Charles Willeford

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section three
chapter eight
color and design

When I took color theory classes in art school I was sure they were utterly useless. Since that time I've concluded they were only marginally useless. They give you a few building blocks. You find out what the opposite of each color is, what a value is and how it's distinguished from a hue, the effect of warm colors versus cool colors. This is all worthwhile for comic work.

fig 1
for those with java-enabled browsers:
At left is my illustration of the writer Charles Willeford.

Pass your mouse over the image to see the black replaced by bluelines.

The colors seem paler, though they haven't changed.

Colors seem richer and punchier with black outlines, something for which colorists should adjust by using less saturation.

Still, there are folks out there with color sense. Charles Burns, Jean Giraud, Laura Allred, Seth, and Richmond Lewis come to mind. I saw a faux-vintage Avengers comic by Bruce Timm that imitated the old Silver Age Marvel coloring (which was beautiful, by the way). Mark Chiarrello is a gifted colorist. So it can be done. Here are some things to keep in mind while coloring.

The Best Color is White

Remember the 1970s Kirby comics inked by Royer where a panel with a white background and no borders would suddenly appear? It was so refreshing. White often organizes layouts more pleasingly than color. And even more crucial than white space is saturation. Roughly speaking, saturation is the concentration of pigment in a color. Colors that are more saturated mask more white. Modern comics lay the ink on so dark and heavily that the natural glow of the paper never cuts through. Colors should incorporate the paper´s color. Muted colors are nicer to look at.

The Second Best Color is Black

Inking as an art form is, for all practical purposes, dead. Brush inking is a discipline few today manage to master. But there's another less obvious reason for the craft's demise. All the overcolored, airbrushed computer coloring in mainstream comics drowns out ink lines. Inkers today are reduced to manufacturing scratchy guidelines for overwrought colorists.

Something like the opposite used to be true. Inkers would give the drawing its depth. Coloring on the old newsprint was pale and faded. The inker´s black outlines would give substance to the colors (fig 1). Today, the colorist is the dominant artist. Pencillers seem to draw endless splash pages and inkers seem to have dipped a chicken´s feet in ink and let it prance around on the paper. It´s all so generic that the visual identity of mainstream comics now lies in the coloring.

Good colorists never obscure an ink line. When you drop that blue into the highlight areas of Superman's hair it should never be so dark that you lose all that pretty Wayne Boring feathering. Of course, the slick paper doesn't help. There's nothing so attractive as the way newsprint absorbs colors (as Moebius noted when he insisted Marvel print his Silver Surfer book on newsprint).

Showing off the black line is the same challenge as showing off the white paper. Both involve avoiding saturation. Choose colors that are muted enough to feature the inks rather than smother them. Remember, black lines make colors "pop."

Avoid Primary Colors

Mint is usually better than emerald. Tan is better than brown. You get the idea. If you look at Herge´s coloring in Tintin it'll look strong and primary, but if you actually try to match his colors you'll find they're quite pastel. Similarly, good painters almost never use colors directly from the tube with no mixing. Good coloring is often about finding a shade just outside the primary shade.

Forget the Effects

Computers are wonderful. They're especially good at reducing the costs that prevent entry into fields of endeavor. People who can't afford rent on a comic shop can now open an online store with very little overhead. People who can't handle Dr. Marten dyes can color and "undo" their mistakes with a click of the mouse. The only problem is that the people with the discipline to master Dr. Marten dyes are more likely to be those with the discipline to use good taste.

Today's colorists are trigger-happy with their airbrush, lens flare, and transparency effects. Twenty years ago a painted comic like Richard Corben´s Den was a fascinating oddity. Today computers have made it easy for every comic to be "painted." Unfortunately, nobody bothered to notice that painted comics are
with very rare exception awful.

I actually use an occasional painterly daub when I color, but I model it more on the old cover coloring of Silver Age comics. It's limited, and it rarely does anything but accent effects in the inking. If you can comfortably do this, try it. But if your tendency is to use the effects to cover up a lack of basic design, force yourself to use flat colors and give your readers a break.

Fewer is Better

Try to pick a featured color on a page, and then pick a few supporting colors. Stick with one variant of each major color. Don't have several different shades of red on the same page. Use your eyedropper to replicate colors and limit your palette.

Coloring should have a clear storytelling function, and that function is primarily to organize. A full spectrum of emotions and visual depth are best served by a limited palette of basic (but not primary) colors.

Bear these thoughts in mind and you'll be the next Winsor McKay. You might also read the coloring sections of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson's Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life and Norman Rockwell's Rockwell on Rockwell for further insight and inspiration.

Coloring is the most important and least appreciated function in cartooning. We have to pay special attention to make sure it isn't abused so badly that it destroys comic art for good.

fig 2 examples that say it all.


Prince Valiant Colors
White can help organize an image.
Art by Harold Foster

Teen Titan Colors
Values that are too similar and too much saturation add to clutter.
Art by George Perez

Underwater Colors
Muted colors support line-
work and lend depth.
Art by Chester Brown

Fighting American Colors
Dark colors and too much shading flatten an image. Is this even inked?
Art by Rob Leifeld


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artist profile

Modern comic colorists, however, don't need more building blocks. They need damage control. Colorists should be doing much, much less. They're using too many colors, too much ink, too many effects. Comics look sleazy and grotesque with all their phallic airbrushing, cheesy transparency effects, and modeling. As Miles once told Monk, today's colorists need to "just sit out" more.




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