Effective Comics Coloring

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Coloring comics is a broad topic. So broad you can find entire books about it, covering everything from color theory to using color for storytelling. Find a few references at the end in case you want to explore more the science and art of coloring comics.

But coloring is above all a time-consuming process, and one where you can easily get lost on the details. Another challenge of coloring comics compared to coloring covers and standalone illustrations is keeping a continuity across pages. And another challenge is how to make the coloring revisable when you need to make changes without wasting a lot of time.

Well, seek no more because all your answers are here. I'll show you a method to color comics effectively, that you can adjust to your particular style. I use variations of these for different comic styles, and many parts of it can be easily applied to illustration and painting as well (eg. flats, ambient and diffuse lighting, highlights, overlays, etc)

Style

An important first decision to make before selecting your process is what is going to be your style. Are you going for full color, or just tones? Realistic or stylized? Heavy shadows or smooth gradients? Different genres and lineart styles work better with different color choices, and you need to be aware of that. Science-fiction has usually a different tone than historical fantasy, romance looks very different from superheroes, detective noir very different from children's cartoon style.

There is always some wiggle room for you as a colorist, but remember first and foremost that Comics is a storytelling medium, and color must be part of that story.

Examples of adjusting your color style to the particular story and art you're coloring:

* Superhero comics are often colorful, using more saturated colors, rich in lighting and effects. They have a strong visual appeal that asks for colors that pop, and highlight dynamic action.
* Drama calls for more subtle palettes, using tones to create ambiance and emotion.
* Thriller and noir stories often call heavy use of shadows and tones to create mood and tension.
* Humoristic or cartoonish books usually have simpler palettes, and limited use of lighting or toning.
* Etc.

Obviously this is all a matter of preference and a general guideline, but before getting to the actual tools and processes, you need to ask what the story needs, and if you can skip a step because it doesn't work well with that particular genre, you can save precious minutes or hours.

Tools

Summary of the tools used in this process:

(for flatting)
* Selection marquees
* Pen Antialiasing settings

(for selecting)
* Reference layers
* Magic Wand (from Reference Layer)
* Layer Masks

(for shadowing)
* Correction Layer: Hue/Saturation/Luminosity

(for shadowing and lighting)
* Brushes and Pens (any that works for you, I use the G-Pen and Dense Watercolor for hard shadows and lights, smooth watercolor for adjustments)
* Gradients (especially Foreground to Transparent)
* Airbrushes (especially Soft)

For this example, we'll be coloring this page:

Flats

First you need to learn how to do is flat colors. This is a time consuming process and many professional colorists actually outsource this. If you have to do it, these are the tools you'll use in Clip Studio Paint:

Selection tools, especially Marquee (Rectangle, Lasso, Polyline)
Make sure you configure these to NOT have any antialias (at least not for flatting) so the flat color areas are crisp.

Flatting pen:
Any pen will do, to create a custom one just duplicate a standard one (I used Turnip Pen) and turn off antialiasing completely. This pen you'll use for the small corrections after you use the selection tools.

Make your flats into two different layers: one separating planes (figures, background, foreground) and the other with all the details. Having your flats split into planes from the beginning will save you a lot of time later on.

Planes layer:

Flats layer:

And this is how our page looks so far:

Flatting Tips

* Actual color at this stage don't matter, they can't be anything. Just make sure that all different objects and surfaces are clearly separated.

* Make sure your flats are correct before moving to the next stage, making corrections to the flat areas when you've done any progress will slow you down.

* DO NOT use the magic wand tool to create Flats, because those flats will have holes in it from the lineart.

Don't do this:

Do this:

* Don't use colors too bright or saturated for this step, we'll be adding lights, shadows and ambient later.

* Start using color for storytelling here, using less contrast and saturation on the background or less important areas, and more contrasted color in the characters and foreground.

Shadowing

Now that you have your base colors and flats, it's time to start putting in some volume.

Shadowing can be done two ways: from light to shadow, or from shadow to light. In all these methods, you can pick what works better for you.

I'll give you three methods to try for yourself. In all these cases, you need to use a layer mask. If you're going from light to shadow, you start with a clear mask and start drawing on it. If you go from shadows to light, you start by filling the entire mask, and delete from it.

a) Create a new correction layer: Hue / Saturation / Luminosity and enter the values for your shadow. I usually go for -30% luminosity, +15% saturation.
b) Create a new Fill layer and choose a color to shadow from. I like to use a light blue that does the job well. Set this layer to multiply.

Settings for the Shadow 30% layer:

Use the Magic Wand > From Reference Layer. Select each area you want to shadow (make sure it's set to Apply to connected pixels only, and Color margin is 0).
This will select that area and none other from your carefull crafted Flats.

Now pick your pen or brush of choice (I mostly use the Dense Watercolor, but it's really up to you) to paint on the mask of the shadow layer (solid for light-to-shadow, transparent for shadow-to-light).

And now you shade. There is nothing more to it really. This is a craft that you need to learn on your own.

Here's the result of applying both types of layers to my page:

Shadowing Tips

* Shadowing is a matter of style. You may skip it completely if your lineart is already rendered with a lot of volume, or you're going for a simple approach. Artists like Mike Mignola or Joelle Jones prefer to use flat (unshaded) and that works well with their style.

* Learn how shadows work. Pick a light source (a direction) and work from it. Shading is beyond what I want to cover here

* Use gradients with moderation and thought. Get your first shadows blocked in using hard edge pens or brushes.

Palette and Tones

This step is the one that does the trick for me when it comes to comics, because it gives me a simple tool to get the consistency and continuity across pages that I need. As a use case, check all 22 pages of my 2019 comics Orphans issue 7, you should be able to see a pattern there.

What you should notice is that there are color patterns at work. These correspond to different locations and times. Let me highlight with the same colors the pages that use the same color palettes (pages not highlighted have one-off color schemes):

Now this is where color is used as a storytelling device. Color should tell the story, contribute to it, or at the very least not detract from it. Since the script is non linear, I wanted to use color that tells me where I am, when different pages happen in the same place and time, so that readers get a visual cue.

But I also wanted the process to be as efficient as possible. If I had to maintain this kind of color continuity by picking the colors on each page, that would be a terribly slow and error-prone process. So what did I do?

I picked a palette for each of these scene settings, and carried it over to all the pages that shared the same setting. Then I only had to copy the layers for each of the setting into the pages with the same setting.

So what are palettes, in this context? It's a combination a colors that I apply using Color as Layer blending mode. Let's take a closer look to some of the palettes in the pages above (each showing lineart, flats, palette and finished page):

The palette provides the Ambient color: the general color you want to give to that scene or setting, bringing different colors closer together, without losing your base. I create these using either a single color layer with all these colors in. Or I use different Fill Layers with masks for each of these colors.

Then I set all these layer to blending mode: Color, and lower the opacity to between 30% and 50%, depending on how strong you want that color to be.
You can even leave the opacity to 100% if you just want your style to be based in tones.

Using a single layer for ambient:

Using a Fill Color layer for each different color:

Even though you now have a pretty consistent look, there is another layer you want to add for a more finished look. And that is lighting.

Wait a second, wasn't lighting implied in the shading phase? Well yes, that was what's called diffuse lighting, meaning the base color not being shadowed. But if you have more direct light sources and you want to bring an additional sense of mood to your scene (as it's usually done in movies and television) you get an extra polished look by adding yet another layer.

Again, this can be your regular color layer. But again, I advise to use Fill color layers and draw on the mask. This way, you can copy the layer over to the next page with the same palette, clear the mask and add you lighting there. Lighting layers work best with Screen or Soft Light blending modes.

Even though the process above covers 95% of what you'll need, I sometimes use additional layers for extra polished effects:

* shadow color: another fill color layer, blending mode Color, copying the mask from the shadow layer. This way you can give shadow areas a particular tone for dramatic effect.

* highlights: reflective materials such as metal or liquids, fabrics like leather, spandex or latex (which are common in comics) can use some extra highlighting by adding yet another layer, usually in Screen blending mode.

* Emissive: the same approach to highlights also works for emissive surfaces, such as computer or phone screens. You may want to use a specific color for each, and blend mode Screen.

Palette Tips

* You can use any blending mode that gets the job done to create ambient color in your page. I've found that for well-lit interiors, Soft Light works a bit better than Color. But it's really a matter of trying different options and seeing which one suits the particular look you're aiming for,

* I haven't mentioned what brushes to use here because they mostly don't matter for this layer work. Just pick the one that works for you and the lineart. Try to stick to solid brushes for the shadowing though, and save gradients and textured brushes for lighting.

* I haven't mentioned merging layers together because I don't do it. I'd rather keep them separate, making adjustments on the mask, so I can copy easily across pages. Some colorists traditionally work their lighting on a separate layer then merge it down to the composite one.
That is hardly editable, and flexibility is important when it comes to corrections, so I'd strongly advise keeping your layers separate for ambient, shadowing, lighting and highlights.

Putting it all together

To understand how all these layers work together on a single page, including different locations corresponding to different palettes, analyze this page:

1. the first two panels happen in a different location and time than the rest, so we need to distinguish them using an Ambient color.

2. I create two Ambient layers spanning the entire panels.

3. And set them to blending mode Color (opacity 50%) for the above panels, and Soft Light (50% opacity) for the rest. They are well differentiated hues (blue for the exterior scene, orange for the interior) so they make a good contrast of complementary colors.

4. Create layers for each of the lighting (and highlights) layers, using Screen mode. See how they look over a black background.

5. Now this is the end result.

If you check all the layers I used for coloring this page, you can see all the different color, blending modes and opacity that goes into it.

Conclusion

Now this is my method, that I've been using to color my own lineart successfully for the last few years with good enough results. The main reason I believe it works is because it takes all the complicated visual aspect of coloring and splits into manageable pieces. Unlike standalone illustrations, covers or pinups, color in comics serves a story, and good storytelling is even more important than visual appeal. Also, this method of splitting your color into specialized layers makes it portable to ensure color continuity and consistency. Even more, it's the most time effective way I've found to streamline my efforts to color my pages. Once I have one figured out, I only need to drop a copy of my layers on top the flats of the next, clear all the masks and start shading and lighting.

Now why don't you give it a try?

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