Making Comics Part 4-Coloring

So, we have continued the odyssey that is making comics, and here we are: coloring. I will tell you up front that coloring is probably what I have the least experience with (coloring comics, anyway), so I’m still working it all out, even as I write this.

The first thing you have to think about when coloring something is quite simple: does it NEED color? Do you WANT color? Color is an excellent way of setting the tone of a scene, but some stories are better off without color. Think about the Walking Dead. It’s one of the most successful modern comics, and wouldn’t it be odd if the books were in color? Any number of horror books benefit from black and white, it sets a darker, edgier tone. Same with a genre like Noir books. However, any genre can pull off black and white if done well. Look at the previously mentioned Usagi Yojimbo, or Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus. Totally different books that look great in black and white. Art from Punk Rock Jesus by Sean Murphy:


Also, speaking quite practically, black and white is much cheaper to print. I discovered this while making my mini comics, and now black and white is my best friend. If you do decide to work in black and white, you will be doing a lot of work with the inks and with shading. But when done right it really does look good.

Now, if you do decide to work in color, it can be tough at first, but it is rewarding. My web comics I get to do in color, because it doesn’t cost anything to put them online. And through this, I get to learn a lot by trial and error. Mostly error. Let me tell you something: color theory is complicated. I’ve read a couple books on coloring comics, and I still have only scratched the surface of color theory. Dealing with warm colors and cool colors, or complimentary colors, it’s all a bit confusing when you jump right in. That being said, you don’t need to have a degree in color theory to work on coloring comics (though I’m sure it helps). Like most things, I just started doing stuff and saw what worked. But, there is a process to coloring comics.

By the time you get ready to color your comic, all of the inking will be done. So, if it helps, you can think of this as sort of like a coloring book. Those inked lines are what you should stay inside. Unless of course your story calls for messy coloring. That can be really cool sometimes. Once you’ve looked at the inked art and decided what base color everything will be, it’s time to add the flats. When I started making comics, I had no idea what flats were, I just thought you colored stuff. But a flat is the base color of something. That is, for example, the color of skin before you factor in any sources of light or darkness in the shot. This gives the drawing color that looks very flat (ha, get it?!) but helps for rendering later. Whether you are doing your coloring traditionally or digitally, it’s the same. Lay down those flats! When you do it digitally, coloring the flats will help to separate parts of the image in the future. So when you want to render some pants, you can use the Magic Wand tool and click on the pants, and you won’t go outside of those lines. It’s pretty neat stuff, really. Flats tend to take me a really long time. Partly because I’m still learning, and partly because you have to make sure everyone and everything in the shot has color! So I have to spend time lassoing everything (I color digitally most the time) and filling it with color.

Once you’ve done your flats, then you get to have some real fun. It’s time to render everything. Rendering is adding in shades of color, basically. It’s when you decide, for instance, that the light is right over head, so the top of someone’s head is lighter, and the shadows are cast toward the bottom of the face or neck. It’s making the folds in clothing look darker. It’s giving highlights in hair. Get the idea? Rendering something is what turns a flat image into something more life like. Colors that are rendered look much more realistic. Think about all the things you see in everyday life. How many of them are one flat color? Probably none of them. Now, you do want to be careful, because I think there are times when I have over rendered, and it’s looked sort of rough. But, as I said, I’m working on it, so maybe I’ll get it one day.

Of course, you can also play around with color. I find some of the best color jobs use many shades of one color. For example, everything is a shade of red. This can be a trick of light, or to set an emotion. If something was colored using all red, the reader would get the indication that there was something intense happening, or someone had a lot of anger. Good colorists can pretty much do anything with color.

Have a look at this picture, I think Hellboy comics have some of the best coloring in the industry.


I’m not sure who colored this particular image, but you can see the different uses of reds, blues, grays, and yellows paint a darker story. I recommend you read Hellboy as is, but while you’re doing so, really pay attention to the use of color. It’s pretty unique.

Once you’ve rendered everything, and you’re happy with it, you’re done. That is, however, easier than it sounds. You have to weigh every stroke you make to render against a lot of questions. What’s the lighting? What’s the tone? Does this color choice make sense? Like everything else, and like I said before, it’s all about clarity. You also don’t want your colors to over power your drawing. Making a comic is about everything working together in harmony. So if the color is too distracting, you’ll want to reconsider. Part of the art of coloring is standing out while not being seen. I hope that made sense, because it sounded pretty cool.

Recommended Reading

DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics by Mark Chiarello and Todd Klein

Hi-Fi Color for Comics by Brian and Kristy Miller

The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing Comics by Comfort Love and Adam Withers

And, as always, read comics and study them! Join me again soon for the art of lettering.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s