Accurate Digital Color Reproduction (in Just 7 Years)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Blog reader Michael Dooney recently reminded me of a forgotten promise from earlier this year. Some of you may remember that I had a digital coloring epiphany while working on Young Allies. While I had originally intended to share it, I suppose life got in the way. Some of you may already be aware of the "trick," but if not, then I hope it helps you as much as it helped me.

Marvel (as well as almost all publishers, to my knowledge) requires final digital files to be in CMYK format, the standard method for most color reproduction. The native format for computers, however, is RGB. Fortunately for artists and designers, there is Photoshop, a program that can convert these two systems into each other and back again with little effort. But there are drawbacks: the translation isn't always perfect and one direction, RGB to CMYK, is less accurate than the other (this may be primarily due to RGB's wider gamut, but I'm not qualified to do any more than speculate). But before I go into too much depth about the conditions of our problem, I'd like to cut to the chase.

I now work exclusively in RGB mode, but with proof colors turned on (which can be toggled on and off under the View Menu, or by pressing Command Y). I knew about this option previously, but was under the impression that working in CMYK mode would be better since that was my ultimate goal. I could not have been more wrong.

The proper ink levels — specified in this case by Marvel and their printers — can only be achieved through the RGB-CMYK conversion process. This was my primary misconception. By working directly in CMYK mode, I was actually creating files that exceeded the acceptable ink levels for Marvel's paper. So, for instance, when coloring Amazing Spider-Man: Extra! #2, what looked good to me on screen would, in reality, print far too dark. Since printing is a subtractive color mixing method, the more ink on a page, the less light is reflected. My files were far too saturated and, therefore, printed much darker than I had intended. And they had been this way since I began working for Marvel in 2002!

In fact, I have a distant memory of my editor, Tom Brevoort, telling me that my first cover, Iron Man #63, was "too saturated." He was simply relating the words of a Marvel Bullpen technician, so neither he nor I had any real concept of what the problem was, let alone how to solve it. Being the least of many technical issues I faced, I didn't investigate the source of the problem.

So how did I finally figure it out? I have to thank Mark Sweeney for his exceptionally comprehensive blog, without which I couldn't have solved the problem. Sweeney is a comic book colorist with an extensive knowledge of the technical processes behind color reproduction and is not shy about sharing it. He knows so much, in fact, that I can't even find the page where I found my answer. Despite that, there are 5 posts that I recommend reading for a better understanding of color models:
Comic Book Coloring and Photoshop Ink Limits, Part I and II
Coloring in RGB vs. CMYK, Part I, II, and III

Update — July 2012: Sweeney's blog is no longer up.

There is a lot of information in those posts, so it would be wise to pace yourself. I actually tried some of his other recommendations for color conversions, which proved to be far more complex than I needed (or was willing to do). I suspect that I may have found the key piece of information on Gutter Zombie, a digital tips forum where he posts.

As with any creative process, there is more than one way to achieve a particular goal, but knowing how someone else overcomes similar obstacles can provide an insight into your own challenges, perhaps inspiring new solutions.


  1. Wow. Thanks for the info Paolo!! This is the first I've heard this trick, and I think it's hugely valuable for any illustrator working in a print medium. And now I need to go spend some time reading Mark's blog too!!

  2. Thanks oodles for the insight Paolo! Great stuff, this blog of yours, and a fun read too.

  3. An invaluable nugget, this one. Also, thanks for the point to Sweeney's weblog.

  4. Amazing! Time to make some post it reminders and cover my epson with them ;)

  5. Glad I could help, guys. I figured somebody out there would be able to use it.

    Eric: personal printers are a whole 'nother matter altogether. For instance, they don't seem to have any problem printing from an RGB file. But I do often lighten my files before printing, so who knows? Maybe I need to do another post...

  6. Serious thanks for the in-depth knowledge. I have been wondering about this since you first posted and I'm only now about to start color on my own comic. Good timing!

  7. I also have that problem, and found the SOLUTION by chance, is a major problem ... now provided the original work in RGB.
    It depends on the printing system, if the file is converted to CMYK or not ...

  8. Michael, glad I could help.

    Bauxman, I think it's a pretty common problem for anyone that works in the print industry. I think things are better than they used to be, but it always requires trial and error.


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