One of the great revelations of the Study Group site for myself and some others I’ve talked to, has been the transformation of DANGER COUNTRY from sparse, wide open black and white line drawings to deceptively simple but insanely lush full color. The addition of color to DC revealed something to me that I should have realized before, from his stand alone illustrations: Levon Jihanian has a badass color sense. I’m not the only one who noticed: I Will Destroy You is set to release a print version of Danger Country sometime this year. I asked Levon if he wouldn’t mind summing up his thoughts on coloring for the SG blog and he kindly obliged with the following insightful essay. (zs)
I’ve been getting some positive feedback on my coloring, and while it is only a relatively minor part of making comics, it’s also something I’m very proud of.
You can get good instructions on the technical aspect of digital coloring on Dustin Harbin’s blog here: http://www.dharbin.com/blog/how-i-do-it-coloring/ . This article is just a series of my own extremely valuable opinions.
I think that most proper cartoonists make color decisions without really thinking about them. Maybe they read up on color theory or took a class on it, but it’s counterintuitive to see color and aesthetics as a “science”. I’m not trying to say there’s only one way to approach color, but to me it’s important to be able to justify to myself my different color choices, so I set some rules for myself. Here they are.
This photo was taken during a big fire just off the highway. Light and color are the prettiest when they show us more than what we expect.)
1. Iconic vs. Real
The first question you want to ask yourself when coloring is do you want your colors to tell the truth, or do you want them to give the illusion of your own subjective reality? Yes this is a loaded question, and yes, the correct answer is you want your colors to tell the truth. By the truth, I mean that your colors should tell the reader about the characters, situation, mood, or whatever. Our brains simplify and compartmentalize certain things into certain colors. I mean…the sky is blue, right? and grass is green? right? right? WRONG. The full spectrum of color is alive in all things. Trees have purples in them. There are really very few limitations you should place on yourself for the sake of making something look “realistic” because your human perception of reality can not be trusted.
You can use color to codify your characters. Spider-man can walk through a rainy forest for a day and even though he’s covered in mud, he’s still bright red and blue. Why? because in a comic you’re responsible for upholding the truth and in Spider-man comics, Spider-man is red, black, and blue*.
Color can be used for more than describing what something looks like. A color can set the mood or simply make the panel look pretty. Realism can really limit all the different tools you have at your disposal.
2. Color the page, not the thing
I decided that each page, or even spread, should be treated as one picture. even though the reader reads one panel at a time, she also sees the whole page at once. It’s important to me that the page looks cohesive most of the time. The exception to the rule is when changing scenes within a page. I think the reason for this is that you want to use the color identity of the page to be a bigger representation of the scene.
The first 2 pages of Danger country has a broader color palette than the rest of the first chapter because it’s a sort of quick overview of the entire world, and I wanted to make it colorful to bring a sense of wonder.
The nighttime scene uses a medium brown in place of the black because I wanted to keep the values sort of close together so that the fire and the night sky end up making it a little harder to see a lot what’s going on in the foreground. Lack of contrast makes it hard for the eye to settle on any one area of the panel, and that makes it look more chaotic. That’s the plan, anyway.
The third scene is actually 2 scenes. Evan’s encounter with the elves and Evan’s encounter with Uncle Rodger. I wanted it to begin as a stark contrast to the previous scene, so the darks are much darker and the light areas are much lighter. I also wanted to use cooler colors (greens and blues). As Evan speaks more and more to Uncle Rodger, I wanted the background sky to shift subtly from grey to pink. This was for a couple of reasons. 1) I wanted to codify the scene as being separate from the encounter with the elves, and 2) I wanted to give the illusion of sunset, and bring a sense of urgency, gravity and intensity to Rodger’s wound situation.
3. Color wheels work, damn it.
When coloring on a computer, easy access to a million colors sometimes makes me feel lost. A lot of colorists decide to extremely limit their palette, but I don’t think that works either. A color wheel is a good compass when I have certain set colors I have to work with (like the colors of a character’s costume), and I’m trying to figure out what color to use next. I can go into a whole art school basic color theory lesson here, but instead I’ll direct you to this page that I found by googling color wheel. http://www.tigercolor.com/color-lab/color-theory/color-theory-intro.htm Check out the parts about color harmonies and warm vs. cool colors.
Again, don’t let realism bog you down. Coming up with a good color harmony outranks color expectations any day. This is why I think of a blue sky as the page killer. Speaking of blue…
4. Blue is not a color.
Blue is not a color. What I mean is, blue is not just 1 color. Blue is like 3 or 4 different colors. Treat blue very carefully. If you don’t want it to print as green, go into the color palette in photoshop and make sure there is no yellow by clicking on the “Y” field and putting it to 0%. Use the color picker or swatch palette at your own risk. I’m not saying “don’t use blue”. I’m just saying to try not to use more than 1 kind of blue (navy/teal/aqua/royal) per page. You can make it work if you’re Kali Ceismier or you want to spend a week on it and pull your hair out. But really, just cool it with the blues.
5. Swatches are dumb
Before I started coloring a page, I used to set up a series of swatches first, and place them together and see if they worked. Or sometimes I would make multiple color versions of the same thing and chase my wife around to get her opinion on which she thought was better. It’s just self-torture. Now I just use the hue adjustment slider, and click the preview on and off until I find something that works. Just trust your instincts and don’t dwell on it.
6. Break it, then fix it. (The 4 color rule)
One thing that I do is I try to keep my color brain tuned by doing a safe color harmony, and then adding a stupid color like purple or teal, and then adjust things to make it work. It’s easy to default to proven color harmonies that have worked for you in the past. I think people really notice and respond to when you change things up so it’s sort of important to do it. Use 4 colors at the very least.
7. Put some yellow on it.
This is sort of an indie comics secret passed down from cartoonist to cartoonist. Jordan Crane taught it to me. If you add 4-8% yellow on top of everything, it just makes everything more cohesive. I personally like to use a multiply layer, but that’s your call. It is like magic. I’ve also begun using other colors as panel overlays, for different effects or just to add variety or shift the mood.
8. Web and print are different.
A note about web vs. print. On the web you lose a little bit of control over colors but it’s sort of forgiving. You can add some black to your colors or some dirty texture, as I do with Danger Country. But for each page, I create separate web and print versions. The print version doesn’t have that dirty paper texture, because paper can get dirty all by itself. It doesn’t need my help.
This is also when you have problems with the blue. Blue is insanely hard to print right. It always comes out darker, and greener than you expect. Then you yell at the printer and the printer gets all pissed at you and hangs a picture up of you in the bathroom with a mustache and goatee. And there are a bunch of darts sticking out of it.
I keep remembering more and more rules. A lot of this stuff comes from doing it for a long time and messing up a lot. Or they are just approaches that worked for me. Obviously there is more than one way to skin a cat. All of these rules can be broken. I think they’re just there so that I don’t stagnate with indecision. The most important thing is to come up with rules for yourself, and form your own opinions, and let the inner essence of your being shine through onto the page.
* Except for when he isn’t. But that’s a whole other thing.
Color Theory 101 - http://www.tigercolor.com/color-lab/color-theory/color-theory-intro.htm
Kali Ciesmier – http://www.ciesemeier.com
and while we’re at it, Sam Bosma – http://sbosma.com
Jeff Soto (always pushing his own color palette) – http://jeffsoto.com
Dustin Harbin’s Article on coloring - http://www.dharbin.com/blog/how-i-do-it-coloring/
Jordan Crane (everything has a 8% layer of yellow on it) – http://whatthingsdo.com
The legendary and a little outdated Re Pro Guide (some still-useful tips on offset printing and setting up your color files among other awesome things) - http://www.scribd.com/doc/86312853
- Levon Jihanian