This how-to-colour-comics tutorial is geared towards webcomics but applies to regular comics as well. I’m not going to teach you the ins-and-outs of a particular art program. Instead, you will learn 10 important things to consider whether you colour with Photoshop or a paintbrush. These lessons will keep your comic storytelling clear and dynamic. If you do a goofy strip like my own Princess Planet, or an all out action fest like the X-Men the lessons still apply.
1. Read vs Real
Comics is sequential story telling and therefore its primary goal is not making the nicest picture – its about making the clearest picture to illustrate your story. Just like you don’t draw every hair on a persons head, every pore on their skin and every leaf on a tree, you need to make decisions about what colours you will and won’t include. How much shading is enough and how much is too much? With the advent of computer colouring there are a lot of mainstream comics coloured in a way that makes them more “realistic”. This is often at odds with what is most clear. So I recommend that choosing colours for your characters and their surroundings becomes a question of what “reads” best, not what’s most “real”.
For a simple gag strip I think the first head is over drawn and the last head is over-coloured. Depending on how real you want to make your strip you may find your level of detail varies.
2. Basics of Colour Theory
The colour wheel is made of 6 major colours. Colours opposite each other are called complimentary. They make the biggest impact when you put them beside each other. You don’t lose a green snot monster on a red wall, but they might seem a little more subdued on a yellow or blue background.
Analogous colours are ones that are 3 in a row on the colour wheel. We start to include the non-major 6 colours like orange-yellow, blue-green etc. They make a very pleasing combination. This is good for home decorating.
If you just use two colours beside each other some people think these colours clash. I’ve heard a lot of people say you don’t wear red and purple (bad news Dracula!) and blue and green should never be seen except round and round in the washing machine. This isn’t as bad if you use stretch the colours to be almost analogous, so that you have blue and yellowish green.
Another reason colours clash is that they are at the same value. Picture value being “If this colour was on a black and white tv, what grey would it be?”. You can test this out by converting your computer file to greyscale. If you have colours too close to each other on the scale of grey, they become hard to read, especially if you don’t have an outline between the colours. If you colour your outlines or don’t use outlines at all, be very aware of this.
If you add black to a colour it’s called a shade. If you add white it’s called a tint. But adding black to a colour is bad news. It makes colours muddy and flat. If you want a darker colour try adding other colours to it, like painters do. A purplish shadow is deeper than a blacker one. Here’s a link to a Photoshop palette that has all the basic colours without black that recreates the traditional mainstream comic colours.
A monochrome colour scheme is when you colour with only one colour, white and black. The Abominable Charles Christopher use this simple version to add a quiet tone to the comics. It’s harder to make a clashing or unappealing picture with only one colour besides black and white. It’s also harder to make a bold, grab your attention from the other side of the room one. If you want bold in a monochrome scheme, you usually rely on stark white and black to grab attention (click to enlarge).
Neutral colours are ones not on the wheel, like greys and browns. These colours won’t dominate the other colours. You can create “dusty” or “sandy” tones of regular colours by making the values of cyan, magenta and yellow close to each other on your computer program’s colour sliders
3. RGB vs CMYK
Speaking of CMYK, if you are making a webcomic you may be tempted to use all the colours of the computers spectrum and colour in RGB. Unfortunately if you ever want to make a print edition, your comic will need to be converted to CMYK and you may lose a lot in translation. If you plan ahead you can save yourself a lot of headache. And obviously you want to make files at AT LEAST 300dpi (but preferably 600), then save a 72dpi version for the web. Using CMYK sliders also more closely mirrors natural paint mixing, so if you learn how to colour on a computer this method will be easier to make the switch to paints. You can work in RGB in CMYK preview mode which will let you know how it will print, and that’s just as good.
If you’re colouring in Photoshop, make yourself a swatch palette of your most used colours. This can be your character’s clothes and skin tones, their home base, or whatever.
This CMYK lesson also applies if you are drawing or painting your work by hand and scanning it in. If you draw in black and white, scan it in as line art for crisp linework, before you convert it to CMYK. If you are scanning in paintings you will have to adjust the colour balance of the images to get the truest colours to your painting. Taking a hi-resolution photograph may yield a better result. Either way, the file should be CMYK in the end if you want to see how it will print in a book.
“Print is dead!” you say? Well webcomic creators still make a good chunk of their money from prints and books. At comic conventions we almost never have fans ask us creators “when will you have this as an iPhone ap?”. The question we are most frequently asked is “When will you be collecting it in a book” or “When does the next collection come out?” People still want books.
4. Character Design
Comic characters usually have very different colour schemes to identify themselves. For instance Spider-Man is primarily red. His main villains are his complimentary colour, green. This gives the greatest punch and easy separation when Spidey gets tangled up with Doc Oc, The Scorpion, The Vulture, Sandman, Electro and of course Green Goblin.
I remember watching the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace where Bond (in a black tuxedo) fought against similarly proportioned white guy (also in a black tuxedo) in a scaffolding-filled room. They zipped up and down ropes, kicked, shot, climbed and all the good things you’d expect in an action sequence. But with the quick cuts and shaky camera I couldn’t tell the two apart. This would be great storytelling if there was someone off to the side trying to shoot one of them but unsure which one to shoot at. Alas, that wasn’t the case. So if for some reason you are drawing all of your characters in the same outfit and they have to be the same build and race, at least change their hair colour. I mean, it worked for separating blonde Betty from raven-haired Veronica.
Think not only about what will set your characters apart from each other but apart from their backgrounds. So, if your character spends his time in the jungle, and you make him green, your character becomes a ghost that even the reader can’t see half of the time. As cool as that might be, remember that it can become frustrating. People may not bother trying to figure out where that word balloon is coming from. They may just click onto another easier to read webcomic. While red might make the hero look foolishly confident, a blue, yellow or black might work well.
If you really want a green person in a green location, like Swamp Thing in the swamps, you need to be brazen enough to colour the background in colours that are not real. A quick look through a classic Swamp Thing comic and I see old Swampy against lilac tree trunks, bright blue swamp water, red skies, and pale, pale green empty backgrounds.
This seems less unusual if your comic takes place in a made-up world. In The Princess Planet I have pink skies and purple grass sometimes so I can do whatever I think suits the story. In a realistic setting it takes real guts to colour things the “wrong” colour. Andy B’s comic, Raising Hell, colours with red and blue. He only introduces new colours when he’s drawing attention to something new, like a yellow school bus appearing out of nowhere.
5. Start Simple
The next lesson is really simple: Colour the things you know have to be a certain colour. Once you’ve established your character’s colour scheme, stick to it. For instance I know Princess Christi has spray-tan orange skin, white blonde hair and a reddish-orange jumpsuit. That’s not going to change unless there’s something dramatically different in the scene. The Gorgon character in my strip is always the same colour too.
Then you colour the things that are usually the same colour, like tree trunks are brown, grass is green, sidewalks are grey. Sure, untended grass can go yellow but it’s that’s atypical.
Then you turn on your thinking cap and colour the things that are a bit more variable in their colour. Like leaves on the trees are usually green but it’s not illogical to see red, brown and orange in the fall. Could your comic take place in the fall? Would it help the colour scheme of the page? What about the sky? During the day it’s blue but at sunset it can be a rainbow of colours. Does that help or hinder your storytelling? Is your character hiding or are they the centre of attention? Here I can make rock grey, brown, sandy yellow, biege… there are a lot of applicable colours to choose from. I selected a cool pinkish grey.
Then you should have a pretty good framework to start in with colours that never have to be any particular colour, like cars, pants, walls, ice cream etc. You can start referring back to your generic colour theory like complimentary, analogous, etc. For this gag I want the “rock” to sit apart from the “stone”, so I made the stone a warmer, darker grey than than the rock figures.
6. Avoiding Busy
When you have a lot of things to colour in it can get busy-looking very quickly. A trick that help me is to leave out one of the main 6 colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue or purple). The image below doesn’t have any orange (and barely any yellow).
When you have drawn a crowd scene you might look at all the characters you’ve drawn and worry about labouring over the colouring of each individual. Luckily, it’s not usually in your best interest to spend your time doing that. Most of the time you want to set your characters apart from the crowd. You want people to know “there is a crowd here, but the people talking are the important ones”. So you can colour the crowd different hues of the same colour. I usually use purple. I saw it done a lot in comics when I was a kid and it makes a lot of sense. Almost nothing in real life is purple so people won’t confuse the crowd of people for a crowd of green trees, grey rocks or skin coloured nudists. They also won’t blend into the background elements you’ve set up Unless your comic is about Grimace fighting the Purple People Eater inside the Hulk’s pants, purple is your friend.
The time when you do want to colour the whole crowd is if you want the reader to labour over the crowd looking for someone, like a Where’s Waldo puzzle. This is good to slow down the reader on an establishing panel of life in a new location. It’s also good if your character has just given someone the slip into a big crowd and that person is feeling overwhelmed with where to look. However, if your escapist has been spotted by their pursuer, you may want to fall back on a purple crowd with the suddenly spotted character in their regular colour.
In this comic I coloured all of the confectionery different colours to suggest the huge variety of deliciousness. I’ve used purple in the last panel here to make the complimentary gold pieces pop off of the background.
Neutral tones also accomplish the same thing as the purple. Blending your base colour with white, black or it’s complimentary colour can give you a duller version to work with. In this comic I have a panel where I wanted an intense rainbow of colours behind the Unicorn Queen. This works at differentiating the Queen because she is mainly neutral colours: white and a blue-ish grey. In the lower panels the bright purple hydra is highlighted by the dull, grey rock.
7. Let There Be (Some) Light
Light sources are great at two things: mood and overdoing things. Sometimes people go over board colouring comics based exactly on the light sources drawn in the panel. For instance with this comic I have a couple of light sources, the fire under the cauldron and the open doorway. Instead of calculating exactly where these competing light sources are going to light my characters I just throw a little hint at both. This comic isn’t about the heat from the cauldron or the light from out of doors. So a drop shadow underneath the walking characters in the last panel suggests light from the door and an orange glow around the fireplaces suggests a light there too. Any more than that would be like drawing the characters with enough hand wrinkles that a fortuneteller could read their palms. This is a comic, not a historical documentation. If you worry too much about casting the right shadow and picking up the right highlight in someone’s hair you’re probably not seeing the forest for the trees.
But a few lighting cues can go a long way to building a mood. Simply lighting someone from below gives them an eerie appearance. If you add a bit of blue to your basic palette you’re ready to colour your characters at night. Or you could wash everyone out with red if their at a roller disco.
8. Special Effects
You might be tempted to add a solar flare from the sun in the distance or a radiant glow from a campfire. This occurs more in comics now that colourists are almost like painters, filling in blank backgrounds that pencillers and inkers have left empty. When you add special effects, it draws attention to the special effects and away from what the writer (hopefully you) is trying to say in the scene. Is it more important the sun seems bright or that we look at the character’s reaction to the sun. Who is the story about? The desert nomad or the sun?
9. Changing Locations
Once you have a colour palette established for your scene, you can use a shift in palettes to indicate a changing of scenes or mood. If a person suddenly gets really angry you can put them on a red background. If you’ve suddenly gone from Sally’s apartment to Brenda’s apartment, you can tell people by changing the wall colour. Below you can see a transition from one stone home to another.
10. Sketch From Life
A great way to build up your palettes is to sketch with your computer facing a window (or if you have a laptop, just go outside somewhere). These are sketches I’ve done in different weather at different times of the day. All of these have been used colouring one of my comics set in a city.
If you are looking to use a different palette, try scanning in (or finding online) a picture that you like, and eyedrop the colours from it. Just like you wouldn’t trace another person’s artwork, you wouldn’t swipe a complete colour scheme. You’re bound to tinker with some of the values, especially from a radiant coloured photo. But it can force you out of your regular routine if you’re looking to introduce a new mood. This works great if you’re thinking things like “What colour can snow appear at night?”. You might use the eyedropper and disover the blue snow is actually grey but looked blue next to the other colours. You can try to recreate the environment where grey looks blue or you can make the snow the blue you see it to be in your mind and work from there. You have options.
The last thing to say is “Keep working at it!” If you’re colouring on the computer it’s really not very time consuming to try switching a few colours around to see if the wooden furniture should be a reddish brown or a bluish brown, or if the sky works better as sunset or broad baylight. Do a couple versions of your comic and see which one you like better, maybe combining the best of both. Just like learning anything, there’s a lot of trial and error. Hopefully these tips have helped you to find some paths in the wilderness that should lead you to your goal. Good luck and have fun!
If you enjoyed this tutorial, you may want to check out my book