How to Color the World

How to Color the World

Digital screenshot preview of eight sequential pages from my upcoming short graphic novel, Amphiox. It's meant to be too small to read clearly. It features a lot of blues and reds.

From Inks to Colors
I completed the inks to Amphiox sometime in November. From there, I needed to figure out how to color a comic. I’ve done short comics in full color before. The thing with a one- or two-page micro-story is that each individual story can have its own color scheme. It’s a wholly different concept to color 48 individual pages in a book. The pages all need to look like they’re part of the same book, but also evoke different moods, times of day, and settings. I’d never colored more than a sequence of one or two pages before. This was going to get interesting, and fast.

Digital spread of black-and-white comic pages. It has several panels with striking black backgrounds. It is otherwise uncolored with black lineart on white background.For lack of knowing what else to do, I filled in spot blacks across all the pages in the comics, like I did in this page. 

It was hard to know where to go after I filled in spot black inks. They weren’t intended to be a final version of the comic, but they did make it look finalized. A fallback. The point of Amphiox, though, is to approach the challenge of making a complete comic, colors and all, so that I feel less afraid and lost while making other comics. Since I had the entire book drawn and inked, I had one advantage, and one advantage alone:

I know what the most complicated spread in the whole book is.

(…Or at least, I thought I did.)

Digital comics spread depicting a chaotic village of people who live inside of airships. All sorts of air vehicles are strewn about, near a garden and tables full of food. A lot of stuff appears to have been repurposed for village life, such as dumpsters used as storage and old solar panels used as roofing. There are hot air balloons, RVs, motorcycles, old military equipment, and helicopters perched near a section of highway that has clearly seen better days. There is a black fill on the ground and the rest of the subjects are white. Manta rays fly through the air overhead, which is not something they do in real life.Here it is. The most complicated spread. If I can’t get colors to work here, they’re not going to work for the rest of the book.

I chose this spread of the airship village because it is the most detailed and overwhelming piece in the entire story. How I ended up coloring this would influence the rest of the book. It would be hard to retrofit a color scheme from a simpler page onto this spread, because what if I didn’t use enough colors elsewhere? What if the colors I was using in smaller panels were cacophonous here, when I needed all of them at once?

Same digital spread as above, only now it sports chaotic colors, most notably: Bright green.My first attempt at flatting this spread. I used literal colors, except for the manta rays. They were made red in an attempt to make them stick out from the background more.

My thought process was, a nice bright green to welcome readers into the world, and make them see that, through all the wrack and ruin, something beautiful and fun had come together in the form of a traveling village. However, I discovered that coloring everything with a literal hue (as in, a 1:1 representation as seen in real life, which has no art direction) still led to a cacophonous color scheme. There weren’t many good ways to direct reader attention if everything is a very bright color. The biggest problem here was my inability to separate the extreme foreground (flying manta rays) from the extreme background (airship village and villages). I did genuinely like the green and what it represented. I just couldn’t get it all to agree with itself in one spread. That meant that this strategy also wasn’t going to work across the rest of the pages.

The good thing was that the way I had set up my flatting, it was easy to change colors with one click via Fill tool with ‘contiguous’ unchecked. I could blaze through as many color schemes as I wanted without too much fuss.

Spread of the airship village, only now in nightmarish red, yellow, and blue hues.My second attempt at flatting the airship village was inspired by the works of James Fenner.

I really wanted this to work. Really, really wanted it. It just wasn’t going to cooperate. I didn’t quite have a bead on what made Fenner’s color schemes work. The tone was ‘complete nightmare’ when I was going for ‘cool dream’. I had possibly overcorrected from literal hues to more symbolic ones. I also fretted that I was stealing a bit too fiercely from Fenner, whose entire portfolio uses basically this color scheme or other similarly unhinged schemes. It was still a great exercise and one that made me think more carefully about stylizing hues.

Digital spread of the airship village, now rendered in teal with...pink and purple manta rays? What?My third attempt at coloring this spread, before I gave up temporarily.

I came to one conclusion: The ‘village’ portion of the illustration was likely going to be all one color. At this point, I had mostly learned about what my comic wasn’t going to look like. It was time to step back and think about the other extreme within my comic:

What was the simplest page going to look like, when it came to color?

Since this comic’s inception as a quick, experimental short prose story, I’d always had one scene in mind with a definite color. The character uses a red light in a dark grotto, so as not to disturb the local wildlife. The red light changes to ultraviolet, then back to red, so that the character can find a UV-sensitive egg. This red, then, was my next clue to the comic’s color scheme.

I looked at how red light lends two different tones to a scene. I used only a midtone and a shadow to begin with. No highlights. This kind of color scheme would heavily rely on silhouette and staging to work. Spot black fills were key. I had to hope that I’d set up my inks well enough for this. I was pretty sure I had, but, just in case, there’s always the option to obliterate detail!

Digital comics spread of a wayward explorer using red light to explore a cave full of rocks, eggs, and giant serpents. In one panel she is tripping on the stones and yelling 'Crap!'. She lands on a giant fin. More complete transcriptions will be available when the comic officially launches.I was shocked by how easy it was to flat this sequence.

Since this color was working out fairly well, I went ahead and flatted all of the pages in what I referred to as the ‘red light sequence’… No, not that kind of red light! Anyway. This firmly established this particular red as an important color to the comic. It meant that I needed to find other places to use the red to keep it as a thoroughline color, so that it wasn’t too shocking when the whole comic went monochromatic with red as the only hue. 

Digital screenshot of Photoshop's color picker tool, displaying al the hue sliders and options for selecting colors. A triangle with an exclamation mark next to the chosen hue indicates it's not going to print accurately in CMYK.Photoshop warns artists with a triangle if they’re about to use a color that won’t translate accurately to print. It’s mostly fussy about green tones, but any hue can cause trouble if it’s too bright or the K (black) value is too high.

I also needed to be aware of ink density. I believe that my small press printer of choice, Mixam, does digital as well as offset printing, depending on the amount of copies a person orders. Offset printing tends to be more dull so I relied on Photoshop’s ink density warnings wherever I could. I wanted a nice screen-to-paper conversion via CMYK values. I will find out whether these worked out when I get a proof of this from Milan. This consideration gave me about 4 different reds to work into my ‘red light’ sequence. 

Once I’d flatted the darkness of the cave, I reasoned that, the easiest way to carry this red color through the whole comic was to apply it to Lyrat’s clothes. She features throughout most of the graphic novel. I’d envisioned her as wearing a mauve jumpsuit when I was first writing her, but mauve is just another term for desaturated, dark red.

Digital comic page depicts a character dressed in red in the basement of an abandoned house, which has been rendered in soft, dreamy green tones.First attempt at flatting some opening pages. Green typically complements red, so I went with that.

I sat back and thought about the other elements in the comic that featured prominently. Sure, there was a giant magic doom eel, which was black, but that was already covered by my preliminary spot black fills. Black goes with any color scheme, same as white and neutral gray tones. I also found this lovely axolotl art and wanted to try grouping colors the way this artist grouped their colors. The magic doom eel has a peculiar face which requires many colors, so that gave me another space to throw in ‘all the colors’ and see if it worked. This page, I am hiding, because I would prefer to surprise readers with what the Amphiox’s face looks like. Stay tuned for the webcomic launch to see it for yourself.

My creature design inspiration led me to the color blue. Deep, oceanic, broad, cerulean blue. I had initially colored all the oceans in the comic with spot black. My thought was that this was a reference to the Euxine, to sleep, and to death, but once again I found myself pulling away from stylized colors to more literal ones, at least where the ocean and the water and the waves were concerned. This ocean is an enormous part of the setting so it makes sense that blue would be a major color in the comic.

DIgital screenshot of an ocean texture, rendered with delicate, sparkling cerulean tones.(Regina Spektor noises)

I decided to make the amphiox’s fins blue instead of gray, and I filled in all the water in the comic with this blue color. It’s a warmer blue, not as warm or as bright as cyan, but it easily blends to the greens and yellows of a Mediterranean-climate body of water. This solved most of the comic color scheme in one fell swoop. I improvised in the opening series of pages and at the end to see if I could indicate the passage of time. I used a pea-green teal color to indicate the foggy morning of the opening pages, and purples and oranges to indicate nightfall.

Digital comics spread of the character on an island, tossing her rope into the abyss. Everything is lit with blue tones. The island is a vibrant yellow with green plants here and there.Then I worked on this spread, which I found to be very playful and bright. Exactly the tone I want in the comic.

Having flatted most of the comic, I took a break. When I came back, it was time to fix the airship village spread.

The airship spread returns! Complete color description is in the post below.Here is what I ended up doing.

While this spread had initially appeared very complex and needing tons of colors, it was actually a large variety that made my composition unreadable. There was a pair of dimensional planes that needed definition for the story of this spread to work: The meandering village in the sand down below, and the flight of the manta rays from the ocean. Any more colors and this spread loses all meaning. It was here that I invented the sandy yellow beach to contrast with the blue manta rays, and this yellow would  become more important later. There’s a thing called ‘atmospheric perspective’ which generally relates to the color blue and far-away objects turning more and more blue as they approach the horizon line in the distance. Here, I used atmospheric perspective, but with yellow. All the characters were colored with various shades of yellow, except for the two small characters that I want everyone to look at first in the top left corner. Yellow atmospheric perspective makes the scene look dusty but I think an airship village in the sand would be that way.

Digital art of an abandoned house overlooking a shore strewn with airships and the ruins of a highway. In the distance is an island. It is all covered in murky green fog.I still had some problems with the overall color scheme within the comic that I needed to address.

This panel looked fine on its own. The next page also looked fine. But, within the context of the whole comic…? It really didn’t match, at all, even though the pea-green showed up elsewhere in the comic. My favorite spreads were the ones with vibrant jewel tones. An art director friend, Sarah Dungan, reached out with some constructive criticism: Among other things, I needed to put the yellow from the airship village on the beach. I huffed. No!! This was my misty foggy mysterious opener!! How dare!

Same panel as above, but with an expanded composition to show more sky and more of the setting near the abandoned house. Abandoned picket fence and the shadows of electric equipment dot the cliffside.Well. I tried. This still didn’t look right, but it also didn’t feel right to walk it back to what I had.

As it turns out, there just isn’t enough room in a 48-page action adventure comic to properly display the slow, calm passage of time. This was also affecting how the sunset in the final pages felt — purples and pinks are very nice, but if they’re not really omnipresent in the rest of the comic, it feels weird for them to be central colors all of a sudden. It was time to dial back something about these spreads to be less literal and more stylized, fitting the style of the pages I already liked.

Same panel as above, but all the green is now a muted desaturated blue.Desaturating a blue can make it seem ‘greenish’ when placed next to something that is more deeply blue. Sarah is, after all, often right.

So, now my comic has two ‘modes’ of color instead of four. It has ‘outdoors’ mode, and it has ‘deep in a grotto with a monster’ mode. I think these are the most dramatic and exciting transitions for the reader, and having more modes would make it harder to sink into the world I’m trying to convey. Would I have room for more modes of color if I continued the comic? Most likely, I think I would, but I’m still going to keep mode-switching to a minimum and rely on the blue and the red the most.

Some good news though! My printed proof is coming shortly, after which I can tweak the colors to print better. I’m also in the process of designing a website and a preorder campaign for ordering the book. I’m just going to see where this goes!

Care to read more?

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