How to Be a Comic Book Colorist

Comic signed by colorist
Superman comics signed by colorist Jamie Grant. Surian Soosay / Flickr/ CC BY 2.0

Simply put, a colorist's job is to apply color to a comic book. Typically, the job is broken up into two parts, flatting and coloring. In the flatting process, the basic areas of color are blocked out so the colorist knows what spaces to color what. In the coloring stage, the colorist applies not only the color but also adds lighting and shading to help give the three-dimensional feel that comic books are known for.

The colorist helps the comic book to become a finished piece of art, and is an artist in their own right, needing very different kinds of skills than what the penciller and inker need.

Skills Needed

Knowledge Of Color – The colorist needs to know how to use color. School training is helpful, but not necessary as many colorists learn as they go. You need to know what color looks like and how it changes under light and shadow.

Artistic Mindset – A colorist is an artist, no question about it. It requires patience, practice, and some level of artistic skill. Knowing the theory as well as how to use color to get what you want will only make you a better colorist.

Speed – The colorist is one of the last in the assembly process. Because of this, if there are problems in earlier stages, the colorist may have less time to complete their work. They are often required to keep the comic on the deadline and will need to develop the speed and endurance to finish work quickly, but maintain quality.

Technological Skills – Nowadays, almost all coloring is done on computers using complicated software programs. This is going to require the colorist to be comfortable with technology. The colorist doesn’t even actually physically touch the art, but does it all with a scanned piece of artwork. These kinds of skills with technology are becoming more and more necessary.

Equipment Needed

  • Computer – Most coloring these days is done on a Macintosh computer. That isn’t to say that a Windows machine can’t serve you for your coloring needs, but the industry standard is the Macintosh. Knowing how to use a Mac will only help you get further in your career.
  • Software – The most common ones used today are Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. These programs are very powerful in what they can do with color and texture to the page. They are a must have, but are very expensive. Some free versions have come out recently, such as GIMP and Paint.net, but aren’t exactly the same thing.

Optional Equipment

  • Wacom Tablet – Although this is probably a “must have” for most colorists nowadays, to get started you don’t have to have one. A Wacom tablet is a tool that allows you draw with a penlike stylus where the strokes are captured on the screen. This makes it very much like doing actual painting and drawing.

So You Want To Be A Comic Book Colorist?

Start practicing. If you own a computer, get a version of Photoshop and hit some websites that offer black and white pictures, then practice, practice, practice! Submit your work for critique and listen! If you take the feedback to heart, it will only help you become a better colorist.

What Colorists Have to Say

From Dave McCaig – Dave is a longtime colorist who has colored Superman: Birthright, The New Avengers, and Nextwave, to name a few. From an interview on Comic Book Resources.

On what a colorist does – "Colorists are the cinematographers of the comic industry. We are not responsible for telling the story in as direct a way as the writer or penciller is, but our work is very important anyway. We set the tone and mood with color, we direct your eye across the page, and set up depth of field. All important, but kind of secondary to the main story. So as long as the editors and pencillers know who I am, and fans like how the book looks in the end, I'm happy."

From Marie Javins – Marie worked for 13 years for Marvel as an editor and colorist before taking off on trips around the world.

From an interview at Creativity Portal.

On learning to be a colorist – “The way you learn to be a comic book colorist is you learn from other colorists. At the time I was using paintbrushes. It was a lot of fun for a long time but we went bankrupt as a company several times — so by the time I left I was happy to leave. The comic book colorists were happy to teach anybody and I was lucky enough to have an aptitude for it. A talent I had no idea I had by the way. I literally fell into this career. I was editing by day, and to pay my student loans off, at night I was going home and coloring. Eventually I left the day job and was just doing the freelance coloring.”

From Marlena Hall – A newcomer to the coloring world, Marlena has worked on Knights Of The Dinner Table: Everknights, Dead @ 17, and others. From an interview at Comic Book Bin.

On what a colorist needs – “I've had no formal training, so I don't think you really need it. But if you don't go to school for any of it, I think you have to have some sort of basic knowledge about color. Or at least have an eye for what works and what doesn't. I've bought a ton of books and I go through comics that I already have to study the color composition that I see in those books to give me ideas for my own work.

What you do need, however, is a knowledge of the programs that you work in to produce your work. You can have all the technique and natural ability in the world, but if you can't use Photoshop or any of the other programs out there, I don't think you'll be able to get very far.”