Worship at the CMYK Altar

Lowdown - Interview

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It is an art. It is what brings the page to life...it makes it breathe easier. The wheel turns around and around, and only a few know how to spin it. Ronda Pattison, Felipe Sobreiro, and Alex Sinclair understand the craft of the Colorist...the technique and patience it takes to tame the CMYK.

BROKEN FRONTIER: When did you decide to be a colorist? And how? Was it a happy accident? Serendipity?

RONDA PATTISON: Totally serendipitous! I have a B.F.A., and I always knew I'd be in the arts in some capacity, but after five years working in an art gallery, I wanted something more hands-on creative. I found out that there was a comic color studio in my city that was hiring, and I got a job doing separations: that is, creating the Photoshop versions of paper color guides. I did that for a few years before getting promoted to colorist. At that point, I really wanted to be a colorist, because it was the most creative position in the studio. I moved on to color for another studio for a couple of years, before going freelance in 2005.

Click to enlarge this example of Ronda's work.

FELIPE SOBREIRO: Well, in my case, it was unexpected but not really an accident. Some years ago I wanted to get my father (who's an artist but had never done any comics) involved in a project, so I gave him a script that I was originally going to do. I then handled the coloring, in a very erratic and long process, while I figured my way around the whole modus operandi, with the help of some colorist friends (specially Benny Fuentes) who kept giving me pointers and advice. That first work was eventually published in Heavy Metal and I never stopped coloring. Nowadays I actually do colors more than anything else, comics-wise.

ALEX SINCLAIR: Mine was  more of a planned out, serendipitous happy accident. I  was trying to break into comics as a penciller and would show my work at every convention. I would get constructive criticism on my pencils and inks, but everyone would tell me they really liked my color samples. I did this for a couple years and then Homage (now WildStorm) ran a talent search in the back of WildC.A.T.s #2. I decided to send color samples ONLY and use that as a way to get into the industry and work my way into pencilling. I did and a couple weeks later, I got a call from Jim Lee inviting me to come in and try out. Seventeen years later, I'm still enjoying coloring so much that I haven't made the move to pencilling yet. Either that or my pencils still stink.

BF: What's a normal day look like for you guys? I mean, do you wake up, crank up the coffee maker and throw on your most recent playlist and tackle a page, day after day? Or is there some healthy procrastination thrown in here and there? How long does it take you to do one page?

FS: In my case there's no procrastination at all, because since I have a day job that takes eight hours a day, I got to use every spare second I have to work on comics...I use nights, weekends, holidays, everything goes. It's hard to balance the two things but if you don't have full titles to work with, it's doable. Most pro colorists do more than one title per month, that way would be impossible to do what I do. And the time that a page takes depends on the type of artwork and the coloring. Some can take a whole day, simpler ones I can do a couple a day.

RP: I don't really have a typical day. Sometimes the workload is relatively light and I take advantage of it by only coloring a few hours a day, or catching up on the boring stuff like filing and paperwork. But when it's busy, I can easily work 12 to 20 hours a day, sometimes for weeks at a time. I try never to pull all-nighters any more, but it's a fairly common occurrence in a colorists life. Sometimes I'm at the mercy of scheduling that just has everything hit at once, but I have to admit that occasionally it's just procrastination on my part. Nothing like a looming deadline to motivate you! Usually I have cartoons playing in the background to keep me company. The time it takes me to do a page varies hugely, depending on the art, and how I'm treating it. It could be anywhere from an hour to a full working day, though on average, probably in the 2-4 hour range for me.

AS: I have 4 daughters and a wife who works, so my schedule varies from day to day which means I have to use every hour wisely--which I try to do most of the time. A "typical" morning for me starts at 6 AM, as I get up to help get all the kids and my wife off to school (she's a teacher). Once everyone is gone by 9, I have the house to myself unitl around 2 or 3, during which time I get as much done as possible. I also do more work once the kids are in bed--say from 9 until 11 or midnight. If I'm under a tight deadline, I either push through til 2 or wake up at 4 the next for added hours. There's always all-nighters if the deadline is really ugly. So, caffeine plays a major part in my day at various strategic parts of the day. The "how long does each page take you" question is by far the one I answer most. Here's the quick response since I already rambled on enough: It takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours depending on how busy the art is. I would say my average is 75 minutes a page nowadays--I'm slowing down in my old age.

RP: Wow, Alex, you've got 4 kids and Felipe, you have a day job? I suddenly feel like I've forfeited all right to complain about my schedule.

BF: Felipe, you've sent sent me some educational reading about the coloring process, and quite truthfully, I never appreciated the labor, the time, the artistry that went into coloring until I got into comics. But, I think, that may be the norm, right? I mean it blows people's mind when I explain that more often than not the penciler is separate from the colorist...How do you guys feel about this common mindset, and what type of reactions do you get when you tell people you're a colorist?

RP: I would say I get one of two reactions: enthusiasm and excitement from people who think I have the coolest job in the world, or blank, faintly pitying indifference from people who have no idea what I'm talking about. I prefer the former, but unless I'm talking to comic fans, the latter is far more common for me. Most of my family and friends have no real comprehension of what I do for a living. But I have, on occasion, met people who've treated me like a rock star. I think I could get used to it. Good coloring is absolutely an art in its own right. You need traditional art skills to understand things like light and shadow, color theory, depth of field, storytelling, etc. And you need mad Photoshop skills to quickly and easily create a variety of styles. There is no "color comics" filter. I guess I am disappointed when a viewer takes our contribution for granted, and just admires the pencils. But then again, I suppose that means I'm doing my job well: making the art look as good as it can, without being obtrusive, so one is admiring the whole and not the parts. But good coloring can definitely make pencils look better, just as bad coloring can make them look much worse.

FS: Well, non-comic readers use to think that comics are usually done entirely by one person, but that's only the case for some alternative comics and some other few cases, I have to explain that a comic is usually a collective project where there can be half a dozen people working on the same title: a writer, a penciller, an inker, a colorist, a letterer. I've been told that it's too bad I only do colors, that it would be better for me to "actually do the comics," i.e., to draw them, but I think that the coloring is as vital as the linework. Despite of how good the drawing is and the script is, the coloring sets the mood and the feel of the story, and as Ronda said, bad coloring can ruin a comic, no matter how good the penciller/inker.

Click to enlarge this example of Felipe's work.

AS: I can't work in silence so yes, music or TV/DVD/Blu-Ray is always going as it helps me focus while I work. I cycle though all sorts of music and movies/TV shows. Recently, I've been listening to Dave Matthews Band and Yes and just finished a Deadliest Catch and Spartacus marathon. Like Ronda, most of my regular friends think I am very talented, but don't really know what it is that I do or how I do it. It is within the comic book community (pros and fans) that my work gets respect and praise. Sadly, I've found that it isn't just some fans or our friends who see our work as mindless or talentless.

BF: On your note, Ronda, I think it would be glorious if every colorist were treated like Jimmy Page or Bowie, but I think there's something to be said about the badasses in the backgrounds--the Carter Beaufords (God, I can't believe I'm making a Dave Matthews reference) orld--the real backbone, the soul of any creative team. And I mean that sincerely.
Speaking of good rhythm, y'all think that there's colorists that were just born to work with certain artists? I'm thinking of the Cassadays and the Martins of the world, or maybe Gabriel Ba and Dave Stewart...Or, do you think such things are nonsensical, and it really doesn't apply if both artists are of equal talent?

RP: I certainly think that there are artists and colorists who share the same sensibilities, or vision for a book, so it's easier for them to work together. But a good colorist should be able to work in a variety of styles; different kinds of art demand a different approach. Part of the fun of my job is that I really get to mix it up--different artists, different genres, different moods and palettes with each story.

FS: I think that some colorists do click with some artists, the same way some artists click with some writers... Like Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, and Risso with Patricia Mulvihill. But I also think that art lets a lot of room for the combination of different talents, and a good colorist should understand the type of linework and story he's working with, and adapt.

AS: There are artists who are easier for me to color over than others. I see their art and I know exactly what it is that I need to do and how to do it and just kinda happens. You'll find that those team-ups last when that happens. Then there's folks who I struggle with for no other reason than I have a hard time reading their art--whether it's the lighting, the spotting of the blacks or even the storytelling. I'll stare at pages sometimes and just not know what direction I'm heading in.  Fortunately, I get to work with some seriously talented folks so the latter doesn't happen too often.

 Click to enlarge this example of Alex's work.

Ronda Pattison's work can be found in Atomic Robo, which is published by Red 5 comics. Felipe Sobreiro has published work in Heavy Metal, Image Comics’ POPGUN anthology and a couple of BOOM! Studios titles; he's currently handling the colors and lettering of Earthbuilders. And Alex Sinclair has lent his considerable talents to many properties, most recently DC's Batman and Robin series.

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  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs May 27, 2010 at 10:10am

    This is one of the best things I have read on the site! Great interview!

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