The Unsung Heroes of Comic Books: The Colorists

I never fully appreciated the work of colorists until I tried making a comic of my own. I’ve been performing every role myself: penciling, inking, writing–but coloring is what takes the longest. You wouldn’t think so either, because my use of color is largely simplistic. Sometimes drawing and inking a page of interior art will take me about an hour, but coloring that same page will take two hours at least. I don’t use anything more complex than color fills, yet the process still takes an excruciating amount of patience.

Here's the first page of a comic I'm working on. Notice how simple the colors are? This still somehow took me hours to color.

Colorists are the ones who can make or break a comic. No matter how amazing the pencils and ink are, the use of color can turn the whole image into something middling if executed poorly. That’s why big names in penciling like Jim Lee, David Finch, and the Kubert brothers will only work with top tier colorists.

A majority of comics now are colored with a computersometimes with photoshop and other times with more advanced programs specifically designed for comics. Unlike the penciler and inker, the colorist doesn’t get to have the joy of working with their hands, although many colorists utilize a tool that’s essentially a mouse in the shape of a pen and a pressure-sensitive pad that resembles a canvass to avoid hours of clicking around.

I originally thought the use of computers with comics was relatively new, and that people colored comics in the past by hand, but as it turns out, the process has always been expedited using machines. In the Golden Age of comics, coloring was accomplished through a complex system of numbers. Every shade of color had a special set of numbers for its name. Colorists would often create a rough draft of an image by using markers or paint, then would have to find the numbers for every color. On the pencil and ink drawing, they would write the numbers down with arrows pointing to where that color was meant to be, and then when it was sent to the printers, they’d fill in the page according to directions. From what I understand, this wasn’t an exact science, so oftentimes all of the artists involved wouldn’t know what the end product would look like once it returned from the printers.

Here's an example of Golden Age colors. Notice how it's mostly solid colors.

Today, the colorist will recieve a disc containing the scanned images of what the pencilers and inkers have accomplished. They then load those files onto their computer and get to work. The process can often agonizing, especially because the lines left by black ink are never perfect. When magnified and pixelated, there’s always little white dots that the colorist has to go and fill in individually. Most colorists then will start the complex work of using color blends, shadows, and light sources to make the whole image come together.

For all their labor, colorists often don’t get a lot of credit. In most cases, the penciler gets the lion’s share of accolades, while the colorists’ name is sometimes not mentioned on the cover.

Eric Powell, writer and penciler for the series The Goon, has stated in the past that his colorist, Dave Stewart, is the best there is. I am inclined to agree. For one thing, he’s among the most prolific artists out there, somehow managing to color a large variety of comics each month. For another, he’s mercurial–oftentimes, his work utilizes a different technique for every comic he lends his talent to. Believe it or not, Dave Stewart is the colorist for both Hellboy and Batwoman. I can’t think of two more dissimilar uses of color than those two books. The only similarity is that both use a lot of red and black, but that might be a coincidence. With Hellboy, the colors are almost always made up of solid fills often in a monochromatic style, whereas Batwoman switches freely from solid pastel colors resembling indie books to eye-popping splash pages where it looks as if the colors are painted and airbrushed by hand.

Here's an example of Dave Stewart's color work for Hellboy. Notice how it uses mostly color fills, but in a complex way that sets up a gothic tone for the book.

With every book, the colorist has to ask if the mood is better served through simplicity or complexity. Herge’s Tintin uses simplistic color schemes to great effect, while comics like Neil Gaiman’s Creatures of the Night will feature colors that emulate the techniques of fine art. Comics emphasizing humor will usually feature simplified color schemes so as not to distract from the jokes, but occasionally humor comics will go all out (oftentimes Calvin and Hobbes‘ colors will be amazing, especially when Calvin’s daydreaming). With indie comics, oftentimes one person will do everything–pencils, inks, colors, writing–as is the case with Jason and Daniel Clowes. Yuko Shimizu creates every aspect of her covers for the Unwritten as well. Speaking of The Unwritten, I think the use of somber colors for the interior art perfectly compliments the series itself.

In the end, it’s the colorist who bridges the gap between the penciler and inker’s visuals and the writer’s tone. The colorist brings everything together, and for that they deserve some serious respect.


I have self-published two books of fiction this past year, The Madness of Art: Short Stories and A Rapturous Occasion. Both are available through Amazon in paperback and as inexpensive ebooks.

Click on the pic to see my book The Madness of Art Short Stories on Amazon

Who is your favorite comic book colorist?


2 thoughts on “The Unsung Heroes of Comic Books: The Colorists

  1. You’re right: Most people have favorite writers and pencillers, but you rarely hear someone gushing about favorite colorists. To me, color is just as essential to a good comic as the writing or art, but maybe that’s because I review them, so I have to pay attention!

    Great point about Dave Stewart: He is a great, great colorist.

    Very informative post! 🙂

  2. I recently saw a book at my comics shop called “DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics” by Mark Chiarello and Todd Klein. It looked like a pretty comprehensive guide. Coloring is definitely critical to a comic book’s success, and the colorists are often overlooked.

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