“Comics Color” article from CC #2


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hey Everyone,

This is an article on color I did for CC#2. I’m posting it here because my friends keep telling me they haven’t read it. I tell them there is a free pdf of the issue on the CC blog, but still they don’t read it. Maybe they’ll read it now. Thanks.
Make It Loud: Comics Color, Kevin Nowlan, and Cosmic Depth
by Frank Santoro

Until the early 1990s, most color comics were produced in the same way they’ve been made for nearly one hundred years. The artist drew the comic in black-and-white and then, for the most part, provided the printer with a guide of some sort to color the comic by. These guides would have been anything from simple color sketches to hand-colored photostats or Xeroxes of the black-and-white line art. Engraving plates would be created by the printer for four different colors: red, blue, yellow, and black. In combination, and with the help of screens, these would produce a limited but comprehensive palette. There was no guarantee, however, that the vision of the artist and the reality of what came off the press would match. Photoshop did not yet exist. There was no way to preview the results.

Despite this, I still love the idea of the subtle collaboration between the artist and the folks on the press, and even the old printing press itself. The old assembly line process has all but disappeared from comics, but there’s a warmth to the color comics made in that era that I don’t feel in those made with today’s precise computer-regulated printing techniques. The hand isn’t there in the artwork or on the press. Color separations produced in Photoshop strike me as somehow lacking. Not everyone agrees. Kevin Nowlan, one of the rare mainstream comics artists who colors his own work, has noted that today’s coloring “can be overpowering. Too much airbrush, too many effects, distracting textures,” he says. “But that’s a problem with the colorist, not Photoshop. A little restraint goes a long way.” While this is true, it’s worth mentioning that Nowlan was afforded the hands-on experience of learning how to produce color comics the old-fashioned way. He implicitly understood the limitation of the four-color process and with it was able to produce one of the most striking and vibrant color comics ever made: Outsiders Annual #1, published by DC Comics in 1986.
I asked the artist recently how the opportunities to color his own artwork came up. “After I’d done as few stories and covers that were colored by other people, I started asking the editors if I could do my own guides,” Nowlan says. “Most of them were agreeable. There was some resistance when I asked to do guides for the Outsiders story. The editor was okay with it but called back rather sheepishly and explained that I’d have to send in some samples before they’d let me do it.” The “guides” were what I was interested in—how exactly did a colorist do his or her job with the four-color process? For a long time, I believed that the colorist actually “cut” the separations for the letterpress, much like rubyliths are cut for a silkscreen press.* Actually, the “cutting” of the individual colors out of film to create the color plates was generally done by a middleman called a “separation house.” The colorist would provide the “separator” with hand-colored Xeroxes of the line art. These color guides would also have codes written across each color on the page that corresponded with a list of all the available colors on the press. The separator would then literally separate the four colors into distinct plates.

There were only four plates, but there were also countless variations possible if techniques such as overprinting (yellow and red make orange) and screens (a dotted, finely screened red looks pink).

If the separator was conscientious with the colorist’s guides and carefully prepared the film, the final printed comic would resemble the hand-colored guides. If they were careless about following the guides, and about interpreting each tiny shape of each color, then the results could be disastrous.

Poorly registered colors, unplanned overprinting, and a sense that coloring jobs were rushed are very common in old comics. Things changed in the 1990s. Photoshop has made separation houses obsolete. The colorist now “cuts” his or her own separations, but not by hand. “There’ve been two big changes for me,” says Nowlan. “First, colorists are now colorist/separators. If I’m doing my own coloring I don’t have to work with a separator. I can get exactly the results I want. Secondly, if I’m working with a colorist, it can be a real collaboration. They send the separations to me and I can make changes before the story sees print. In the old days, you didn’t see the mistakes until it was too late.”

In the old days, the discrepancy between the colors that the colorist indicated on the guides and the way the comic actually looked when it was printed was often quite large. Nowadays, that problem is “very slight and rare”, according to Nowlan. “There are fewer hands spoiling the broth. [But back then] no one saw what the colors would look like until the book was on press. The guides were done with watercolor or marker and the separator was working with film. Running proofs was expensive and time-consuming so you had to just imagine what it would look like when it was printed.” To most of today’s comic artists, who’ve never had to deal with this limitation, the idea must be unthinkable. There was simply no way to really “preview” what the comic would look like in its final form. Although I’ll admit this is an improvement and is ultimately a better process, I feel something has been lost now that the separations are, generally, not done by hand. There is a warmth in hand-cut separations that I don’t feel with those “cut” in Photoshop. “I wouldn’t want to recreate the separations with the old process,” argues Nowlan. “The only thing worse than that would be those Zipatone overlays that we used for hand separations at Fantagraphics. Tedious doesn’t begin to describe that process.”

Was there anything about the old process that he missed in today’s comics? “I liked the softness of it,” Nowlan says. “It didn’t seem to overpower the line work as much as modern coloring can. The limited palette pushed us towards a visual shorthand that works well with comics.” Indeed, very familiar and traditional coloring techniques have been marginalized. Certain looks that almost all comics once shared (such as “knocking out” backgrounds with one solid color or assigning a single color to a character—or even a whole page or sequence) are now rare. Some of the old accepted shorthand techniques walked a tightrope between realism and symbolism: a nighttime landscape would often be depicted with orange and blue, or a tense horror comic moment would be colored in greens and purples. These colors signaled a mood, and while this is still possible today, the inherent limitations of the four-color process helped create a shared language of color. And if the available colors and their compact combinations became a language first, they became a musical score second. Certain “phrasings” and “harmonies” were established like a jazz scat singing style. Although each comic had its own tone, they were all bound by this slang, all derived from the same set of colors. With today’s technology, there is a tendency in comics to color everything “naturally”, like in a movie or animation. All surfaces are modeled with perfect shadows, fades, and effects, leaving little to the imagination. Think of Shrek. Now think of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. It’s a question of taste, sure, but doesn’t this trend say something about language and communication? We seem to have replaced the symbolic with the hyper-real, and in the process, lost a lot of depth of feeling.“I miss the old flat colors,” Nowlan admitted. “But we can still do that with Photoshop. Editors are resistant to it and sometimes insist on rendering-for-rendering’s-sake, but I like seeing a variety of approaches, from flat coloring to heavily modeled. My own work tends to be somewhere in between.”

Keep in mind that the way colors are created is not the only factor in this change. There have also been lots of changes with the paper stock in the last twenty years. Almost all mainstream comics are now printed on bright white glossy paper. When the new brighter, white Baxter** paper came out it in the mid-1980s, it was a shock, as the old palette suddenly printed brighter than before and made even the most subdued colors look garish. “When they started printing on the good paper, with offset presses instead of letterpress, many of the [old] coloring rules had to be discarded,” Nowlan says. “The colors were no longer subdued by the soft, light tan paper. Everything became too bright and intense. In the old days, subtlety in color choices had been discouraged but now it’s essential if you don’t want to blind the readers.“When Baxter paper was introduced, new possibilities seemed to be opening up. One of the nicest things about the offset printing was that the blacks were finally solid black. As much as I like the letterpress/newsprint look, it was very inconsistent. We all got used to seeing the black ink looking like a dark gray. If any of the four colors were run a little light [on the press], it threw everything off.”

Seen in this light, Nowlan’s Outsiders Annual work is all the more impressive. Printed with the relatively brand new process that utilized an offset press as opposed to a letterpress, and the white Baxter paper instead of newsprint, Nowlan was able to craft a color comic with an inventive palette that was at once forward-looking and conscious of tradition. In my opinion, it’s a big moment in comics history. (Remember, this was a four-color comic made with separations cut by hand, not a full-process book like The Dark Knight Returns, which was painted. The color separations for the painted Dark Knight pages were separated photographically by a camera, not by hand.) Here was one of the first high-profile comics from a major publisher made with the new process, and it didn’t just work, it actually raised the bar. There were, of course, comics printed on Baxter paper before Nowlan’s Outsiders Annual but for the most part they were eye-popping disasters. Nowlan’s contribution was to make use of the “look” of the new colors—beautiful pinks, soft fluorescent greens—that were next to impossible to achieve in the old way. His choices and arrangement of the new palette created a striking degree of depth. Entirely constructed out of flat colors and the occasional screen, Nowlan’s images achieve a balance in the coloring and line art somewhere between the photorealistic and the surreal. He created fades by careful arrangement of the flat tones, especially yellows, greens, and browns. No airbrush effects, just intelligent design, and his work would be imitated often.

Soon enough, though, such careful choices wouldn’t have to be made using flat colors and clunky screens at all. Photoshop was around the corner. I asked Nowlan if there was a combination of new and old processes that he would like to see utilized, and he replied: “I’d like to see some books printed on off-white paper. I think most of us who grew up reading books on newsprint are still put off by the bright, white paper.”

“My yardstick is still the Silver Age DC Comics covers. They used a little airbrush but generally, the effect was created with flat colors. I think they still look great today.”

While coloring and printing techniques have improved in comics, some intangible qualities have been lost (though the poorly printed color comics section of contemporary Sunday newspapers still retains at least some of the old magic). Although I don’t believe this loss can be attributed to just one factor, the fact that most coloring is no longer a hands-on craft concerns me. Creating depth with flat colors, overprinting, and making a limited arrangement “sing” is quickly becoming a lost art. These were once essential skills involved with being a colorist. Now that “depth” can be created quite simply, by using Photoshop effects and fades, the visual shorthand that’s been in place for nearly a century has been all but abandoned. The shorthand still exists, and can of course be replicated using Photoshop, but that’s not really the point. The demands of the craft have shifted and tastes have changed drastically in the last twenty years. Photoshop isn’t really directly responsible for the sanitized sameness of most color comics, any more than Pixar is responsible for the death of the hand drawn animated cartoon. The technology is simply changing, and along with it so is the product and the demand for the old formulas. An artist like Kevin Nowlan strikes a balance because he learned how to make it work by hand, under the old limitations. But most comics artists working today, however, haven’t had that training, and their coloring looks unnatural to me. There’s no magic, no “how’d they do that?” wonder to the craft anymore. There’s a rift between the handmade drawings and the precision of the computer color separations that I find unsettling, and ugly. I wish colorists today could find the restraint that Nowlan speaks of. There’s a middle ground between the old and the new processes, but we don’t see much of it in comics. “We don’t see it today,” says Nowlan, “because it’s too time consuming and expensive when you compare it to Photoshop.” And the handmade quality of mainstream comics? “It’s all but disappeared.”

*In silkscreen printmaking, each color is created by literally cutting the shape of each color out of a red transparent film called rubylith. This film is then “burned” on to the silkscreen by a photochemical process, and what’s left is the shape of the color to be printed. The letterpress process is similar in that the person creating the individual color plates also works with film.

**In 1986, DC Comics, in order to compete with independent publishers, introduced a higher quality, uncoated, flat white paper stock called Baxter paper in a handful of its comics titles. This paper was far brighter than the traditional light-tan-colored newsprint paper.

(all images from Outsiders Annual #1)

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50 Responses to ““Comics Color” article from CC #2”
  1. Brian says:

    It is rad to see the Kevin Nowlan stuff in color for those of us who live in towns without good quarter bins. You should put up the other image that showed the CMYK color plates.

  2. Frank Santoro says:

    cool cool.

    man, the original COLOR cymk diagram image from CC#2 is buried somewhere. i’ll look for it…

  3. Alan David Doane says:

    I don’t think anyone reads PDFs ever. Glad you posted this here, it’s a great piece and the kind we need more of.

  4. Frank Santoro says:


    I only read pappy’s pdf’s


    This one is awesome! hahaaaha “Priestess of the Sphinx!”

  5. r says:

    i always appreciate these posts on craft and (especially) color, mr. santoro, so keep ’em coming! actually, i’d like to read your thoughts on richmond lewis’s coloring on batman: year one. in fact, where is lewis now? i recently came across his work in the prisoner: shattered visage book he did with dean motter.

  6. Frank Santoro says:

    I’ve actually spoken with Richmond Lewis a few times in recent years. She’s painting, drawing, doing her thing. A lot of what went into this article was from speaking with her. She’s super modest, though, and declined an interview.

    “Year One” is great, a masterpiece. She also did “Iron Wolf” with Mignola which is less well known, but a remarkable coloring job. You can understand how the pages were made (sort of) here:


    I’m gonna do an article on “blueline” processes and Steve Oliff (and the Time2 graphic novel) for Comics Comics #5. Steve Oliff filled in all the blanks for me about these old color comics. It’s a great interview.

  7. pulphope says:

    Interesting article, Frank, thanks for sharing your thoughts. You probably already know this, but it’s worth pointing out for others that in silkscreen printing, aside from ruby lith, you can also print a screen directly from a film positive of a line drawing. You can also paint or ink directly onto a film positive with acrylic or some mylar-friendly ink. And you can use an airbrush and stencils. All 4 of which I used in this 17 color print:


    I cut my own rubies and cleaned up the films myself for THB in the beginning– it was the easiest way to learn all of this and reduce some of the expenses– I worked in the production dept. of the printshop who published the original books, and this was before digital coloring was the industry standard. Now all those old machines are broken or run down– practically nobody is left who can do it or who has the equipment to do it. Up until the mid-90s, Murphy Anderson ran one of the last shops which cut ruby lith for 4 color process printing for comics. They were rumored to be the last such shop (I know of one more in Queens). We tried to get Murphy for Heavy Liquid. We wound up using digital seps from my hand-colored xeroxes.

    I learned how to cut rubies for 4 color comics printing from Jay Stephens–I really miss it. One other cool thing–in 4 color process printing, you are able to get a whole range of color tints WITHIN the basic colors we usually think of with old fashioned comics coloring by pivoting the various cut dotscreens on the various 4 layers (this is in pre-press) so that the dots make a moire at different angles.

    Viva Nolan!

  8. Frank Santoro says:

    hey champ, thanks for checking in.

    That Murphy Anderson story is great, man, I wanna hear more about that!

    The funny thing to me is HOW FAST all these techniques are going the way of the Dodo. Steve Oliff just laughed at me when I told him I wanted to do a “blueline” book. Hahaha

  9. pulphope says:

    I don’t doubt it–in my experience, it’s only the artists who are now interested in outmoded print/color techniques. The printers and separators I know–who work strictly on the technical/production side– are concerned with (and invested in) state-of-the-art technology, they aren’t sentimental about these things. Everything has gone digital…but I guess the upside is how easy it is for young cartoonists to “publish” web comics without printing them at all.

  10. knut says:

    It’s important to point out that any colorist or designer can replicate these old techniques using the new technology, and I don’t mean “cheating’ via some photoshop tutorial. This begins with an understanding of the fundamentals of printing, and how design software interfaces with those fundamental processes.

    The problem is that the software has made pre-press so easy that people ignore the fundamentals all together. On the other hand if you know what you are dealing with you can get what ever you want out of today’s technology.

    Technological advances haven’t replaced old techinques, they’ve just expanded their range. You don’t have to go into the bigger sandbox, even though they make it easy for us. It’s really an exercise in restraint, but a lot of my favorite art is a result of that very type of thing.

  11. Scott Bukatman says:

    Thanks, Frank — this is a really helpful, fascinating post. Is there a good book out there on the history of color printing? I’m especially interested in the early color supplements in american newspapers…

  12. r says:

    gosh, that reminds me! i bought the iron wolf collected edition recently at a con; was amazed i’d never heard of it before considering mignola’s involvement, and was over the moon when i noticed lewis’s name. 🙂 still haven’t read it, though… should dig it out of that pile of unread stuff…

  13. Will Schar says:

    Thought I’d drop a line and tell ya’ll that this old style of coloring has a bit of a comeback, kind of. Two scenes in the comic industry are embracing this old restrained coloring style.

    First is the scene I’m working as a freelancer right now. Reprint coloring. The colorists for reprints has recreate the hues, temperature and color with a limited palette. My palette I work with is only a 64 color layout based on cyan yellow and magenta. It’s really challenging and a lot of fun. These old colors really pop, especially on the pages, that were drawn i a strong way to take colors. That’s what i’ve noticed about modern comics. They aren’t drawn to take color. The artists aren’t thinking about how their page will work with color as they go through the process. Not all the old work is that way either, but it’s a lot harder to find modern pages that are meant to integrate so well with color. A few examples i can think of are Batman Year One. The new colors in the reprint collection is gorgeous.

    The other scene I’d say has restrained coloring is in the Indy and Small Press. Though by and large they do black and white, you look for the books that are in color in this group, and man, they are gorgeous works of art. BOOM!’s cthulhu books generally have some good colorists. Simply fantastic work on their part.

  14. Susan D-L says:

    Thank you for this lovely article on a subject that’s been a large part of my working life. When I started coloring Gladstone’s Disney comics in 1986 I was using Dr Martin’s dyes on black and white xeroxes, working with Chemical Color’s 64-color pallete.

    Since we didn’t use k-tones and our publisher had an aversion to anything close to pink and purple, the actual number of colors we used were even smaller. I still have a file cabinet full of colored xeroxes inscribed with a chicken scratch of alphanumeric color codes.

    Even after the advent of Photoshop and digital production we continued to work with color separators using color guides, mainly because we didn’t have the man- or computing-power needed to economically render hundreds of pages of color each month. As computers and software became faster and cheaper, that changed.

    I do all my color in Photoshop these days; I haven’t painted a color guide in a decade, and I’m not sorry about that. But that limited palette really could inspire coloring greatness in the right hands and with the right amount of printing luck. I’m glad to have been a part of it.

  15. mahendra singh says:

    Separation houses were too expensive for any shop I worked at, I usually did seps myself, using a color wheel to figure out the percentages of each color needed to make a color and then laboriously creating a color plate from scratch with amberlith & zip-a-tone … moirés were a pitfall but avoidable …

    the constraint of time & labor was a sometimes blessing, making for more considered color choices at times

  16. Frank Santoro says:

    this is AWESOME!

    thanks for all your comments.

    Please add more, anyone, ANYONE with experience doing hand seps, please feel to leave rambling comments about how you used to work with color.

    I’m truly fascinated with this subject. I’m like a character out of a Ben Katchor strip in this regard. hahaa

  17. ULAND says:

    Hey Frank- Awesome post. I actually started a thread about this subject on tcj this morning, wanting to know how I could recreate color effects from older comics and then someone mentioned your post.
    After I started the thread I googled a bit and came across a posting on Todd Klien’s blog about this same subject:


    -It’s an awesome post. He posted scans of actual color palettes he used in the DC production offices.

    Anyhow, let’s hope the market can work out some way to keep this process going.It’d just have to be a small niche if it could exist at all.

  18. pulphope says:

    A few thoughts– First, this book by John Adkins Richardson is a great resource for this and many other related topics. It has a very, very good section on CMYK printing–everything from cutting ruby liths to printing zinc plates to the final thing. Including a section on (at the time new "underground" artist) Richard Corbin's airbrush-directly-to-film-for-print technique. The sections on cartooning technique and comics page design are equally great–I highly recommend it. This is one of those books I have bought again and again and give to friends:


    Also–at the risk of sounding pedantic (this may seem like a minor point) but the CMYK colors are not red, yellow, blue, and black but actually cyan, magenta, yellow, and black– it's a pet peeve of printers when you call them that– the color Cyan is Cyan, not Blue, etc. Magenta has more "pink" or "purple" in it than a fire engine/lipstick red, etc. There is some debate about whether the K is used to mean Black or Key– since the final color is called a Key color– it needn't be black, it is merely the darkest color to be printed, and it is used to hide all of the color trapping underneath. The first color to go down is traditionally the lightest and it is called the Lock color. On a web press, the color plates are set up that way– lightest prints first, darkest last.

    There are some Japanese and German web-presses with more than 4 plates for color– and can achieve incredible color effects with a 5th or 6th or even 8th plate– adding neon colors or varnishes or solid pantones. When Alex Ross (say what you want about him, he knows what he's doing) was starting up his oversized Superman book with Dini, he tried to get DC Comics to print it on a larger 6 color press so that he would be able to bump the "red" and "blue" of Superman's costume by overprinting with subtle color enhancements. Of course–no go (but that is another story). Noel Sickles points out (this is in the new IDW book on Sickles) that he was constantly frustrated by how the blue tones he used in his watercolor work for magazines like Life would print less vibrantly than they actually looked to the naked eye. He also asked the publishers to bump up the color as well.

    I've been experimenting with airbrush stencils on the separate CMYK layers for some of my upcoming color work for comics. I really love the tool and although I use Photoshop almost daily, I find there is a randomness to the airbrush spray which has a real "warmth" to it which affects the sensation of looking at the color in a unique way. Before Photoshop, it was difficult to achieve subtle gradients in print. Richard Corbin is a true pioneer in this area of color printing– his early underground work is still baffling.

    Another master colorist from the pre-digital days is Michael Golden, who did his own color seps on some projects– his early Marvel Fanfare work comes to mind. Really mind-blowing stuff, miles above the usual color separations for comics in the '70s. Both Golden and Corbin worked in print shops and so had an intimate knowledge of techniques and the artistic value which can be squeezed from printing limitations. (I find this topic endlessly fascinating too, interesting to read all these posts…)

  19. Frank Santoro says:

    nice, thanks man.

    I’ve been working in a shop here in pittsburgh and some kids there have been using spraypaint on their etching plates to get a nice texture (they hate the acid baths)–it’s got me re-thinking how I could maybe re-create or imitate the textures on some of those early 70s Cory Adams colored covers for DC.

  20. William F. Schar says:


    I love love that book. I found it at a garage sale, stayed with me through art school. It’s been very helpful for learning the cartooning trade.

    A friend of mine is experimenting with a print and scan coloring technique. He does a standard flat color treatment in photoshop, then to give it an elegant textured, worn look he prints it without the line-art on watercolor paper on a high quality 8 color EPSON printer. He then scans it again, and adds the colors to the line-art. It looks really good. And he’s made some beautiful looking Illustrations with it. His process kind of makes me think of a modern re-interpretation of color separation. Not exactly the same thing, but reminds me of the old way they lined up and allowed some print colors to naturally blend.

    Good stuff.

    Thanks for the post Frank. Great topic.

  21. knut says:

    Does anyone know what the firt computer colored comic was? I remember first noticing it with the early Image books.

  22. knut says:

    Oh wait, I just remembered it was Akira for Epic.

  23. Frank Santoro says:

    actually i think it was Shatter that beat Akira to it

  24. Brian says:

    Actually, I think I read- just recently, since Shatter’s been coming up a lot- specifically that the coloring on Shatter was not done on computer, just the line-art. Wikipedia bears this out but I think I read it somewhere else as well.

  25. knut says:

    I’m a little confused because Akira was colored in 1988, yet the first commercial release of Photoshop was 1990. What process did Oliff use?

  26. Frank Santoro says:

    Look, Knut, thats my next article for Comics Comics #5, knock it off! You’re stealing my thunder… I did an interview with Oliff, just wait…

  27. knut says:


    Keep up the good work.

  28. Jeremy says:

    I just wanted to thank you, Frank, and all the contributors in the comments section for such an informative and thought-provoking discussion. I’m looking forward to that Oliff article, Frank – keep up the good work.

  29. Comics Creator says:

    This is such a wonderful article! It’s true–the limitations of the technology back then allowed colorists to be more conscious of their craft.

    Oh, but I absolutely hated Baxter paper. 😛

  30. WEISSMAN™ says:

    This is a great article and while I hope to reread it more carefully soon, I wanted to comment on what Kevin Nowlan says about the inability to “preview” one’s color art. I used to do a bunch of rubylith separations (plus screentone to get colors like caucasian, brown, etc.) and was often frustrated by having to wait until the piece was printed to find my mistakes (ordering color keys was a luxury). The method I came up with for proofing my color pages was to take my separations to a nearby xerox shop with a color copier. Besides making color copies, you could put b/w art on it and select a color for printing. I would print my Y plate on paper, and the other three seps on transparencies, see? Then it was just a matter of registering the copeies and taping them together. Since these were xerox, and I was reducing as I was copying, they weren’t perfect, but they were fairly easy to work with (especially for spotting big mistakes). I still have all my homemade color keys, and treasure them more than the originals they were made from.

  31. mahendra singh says:

    About the last comment … a good method, somewhat similar in principle to the color wheel we used … like a prop wheel, with 4 discs of acetate, each individually printed with segments ranging to 0-100% of each CMYK … simply align the desired percentages of each color atop one another

    The brand name of the wheel escapes me but it was surprisingly accurate for uncoated stock

    color keys were an amazing luxury whispered about on cigarette & beer breaks

  32. Frank Santoro says:

    Yo Ribs!!

    Wasssup man!!?? thanks for the comment. I totally did the same thing and made tons of my illos for Marc Weidenbaum edited Pulse magazine the same way. Ah, the 90s! hahaaa

    thanks to everyone far and wide for keeping this thread open, please pass it around. I’m gonna re-shape it and maybe post it again (print it?) when we get the Steve Oliff interview/profile squared away.

  33. WEISSMAN™ says:

    1990s smelled like cigarettes and rubylith!

  34. Photo colorization Services says:

    “Super Duper” Keep up the Good Work it keeps us smiling.Nice color combination.

    image clipping

  35. Predabot says:

    VERY interesting! 🙂

    I’m one of those kids who really had no idea how this stuff was done back in the day, so this was a wholly interesting read.

    Especially the use of spot-colour in these pages is astonishing..!

    A far cry from the scans of 60’s Marvel that I’ve seen… more often than not, those make me want to cry, seeing the artwork butchered, but this was something else.

    It was inspiring actually.

    Cool post!

    Please post that interview with Oliffe, I’m quite curious what he used before the days of Photoshop. ( hell, he must have been working in DOS! Windows sucked ass prior to 1991)

  36. Chuck says:

    Okay, this is a really long post, so I'm going to have to break it into parts…sorry.
    To the writer of this article:

    You, sir, I believe are insane.

    I can appreciate the Golden and Silver Age of Comics as much as anyone, but I think you have taken it a little too far by attacking the quality, artistry, and craftsmanship of the methodology of an entire generation of colorists.

    I completely disagree that current colors are imitative or "sanitized;" I believe you simply haven't exposed yourself to a broad enough spectrum to make such a judgment, which is a shame for you.

    There are so many different styles now simply due to the increased control a colorist has when filling in the page. Marc Silvestri's works, along with Todd McFarlane, Michael Turner (rest in peace), Joe Quesada, Jo Chen, Frank Cho, among others, would not be the same without modern coloring techniques. There are even traditional artists like Adam Hughes and (as mentioned in this article) Kevin Nowlan whose works have been augmented by these processes. How about Mark Teixeira, Jim Lee, Mike Mignola? All of their lines would not be the same with the old-style techniques, and they would actually lose something.

    The range of styles has expanded exponentially, and have thusly expanded the interest in the comic book industry itself. Remember when Sandman first came out? I had never before seen the like! You can now go from watercolored to acrylic, to screentone, to oils, to Liquid! and back again with a different application of digital strokes. It is the Golden and Silver Ages of comics that were sterilized: artists forced to describe a multitude of different genres with the same restrictive color and temperature vocabulary. Virtually every G/A and S/A comic from my extensive collection looks exactly the same, from the line weight to the tonal palette. I can go to my Digital Age stack, close my eyes, and randomly select a unique style almost every time.

  37. Chuck says:

    Part II

    [Granted, there are those who merely emulate what is popular amongst the market, and you do have your clones, but that is true of any age of any product, from bullets to ballet]

    We must also remember that pencillers themselves are liberated by the current color regime. No longer must artists rely on the Chaucerian Physiognomy that ruled comics for fifty years to show who was good and bad. Now, the artist can illustrate a villain exactly as he would a hero, and let the color mood affect the feeling of the reader. The choices available are even intimidating; the expectation of comic art has been raised to such a level that both artist and colorist can be paralyzed by options. Much more important is it now than ever before a wise choice of your style. Style can now be modulated to fit the atmosphere of specific releases, and different colorists and pencillers can be conjugated in a project to produce unexpected and shocking results. More now than ever before Pencillers and Colorists have their own complete identity in the industry.
    Alex Ross is no longer the only of his kind (well, maybe that's wrong, but that's only because Alex Ross is God's cousin).

    Before the Digital Age, the process was mechanical and repetitive, with the only true artistic choice being the one of what limited palette to use today. I have been training with Corel Painter and Photoshop for almost five years straight, and still am not at a level of skill to publish much of anything. If anything, the artistry and craftsmanship has increased.

    Not to mention that there are still great examples of the old style implemented with current techniques. Preacher, anyone? How about Frank Miller's works? Preacher actually went as far as to have a tan wash over most of the images (along with flat colors) to simulate the traditional style, coupled with remarkably simple detail of faces that made it stand out from the rest. Sin City would never have worked on anything except the Baxter-esque bright white pages. Comics of today will also last longer than comics of old, with less color fading and less page yellowing, which is good for everybody who likes to actually break their issues out of the plastic and read them every once in a while (not everyone wants to by a mint copy and a reading copy of each issue, either).

    There is an argument similar to this in the video game world regarding musical scores. In the 8-bit days, the number of sounds possible to simulate music was very limited, where now people can use programs as simple as Fruity Loops to have fully orchestrated tracks. There are even bands such as 8-bit Heroes that make their living spurning the realistic sounds of today and using the blips and beeps of yesteryear. However, at least Nobuo Uematsu proves his music is just as inspiring with a simulated voice warble as with horns and strings (Uematsu's music is even experiencing a resurgence with its round-the-world tours of the Dear Friends concerts, where 8-bit song arrangements are performed by full-fledged, famous orchestras in first-class venues).

  38. Chuck says:

    Part III [last one!]

    The bottom line is something that was already said in the interview/article itself, when the venerable Mr. Nowlan mentioned that it wasn't the fault of the Program, but of the Artist. If there is a coloring scheme you are not amiable to, it is not the nature of the modern comic industry itself that unseats your delicate sensibilities, but the Artists themselves. Don't blame the methodology because you just happen to be stuck in a time warp. I'm sorry if that sounds offensive, but, at least to me, what you are saying sounds equally offensive. It sounds oddly reminiscent of a septegenarian using an unneeded haircut as an excuse to linger too long under the cover of the barber pole so that he might complain of the chaos of today whilst lamenting the loss of "the simpler times."

    The techniques of today have done nothing except raise the bar, and increase the level of human connection to the art, regardless of the digital nature of the process. Now, if there is a mistake in the printing, you know whose fault it really is. Not to mention that the current techniques are not mutually exclusive of the old ones. You can go into Photoshop and cut your rubies by only working in alpha and color channels, which can be further controlled by the color mode of choice. You can still print out your lines at 3800 DPI and screentone them (or do it digitally) or paint them on cels. Vector art can yield an infinitely scalable work, so that it can be viewed on an iPod or a twenty-foot projection screen with no loss of integrity. The technical proficiency required to use such programs is so much more demanding than the physical dexterity required from older approaches. The knowledge of color palettes has to be simultaneously broader and more specific. Storyboarding has to be more refined. The art has to be upheld with a stronger script and a finer edit. Everything requires more effort now, not less. Colorists spend more time with their craft, because the automation of many older techniques allows them to spend more time on the art and less time on the printing. You can color a sketch if you want to, bypassing inks entirely, for a more DaVinci-like style, something that Frank Cho and Phillip Tan do very well.

    And, failing all these words, as previously stated, you can still use all the modern equipment to produce comics the exact same way they used to be. Go ahead, uncalibrate your monitor and you'll experience the same WYSIWYG anxiety that older comickers experienced at the press. But, I suppose that wouldn't count, seeing as it would be a deliberate error–which is what I truly don't understand about your aricle…how can any process that reduces the factor of error, yielding a more pristine product, receive such ire? And please don't say the lack of the human element. That is what this whole long post has been about. And, at least to my knowledge, the comics haven't started drawing or coloring themselves yet.

    Lastly, I must agree that it would be VERY interesting to see a modern-style comic released on old-style newsprint. Someone needs to do that.

    Sorry for the long post, just had to get my opinion out there. And remember, when it all comes down to it, that's all it is: my opinion. My opinion and your opinion.

    And both of us could be wrong.


  39. Chuck says:

    Sorry, one final thing…

    I used to screentone by haaaaand. And not simple screentones, either. I'm talking Tenjou-Tenge level, Oh Great! style screentones. Sometimes it could take six to eight hours to finish one single page. I even developed a two-eraser technique:
    I would take one eraser and apply a coating of hot glue.
    I would take a second eraser and dip it in craft glue, wait for it to get tacky, and then dip it in fine-grain golf-hazard-sandtrap sand.
    The two different textures would allow me to fade the screentone out with great precision and effect, and I was very proud of it.
    But then, screentone plugins for Photoshop and Painter came about.

    And I am




  40. Anonymous says:

    Just wanted to respond to Chuck with two points.

    You ended your little rant attempting a a much more conciliatory tone, but it felt like it didn't ring true, especially since you began this rant by calling Mr. Santoro "insane." I would recommend not doing that. It tends to color your last statement of admitting, "hey we both could be wrong," and weight you put into your last post that this was your opinion. When I thought about vitriolic opening, it gave what you said less weight. I really had to force myself to read what you'd said without dismissing you as some kind of angry fanboy. It also made it seem like you were just covering for yourself at the end so you don't have to take responsibility for your opinion.

    If I forced myself to ignore that opening, I could read your post more clearly and with an even head. So the moral is don't call people insane or they will think you are insane. It does yourself a disservice.

  41. Anonymous says:

    Now as far responding to your comments.

    It seems to me you missed one of the key points of the article. He wasn't saying the technology is bad, but he did say that in the information age of artists and professionals in comics, have entered the industry WITHOUT the prior knowledge of how this stuff worked in the old days. The old methods of coloring forced many artists to push their talent to whole new levels. The old screentoning techniques had LIMITATIONS. Despite what people may think, limitations are GOOD. Some of the greatest works of art in any medium were created within a set of limitations.

    The problem, and greatest advantage, of Photoshop and modern technology is that it has few limitations. But when you have these artists and editors working in the industry that either came in the early 90s, or post-Photoshop or Corel Painter, they have not gone through that learning process. I doubt many of them have ever used real water color or oil paints.

    What happens when we get artists like this? We get shitty gradients, and shitty lens flares, and pen and ink art, that can't hold its own if it's black and white.

    I'm an indy artist. I love me some black and white comics, and i think that if an artist can't create comic pages that don't work in black and white, then that artist is a hack. We have artists that do not understand BASIC black-spotting. Hell there are pencilers now who won't get their pencil's inked, and instead rely on the colorist. I guess that's fine, but I want EVERY aspect of that little-floppy-overpriced comic books to be good. If they aren't, I am UNWILLING to buy them. Hell I'm unwilling to by the trade if I feel that they slacked on any of that art.

    What's unfortunate is a lot of these pencil to colorist books are colored by guys who don't have a painting background, have bad sense of complimentary colors, use poor gradients, and over use lens flares. The Joe Mad/Liquid! Ultimates for example.

    Now I'm not saying that there aren't good colors out there, nor books with good color. There are. Take a look at the work of Karre Andrews, Niko Heinrichon, Dave Stewart, Laura Allred, and I can't sing the praises enough of Matt Hollingsworth. They are GOOD colorists, but you can see that they are not just "comic colorists." They are students of ART and more importantly students of PRINT!

    One thing that people forget is that no matter what, there is always the chance that the colors on your bright screen might not print properly. They might print darker, lighter, bluer, reder by just a hair. That tiny change of color can ruin an overly rendered colors.

    The Photoshop technology is a great boon to the modern era of comics and illustration. It creates a whole new medium to show, share and sell them in, e.i. the internet. It empowers the artist. But that power without knowledge or study of the medium they work in or cross disciplinary mediums. Comic artists need to study Da Vinci, Pollock, Picasso, the Raphaelites, screen printing, photography, etc. You know classic artistic disciplines.

    The problem with this technology is that because people have this powerful tool at their fingertips, they lose their curiosity and discipline. In essance it becomes too easy, and you get what could be called the "Idiocracy Effect."

    That, Chuck, is what I got from this article, way back when i read it last summer.

    PS. I can't believe this has been around for a year and people still post on it every once in a while. Hurray for the internet.

  42. Frank Santoro says:

    fuck chuck

  43. Chuck says:

    Apologize again, in advance.

    Sorry, Frank. Didn't mean to incite such an acerbic response from you. As the anonymous poster above you had said, [although I think erroneously] it may not be exactly proper to engage in conversation with such a tone.

    Unless, of course, you're trying to play off of the rhyme pattern, in which case I won't take it personally, but it's something I thought [or hoped] I would stop dealing with after I got out of grade school. [Incidentally, I started going by Charles in High School just to avoid it, and well…I guess it's true that you can't go back.]

    But, to Anonymous.

    I do not avoid responsibility at the end of my post with a concilliatory tone. I think you put too much personal weight on the tone to begin with. If you were to respond so negatively to any one who doesn't speak in exactly the way you are comfortable with, you're going to miss out on a LOT of very important things in your life. Going on fifty years now, I think I can say that with some credibility. Don't be the weakest guy in the room because you might feel uncomfortable.

    I didn't mean any offense, as I stated in my post. In fact, I pointed out that the very use of my language was to illustrate how potentially offensive the mere nature of the original monologue could be taken to be. I'm not too sure how stable your fate would be if you accused, for example, the CIA of lollygagging about and not just killing some Ruskies like they used to do. This, although not so burdened with the weight of life and death, is the same concept as the issue in discussion. How would you like it if someone told you that your entire personal career was nebbish; that you were a clone and a hack, no more; that your personal flavor and style was leading to the ruination of a long-standing tradition of greatness.

    Oh, wait, I know what the response would be. It would be, "Fuck Chuck." [Notice, how, despite your accusations of tone, I never debased myself to foul language, while both you [who will not reveal your name] and Mr.Frank both did.

  44. Chuck says:

    It has been said for over three thousand years, by men greater than all of us put together, that the first resort of the weak and foolhardy is aggression and violence. Just pointing that out, considering we're talking about venerating the elders and how the way that they did things is better than the way we do things now. Somehow, oddly akin to how the British elders used to congregate around the snooker table and begin retorts with phrases like, "Are you mad?" and, "I sincerely doubt your ability to comment intelligently on that subject," as a preamble to civilized discussions about women's rights, the gold trade, and the fate of the East India Trading Company. But then again, I'm British, so perhaps someone speaking with an honest tone of voice is frightening to those less programmed by a system which deals with very little tomfoolery when not backed up by passion.

    Anyway, I never said, nor intended to imply, that limitations are not good. Obviously, that is patently not a true concept. If Hitler had no limitations on his funding, there might not be any Jews let in Europe today. But, you are, sir, in error when you imply that just because someone works withing a limited range of resources their final product is automatically raised to a level of art, or if, in art, it is of a higher quality than that of other artists. To extend the military analogy, was Napoleon's brief return to military glory after exile artistic in scope simply because it came from exile? I should think not.

    But rather than play with such sensibilities, perhaps we should return to the art realm. In point of fact, most of the greatest works of art in the world's history were created with no limitations. When Michelangelo answered Julius II's ever-agitated question of, "When will it be completed?" with, "It will be finished when it is finished!" he was not taking into account who the man was. [You see, Giuliano della Rovere, or Pope Julius II, attained his office by the killing of at least one and potentially three popes, including the poisoning of Alexander VI's son, and the blackmailing of a King. His reign then resulted in more than a half-century of terrible war in Italy, from 1508-1559. He is called by history Il Papa terribile, or the Terrible Pope.] Julius II should have, by rights, skinned his hide and posted it in the Venician Square, such was his nature; but his mercy for Michelangelo was without limit, despite the two men hating each other. Van Gogh, I don't believe, was restricted in his ability to paint by severing one ear or by consuming paint; in fact, many artistic scholars conclude that it was his total separation from social convention, or the removal of such limitations, that allowed him to work so freely. DaVinci was freed from the moral limitations of grave and morgue robbing when he would "appropriate" corpses so he could cut open their skulls to draw their brains. [Something tells me the authorities would disallow such acts today, although DaVinci produced some of the first AND most accurate sketches of cranial anatomy ever conceived, and his works in anatomy are still taught to first- and second-year medical students today.] Vesalius did the same with the rest of the body, that he might better study musculature. Picasso, freed from responsibilities from depression. Norman Rockwell, similarly, when refused the ability to soldier in WWI and WWII, which he desperately wanted, and the dissolution of his marriage in 1930 due to complications of the Great Depression, was freed from similar limitations of social decency and responsibility to make his works. [And what happened? The US Government released war bonds based on the success of his work!]

    But perhaps these examples are too esoteric because they do not rely on the restriction of material rather than human fiber.

  45. Chuck says:

    Giotto di Bondone, when asked by the cleric of Pope Boniface VIII to prove his artistic worth for a papal commission, crooked his arm and painted a perfect circle freehand [circa 1300 AD, exact date unknown]. He told the miffed cleric to take the work back with him to verify its quality and to prove it was not a joke. He was later retained on salary [one of the only artists in history to achieve this] due to his artistic merit. His other works, such as The Kiss of Judas and his painting of the Scovregni Chapel seem to speak more to his abilities.

    Point being, just because a work is restricted by material or technological limitations does not make it more art than other counterparts. Giotto's circle, much like the G/A and S/A comics of old would not stand in quality to today's works without an exculpation of its origin. Any visual work that requires an oral or literary description of its technique to validate its value is no longer a piece of art; it is a story. These works have a solid and undeniable place in history, but more as the building blocks or foundation of what it to come, not as the "better, original version" or the "real art." When Manfred Mann's Earth Band covered Bruce Springsteen's Blinded by the Light, it was elevated it to the #1 position of the Billboard Top 100 in 1973, which Springsteen attributes to the dubious pronunciation of the lyrics; the musical afterbirth denies the mother by adopting different fundamentals, and succeeds where the mother could not, as modern comics have done to older comics.

    All told, this is, as I said, just my opinion–and it is a rather good one, I think–backed up by three-quarters of a millennia's worth of history. And that doesn't mean I am just being concilliatory. To prove the point,

    Spank Frank.

  46. Chuck says:

    Lastly, the reason the article has remained active so long is because it is a great article, which should incite intelligent debate rather than mindless subordination.

  47. Anonymous says:


    You misunderstood me on a few things. I never onces said anything to insult you. I think Frank's comment was uncalled for, though it was probably ment more humoursly than it came off. But I'm not Frank, nor do I know him personally and this is his blog, so he can do or say what he wants. I made every effort to be respectful to you and your opinion. The only foul language I used was mentionging "shitty gradiants" and "shitty lens flares". I don't think that's uncalled for, and it wasn't directed at you.

    I said in my post that I chose to IGNORED your more combative tones and read what you had to say. I merely warned you about that becasue I knew that it would be more likely to inspire reactions like that of Franks. If you want to create a firestorm that is your perogative. I merely stated what I observed. Don't knock me for trying to a voice of reason.

    Your history lesson was all well and good, and its all nothing new to me. It would have been nice had you applied it to discussion at hand. I merely used my historical examples to point out that those artists had studied the full gamut of their craft. I don't think a lot of the younger artists in comics do that, honestly. And some good artists have become lazy and should know better. Just compare Frank Quitely of All-Star Superman, to Frank Quitely of WE3. He leaves all the work to the colorist in Superman. It was uninspiring to see an artist like that just cop-out.

    While the limitations don't give birth to brilliant artist every minute, I wonder if the "Famous Arts School" (an arts education for for pencilers and inkers in the 60s and 70s without any money), would have caught on. Its lesens are built around the pen and ink model, and even addresses color and how to draw for color. It was the pencilers and inkers trained by these mail-order lessons that made the work POP!

    The colorist's job was more organizational, but just as important. They emphasized the linework, they controlled the focus of the eye. Today, a lot of the colors are just all over the place, adding detail where it shouldn't be, and overdoing every shadow or highlight they can.

    There are many comics today that do that. But there are even more that don't, and a grwoing number who throw out inkers in favor of colorists that have no idea what they are doing. Or what an inker does. "Uhh…Aren't they just tracers?"

    It seems to me, we are talking about two different things here and somehow arguing about the same thing. I'm talking about learning through limitation to understand the tried and true methodologies. You are arguing about limitation versus limitation in practice.

    I will agree though, most golden age comics look just plain bad, and mostly serve in the context of their time. But it was a different time back then and the medium was new. Most guys at the time didn't even know what they were doing, but it was a job that wasn't factory work. Not saying that makes what they do brilliant, but it makes it important. Its also noteworthy how MANY pages these guys were doing in a month. Those guys were machines.

    One last thing. Do not chide me for remaining anonymous. The whole macho attitude is uncalled for and is rather juvenile. I have my reasons for wanting my privacy. Please respect my privacy Chuck. I respect yours.

  48. Fooksie says:

    Sometimes, the artist and the colorist didn't get along.
    One of my teachers at the Kubert School, I think it was Jose Delbo, told us about and argument that an artist and a colorist were having at DC.
    The story was in the House of Mystery or some other comic like that, and the main character of the story was a clown.
    The artist drew him having a very ornate costume, frills and flowers all over the suit, just to bust the colorist's chops.
    The colorist got the last laugh by coloring evrything on the clown the same muddy blue.
    While I am grateful that I know how to cut Ruby for screens, I am even more grateful to Photoshop for not having to do it.
    Great article!

  49. RobSchwager says:

    Oliff used the Codd-Barrett system to color comics. It's also the same software that I learned on back when I worked at a color sep house in Chicago in the early 90's.

    It was basically a vector based program. Left/right/cirular grads and a solid 2 tone "airbrush", that wouldn't taper at the ends. It basically looked like a neon tube of color. That was all the "special effects" we could do back then. We were also limited on the amount of polygons we could "cut".

    Also, that "cut and grad" look that was originally created by Oliff and then adopted and eventually made UBER-hip by LIQUID, came about not because of any sort of sylistic reasons. It was due to the Codd-Barrett program limitations.

    Kiko Taganashi was the master at Codd-Barrett. Nobody could work that software like he could.

  50. […] reinforced with a different colouring style (screen tone effect to emulate old newspaper strips or pre-digital comics?) but i guess team productions do involve everyone making their own aesthetic choices […]

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