green Lantern, Ditko’s Spiderman, Kirby’s awesome run at Marvel, Dick Ayers’ western comics (big fan of Ayers). And Alex Toth, whatever he was doing was great. Didn’t matter if it was Zorro or Sea Hunt, or The Real McCoys. Toth’s the Man.

Alex Toth's Zorro.

Alex Toth’s Zorro.

So I’m also looking at the entire page. Is it balanced? Does it flow from one page to another, without the reader getting stuck, wondering what’s going on? Is the fictive dream maintained? That’s the task of both writer and artist, which is why I write my own stuff. It took a long time to get to the point where I felt like I was able to return to comics, after the dreadful 1970s. Bad time to be a rebellious crud like me, unable or unwilling to work for anyone. I didn’t get any inkling anyone thought I had promise until that Dale Luciano piece in The Comics Journal. “Major talent’? Huh? Me? I ignored it for forty years.

Back to the technical aspects of coloring. In Photoshop, there is a brush that is a pastel, which has uneven edges. I use that most of the time. Then I blend things with the same brush, but use the smudge tool. If you tap it, instead of dragging it around, it disperses the area like you’d hit watercolor with water. So it can look like a pastel drawing or a watercolor painting. I’ll do a little vid of me doing it.

Edges are maybe the most important thing you do, because done correctly, it causes the form to either stand out, or turn, fold around, which is what half of drawing in two dimensions is about. The edges should agree with the underlying drawing.
When it’s all finished, I do the lettering in Illustrator. That’s for another post.

Comments are welcome.

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