When I began coloring comics, I had very little understanding of how comics worked and what it took to create them from page to page. I graduated from a prestigious art school with an illustration degree in hand—I wanted to draw comics.
I eventually discovered that comics weren’t just writing and drawing. There were other extremely important parts of the machine: design, lettering, coloring, editing. I was always a fan of color in film, art history, and illustration and never fully understood why. Once I was coloring comics full time, I began to understand the significance of color. Contrary to some thoughts, coloring comics is not “paint by numbers.” Color is nearly insidious, manipulating a viewer or reader to feel and emote without consciously realizing it. It’s also just nice to create something that’s pretty to look at.
I think a lot about the psychology of color. When I’m at a convention, I’m often asked what my best advice would be to an aspiring colorist—or to train an intern or lecture a course in color theory. Color theory is obviously a basic fundamental of creating art. It’s necessary, but it’s not the only working part—color psychology is essential to a great colorist’s path. The way one colorist may paint a depressing funeral scene is far different from how another might do the same. One may choose to paint the sky in reds, foreshadowing or signifying trauma. One may color it gray to give the impression of sadness or borderline emotionless, boundless feelings tied to death. One may leave things stark white to show the emptiness and meaninglessness of it all. These are three interesting and specific takes on one particular subject. It’s not just that a graveyard has green grass, that it is a sunny day, that the stones would be gray, that the flowers on the freshly dug grave are beautiful and bright—it’s much more than that, and many colorists know that. The real trick is to make sure your reader or viewer doesn’t stop to notice what makes your take so different. They just feel the things instead.
I very much enjoy the current standing of color variety in comics today, from Bettie Breitweiser, who soothes all of us with her beautiful, moody palettes, but keeps us alert with her choppy and urgent style of rendering; Tamra Bonvillain’s lush, beautiful colors suck us into the worlds she paints, keeping them thick enough to swim through; Matt Wilson’s constantly electric and lively color communicates a realness, but a surreal unearthliness, too. They all do something different but the same. These colorists, and many colorists today, have created a voice based on how they view the world and how they choose to summarize it.
Much of coloring comics is about how we summarize what we see, finding the banal and the reality of an emotion or a place and boiling it down to the bare essentials of color use. Rendering and technique always come second behind this concept for me. What makes a tea glass beautiful? It may be the stained edge—consider that. Paint it. What makes a sky beautiful? Is it that it’s bright and orange, or is it the stars beginning to appear subtly over the setting sun, strange and unusual? Consider that. Paint it. What makes a highway beautiful in the evening? The red brake lights leading over the horizon, bouncing off the slick, wet road, creating a carnival of color? Consider that. Paint it. Taking notice of the smallest things and sharing them with the viewer is one of my greatest pleasures. In Analog #1, written by Gerry Duggan and penciled by David O’Sullivan, there’s a spread where I utilized a lot of those observational skills and tried my best to develop a world that looked believable, while colorful and atmospheric. With color, everything should have a purpose.
As I tell anyone I train, whether it’s an intern or a workshop, I remind them to observe everything, and think about it when you color comics. Think about your observations when you create anything, really. Comics don’t need to be limited to their genres, or the scope comics have had in the mainstream the last five decades. We can push them so much further conceptually and artistically, not just through the art but with the color, too. I hope that I can be part of that shift in comics and will continue to challenge myself to be the best world-communicator and manipulator of emotions that I can possibly be.
Jordie Bellaire is an Eisner Award-winning colorist best known for her work on Pretty Deadly, Vision, Nowhere Men, and Batman. Jordie has begun her career as a comic book writer with her ongoing debut Redlands, published by Image Comics, co-created and drawn by Vanesa Del Rey.