Does modern computer colouring ruin linework?

I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to express my thoughts about modern colouring in comics and yes, that headline is a little inflammatory, isn’t it? It’s not that it “ruins” linework, more that it overpowers the linework and is 100% the dominant element in the artwork. We are living in the age of the comic book colourist.

My overall thought that I want to discuss is expressed in the question contained in the headline: is modern computer colouring ruining (overpowering) the penciler/inker linework? What I’m really trying to ask there is if there is even a point to the penciller/inker’s linework in the first place if the colouring is so heavily rendered? And in some cases, usually the bad examples, colourists are going to extremes… When elements that aren’t necessarily important to the overall story (a lamp or car in the background for instance) are perfectly rendered, does that detract from the overall storytelling?

For example, take an artist who’s been around for quite a while like Jim Lee.* Now if you compare his art from say X-Men #1 to Superman Unchained #1, I’d say that the linework was more prominent and probably more necessary in X-Men whereas in Superman, it’s often lost to the colouring. Now this isn’t a bad thing necessarily but it does raise the question of just why he’s investing so much time rendering lighting and stuff when it’s just going to get lost in the end product.

Colouring-JimLeeI picked these two for a couple of reasons: (1) They’re both by Jim Lee but more importantly they have somewhat similar layouts with multiple characters, and (2) they have some “effects” on each page that demonstrate the extent of the colour for each time period.

Now I’m sure you’re thinking that I’m just a grumpy old timer who longs for the good ol’ days of comics when I was growing up. But that’s not the case. I’m just wondering if this is a problem or if people don’t care at all.

From my own perspective, I think the evolution of colour over the past couple of decades has been pretty amazing and has done a lot to improve the overall quality of the artwork in the comic industry. In some cases, the colouring has become the dominant “look” on a book – to the point where it’s more important than the penciller. And that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a massive shift that the industry hasn’t caught up to (I mean, how many times does a colourist actually get any kind of billing on a cover?). But again, from my own perspective, I often find myself wishing that I could see more of an artist’s work instead of such bold, highly rendered colours. If we take Jim Lee again, his work is so good, that it’s a shame to lose the details that he fills his work with.

I’m saying that the colouring is bad! In most cases the colouring is awesome abut it dominates the artwork. Take a look at the two images below which are pages from Batman #29. FCO (the colourist on the book) is absolutely killing it with his colours and this may be the best looking monthly comic I’ve seen. But, take a look at the inked page by Greg Capullo (pencils) and Danny Miki (inks). The page is stunning in its own right. The thing is, a whole ton of that detail is getting overpowered by the colouring in the final coloured page…Colouring-Batman(I realized that some of the detail in the inked piece has been turned to colour using colourholds in the final art – specifically all the rain and rain drops. I picked this page because it was a good example of the detail really changing dramatically between the inks and colours. You could choose almost any page and my point would apply.)

Now there is a trend away from the highly rendered look but it’s probably not as prevalent in most mainstream comics. Colourists like Jordie Bellaire or Dave Stewart (two examples among many!) tend to bring more atmosphere and “feel” to their work than some other colourists. But this “style” is definitely in the minority still.

But like everything, the pendulum swings from from one extreme to another. So while “mainstream” comics tend to currently favour highly rendered colouring, I’m sure that will change over time.

Personally, I guess I’m more in favour of art that has emotion and atmosphere instead of striving to look “real” all the time. I kind of feel that way about most art and illustration. Don’t get me wrong, I can totally appreciate the skill it takes creating realistic looking imagery, I just don’t find it necessary for effectively telling a story in comics.

For one final thought, I want leave you with a thought from Dave McKean about the comics artwork and his artwork on CAGES:

“I’d really begun to think that this whole thing about four-color comics with very, very overpainted, lavish illustrations in every panel just didn’t work. It hampers the storytelling. It does everything wrong…With CAGES, I really wanted to do something that was all drawing and as little flash as possible, so it’s all pared down to the absolute essential skeleton of the drawing.”

Ok, he was referring to his own work and the full illustration style he was using at the time, but it definitely applies to this topic of comics and colouring. I love the idea though: what exactly do you need to render in order to tell the story?

*And to be fair, I’m using Jim Lee as an example because practically everyone has seen his art over the years so it’s an easy comparison. I could have used a lot of different artists because it’s not something just limited to one or two.

About jason

Illustrator and graphic designer. When not working full time as a Senior Graphic Designer, I am usually working on the graphic novel On the Verge: the Arrow of Time. Artist on Andrew Jackson in Space and The Sisters.

6 Responses to Does modern computer colouring ruin linework?

  1. keldramon says:

    this is truly an unpopular opinion, i too, hate the fact that such amazing lineart covered up by all those colors. It’s not that coloring over lineart is bad, it’s just when two person working on different part of the comics, the feel/atmosphere is lost trough the transition of different minds who have different visions. It’s a mismatch of style/vision.

    • jason says:

      Thanks for the comment!

      The main thing is I’m not complaining about the colouring and the colouring (in most cases) is awesome. In the example of Batman #29, FCO’s colours are amazing and it’s probably the best coloured comic I’ve seen lately. But, when you see black & white versions of the pages, you realize how much linework Capullo and Miki are putting down that just doesn’t show through in the final coloured artwork. It’s definitely a tough balancing act for sure. This also raises the question of why are pencillers working overtime drawing so much detail that just doesn’t show through in the final art, but that’s a whole different discussion…

      You do raise an interesting point about mismatched styles. I do wonder sometimes if pencillers/colourists are working towards a shared vision or if they just draw and colour and hope for the best.

  2. spencer says:

    I think part of the answer to the question, “why are the pencilers putting in so much detail”, is that in the case of Lee, Capullo, Miki, these guys are old-timers who got into the biz when it was still all about classic pen and ink techniques. They learned their craft as pen(and/or brush) and ink artists, and it is primary to their personal style. Way back when, the philosophy was that the ink had to stand on its own; if color had to carry the art, the penciler and/or inker failed at their job(s).

    IIn fact- going further back in comics history, Color was more of just an eye-catching bonus (or a gimmick even!) in the early days. Then, later on, it became a way of aiding the pen and ink renderings (when done well!), but it was still very much subordinate to the inked work. Nowadays, however, the color overpowers everything yet the comics aren’t fully painted; most mainstream comics still have a pretension of the pen and ink rendering being primary, but in reality, with Photoshop, they are not! That might partially explain things.

    • jason says:

      Thanks for the thoughts Spencer and I think you make some really good points that I agree with. To go back to my main point, I think to a certain extent, I’m questioning whether the colouring on some comics does a disservice to the inked artwork. Now I realize that a lot of these pencillers and inkers honed their craft during a time when colouring might have been slightly different, but the guys you mentioned really were a part of the wave of Image comics that brought the type of computer colouring we’re talking about to the forefront of the industry in the 1990s. I’m just wondering if there shouldn’t be more sensitivity to how the inked art and the colouring match up. I mean I do think there’s a place for highly rendered comic art, but if it’s overpowering the inked art, is that necessary?

      The one point I really like that you made was that “the color overpowers everything yet the comics aren’t fully painted” and I think this hits the nail on the head. I really do believe that there’s this attempt to get a “fully painted” look in comics because that will make the comics more respected.

      I often wonder if in 20 years or so, overly rendered, air brushed and in-your-face effects will be looked at the same way we think of newsprint and halftone colouring.

      Anyway, awesome feedback and thanks for taking the time!

      • Spencer says:

        I just discovered a really awesome series of essay’s by Sarah Horrocks on Rob Liefeld and the use of color in X-Force. She makes a really good point I think is relevant to this discussion:

        “When you look at how weird and conservative a lot of coloring in comics has become going back and seeing someone completely wild out on color [Brian Murray on X-Force] is a breath of fresh air. These [she is specifically referring to X-force #4] comics were sort of right in front of the wave of shitty gradients that were coming to consume comics–and while a lot of the ideas behind how this book is colored are the same reasons the gradient craze took over(the desire for a more dimensional comic–the desire to try ape reality)–but that’s kind of why these are great. It’s the beauty of putting one crazy flat color next another crazy flat color–I mean take the page above-the way light plays on Cable’s armor goes from a yellow to a hot pink to a red to a blue. And then on his face, you have his yellow eye, and then this orange X on his face. ”

        her articles on X-force and Liefeld can be found and mercurialblonde DOT wordpress DOT com

        My perspective is that even though there were some highlights and a gradient or two in the early image comics, they were often very bright, flat and non-literal. They were going for a dimensional effect to make things pop– NOT for verisimilitude (or Illusionism) I think. This is the key; in the service of creating depth, they often broke with realism- quite dramatically.

        I’m not really sure what the answer to the current problem in comics coloring is. Personally, I like strong inking techniques and I prefer the old-fashioned way comics were colored or the early 90’s way. But a fully painted approach can be interesting, though I think it presents a LOT of challenges (What Alex Ross does is done with great virtuosity, but I don’t think it fits with action comics- it looks stiff and static to me). Otherwise, my only advice to colorists is to focus on aiding the depth indicated by the inker and bring clarity, focus, to the vital subject in each panel. This means being economical with the fancy techniques sometimes.

        • jason says:

          Again Spencer, thanks for the well thought out thoughts! Ok, a couple of quick points:

          1. When I mentioned Image comics in my response, I was definitely thinking “Image Comics after a couple of years” (and I wasn’t clear about this at all!!!). Those first 1-2 years still had some of the colouring you’re describing, but after that, they really pioneered the type of computer colouring that would become standard in the industry (probably because of the success of Spawn in particular).
          2. I actually think the crazy colouring like you’ve described helps artists like Liefeld. His art in particular is so exaggerated, that the more realistic “airbrushed” look works against him and he loses the dynamic movement inherent in his work. And he’s not the only artist that I’d say that about either.

          But the main thing I want to say is that I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with you advice. I look at a colourist like Dave Stewart and his work on artists as different as Mike Mignola, Sean Murphy and JH Williams III and I see someone who really has a grasp on how to add colour to inked artwork. He manages to create mood on the page and use colour to draw attention to the centres of interest – exactly like you’re suggesting.

          Anyway, I think it’ll be interesting to see how colouring evolves over the next couple of years. There are artists out there that have grown up reading comics like we’re describing and it will be interesting to see what they do with the technology.

          Thanks again for the thoughts!

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