Comic Book Coloring — Part 1 of 3

Monday, April 14, 2014

This is a cross-post with Muddy Colors — An Illustration Collective

Ink on bristol board with digital color, 11 × 17″.

Part 2, Part 3

For my next 3 posts, I'm going to focus on the art of digital comic book coloring. Although a rather narrow subject, I hope to address some broader concepts that apply to color in general. Today's post, however, will be a bit of a primer since many of the topics will be on the technical side.

I almost always color myself, but that's not the case with most comics, especially those produced by the major publishers. More often than not, the tight deadlines necessitate a division of labor in which the colorist and letterer are the last people on the assembly line. For our purposes, we'll begin with an inked page.

The process starts with a good scan. The typical comic book page is drawn on 11 × 17″ bristol board, on which a template has been printed. I scan pages at 400 pixels per inch (ppi). Since my inks usually have blue-line pencils underneath, I scan in full color, which means they can easily be filtered out. (I have a Photoshop action to automate this process, which I hope to make available soon.)

Daredevil #10, Page 15. 2012.
Ink(ed by Joe Rivera) on Marvel board, 11 × 17.25″.

Cropping, although fairly simple in concept, can streamline the overall process if done consistently. I have a crop tool set to the desired dimensions, 4125 x 6262 pixels, with the "Perspective" option checked. Since this allows the corners to be dragged independently, I can match them precisely to the corners of the printed border. Aside from keeping all your page files consistent, it keeps everything perfectly aligned — this is especially helpful when matching up digital elements with analog artwork, i.e. panel borders, logos, or 3D models. You can read more about the cropping process here.

raw scan vs. bitmap TIFF, 200% zoom

Although our original scan is 4125 x 6262 px, the final color output will eventually be 2/3 that. That's because inks are saved in a different file format, a bitmap TIFF, which reduces the colors in the image to just 2, black and white. (You can control the specifics of this transformation under Image > Adjustments >Threshold.) While this saves a ton of memory (a typical page is under 500 KB) it requires a higher resolution to avoid a pixelated look.

Flats without inks

I then send the file to my assistant, Orpheus Collar, who colors the image on a separate layer. This process is called flatting, its purpose being to break up the the image into shapes, rather than to produce a finalized color scheme. Flatting makes it easy to select and alter patches of color. What he returns to me is an RGB file with at least 2 layers, more if there are "special effects," pictured below.

Elements that will "glow" can be isolated on a separate layer.

There are plenty of tutorials on-line, and even some automated plug-ins, but I'd like to go over the basic concepts. The inked page goes on the top layer, the mode set to "Multiply," which makes all the white pixels transparent. The "flats" layer goes below that. The key to easy selection is making sure the flats aren't anti-aliased, meaning that no 2 colors are blended at the edges.

Brush vs. Pencil

In order to preserve those hard edges, I use the Pencil tool when editing the flats (as opposed to the Brush tool). If I use the Magic Wand to select pixels or the Bucket to fill them, the tolerance must be set to "0" to avoid blending colors.

Ink on bristol board with digital color, 11 × 17″.

Lastly, I color every page at full resolution, just in case I ever need a bigger version. It's also to avoid a mistake I sometimes see colorists make. If you downsize your inks in their native, 2-color format, the inks will look pixelated when printed. Also, if you downsize your flats before coloring, it may not preserve the hard edges you worked so hard to create. While there are a few ways to avoid those issues, saving reduction until the last step makes everything easier.


  1. Thanks Paolo, this helps a lot when I scan my works, before this I usually found myself with trouble about the quality of the scan. I really appreciate these posts in your blog.

  2. I've asked a many questions here that you've kindly answered all and now you're rolling out this treat, thank you!

  3. Man, so glad you're doing this Paolo. You wouldn't believe how fractured and piecemeal this information is out there, I loved the your inking lessons before, helped me there. I'm doing a 22 page traditional comic over the next few months and coloring is the part I have serious anxiety about, even though I really want to do the color. More because of the flatting,scanning and getting things set up right and not messing up in between. I had a run-through adapting my first 2 comics but this time I'll be working at 14x17 inches for my more realistic space comic in issue 3.

    Hope to print it treasury size one day. don't know how artists draw on 11x17, so small but it is easier to scan. Anyhow, love your detail on the process. I'll be reading and taking notes each week. Your approach to comics coloring is one I really like. I do some painting myself and appreciate how you utilize the light effect and have subtle shading while using the graphic power of flatter areas of color. Keep it up and thanks. -Michael Koch |

    1. My pleasure, Michael! This is something I've been meaning to post for years... finally getting around to doing it. Glad you've found it useful.

  4. Hi, Paolo! I've been interested in color theory and the process of scanning my line drawings properly for quite a while now, this is great stuff!!!

    And I just want to add that you're one of my favorite colorists, part of the reason I'm still very interested in coloring! :)


Copyright © The Self-Absorbing Man
Design out of the FlyBird's Box.