Color in context

We are devoting several chapters to coloring comics in DWWP2, covering everything from spot colors to digital coloring. While looking for examples of full color comics that we might use in the book, I discovered that what I often think of as great coloring has less to do with the approach to an individual panel than with its larger context: the page, the spread, the work as a whole.

a panel from Igort & Sampayo's Fats Waller

Some of you may know the Italian artist Igort from his book 5 is a Perfect Number (Drawn & Quarterly) or his serial Baobab (Fantagraphics), part of the Ignatz series he oversees. His color work is always innovative, making rich use of the printing technology at hand. His books in English so far only have a spot color, but a a few years ago he did the art for a book called Fats Waller (written by Carlos Sampayo of Muñoz & Sampayo fame) that has some of the most striking color work I’ve ever seen. But when I went to look for a panel to reproduce I found it extremely difficult to pick one out that captured the glory of Igort’s work in this book. As I flipped through the book it dawned on me that a large part of the effect of Igort’s color work is the way he balances the color throughout the page. The panel above is a lovely example of Igort’s style: thin pencil-y line combined with wash and flat tones; a constantly varying blend of realistic and cartoony rendering; a dramatic compositional sense. Yet it doesn’t really give you the full effect. Here’s the panel in context of the page:

© Igort & Sampayo

The first thing you may  notice is that the image of Fats in the bottom left is contrasted with the priest in the opposite corner. Though the fact that they are close-ups in diagonal framing connects them, it is the blood-red background color that really unites them on the page. Elsewhere it’s muted grays and earth tones (except for the bright red glow of Fats’s tie). Notice that in the last panel Igort removes the graytone from Fats’s suit, making him glow with surprise as the priest confronts him.

The effect is similar in Chris Ware‘s work. Any given panel looks good if not wonderful, but if you really aim to understand why Chris Ware is such a master of color, you need to look at the full context of the work.

A panel from Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library #19

The panel above is a wonderful study in a muted and minimalist palette:earth tones and warm purples punctuated with the banana yellow lampshade and the blue suit (note too the glowing white of the toilet paper roll, a significant narrative detail). Now the panel in the context of the page:

We see that the extracted panel is a kind of master panel and most of the rest of the page repeats its color scheme, creating a base rhythm. We also see that as yellow and blue punctuate the extracted panel, so a vivid red punctuates the page and in two ways: the large “THIRTY MINUTES LATER” panel of course draws our eye, yet there are also smaller instances in the narration, sound effects, and, towards the end of the page, in the young woman’s dress. These contrasts dazzle the eye and create complex patterns on the page. Ware has described his comics as sheet music that the reader performs when reading. His use of color certainly underscores the  musical  rhythm of his pages: you could say the muted tones form the basic rhythm, the accent colors act as syncopation.

Two closing notes: first, I’ll point out that it’s interesting that both artists use a vivid, flat red as a storytelling tool as well as, in perhaps a related way, small flashes of red (along with other bold colors—all primary colors, as it happens!). Second, I’m only talking in this post about color in the context of the page. Think about how color can be varied from page to page throughout the course of a whole book.


4 Comments to Color in context

  • by Ryan R Goble

    On November 30, 2010 at 1:16 am

    You know what I’m gonna say – if you have the mojo always consider posting awesome stuff like this at MC POP in the GN / Visual Culture discussion groups! It wil then get a double highlight in the WIReview. Something to add to your small to do list – lol.

  • by Matt

    On December 1, 2010 at 5:34 pm

  • by Joel Gill

    On December 3, 2010 at 2:10 am

    After struggling with color I appreciate that you posted this, it is well reasoned. I recently made a similar post using an old masters as the basis for the pallet on my blog. I did not go through as thoroughly as you did.

  • by Matt

    On December 7, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Thanks Joel. I love that Rembrandt pallet. It reminds me of a conceptual piece where a painter (female, as I remember) reduced master painters to three- or four-color palettes. It was amazing how often you could identify the painters…

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