18 February 2009

Old Ladies Applying Brown Paint to Acetate

Todd Klein's blog offers an craftsman's look at how comic books used to be colored. Artist Kevin Nowlan expresses nostalgia for the old ways at Comics Comics.

But the most intriguing aspect of the comics-coloring process, to my eyes, is explained in his coauthor Mark Chiarello's part of The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering, the larger half of the book that covers coloring:

Originally, the colorist only had 63 colors to choose from, but in the 1970s the list was expanded to 124 colors. The actual coloring was fun, because it was a lot like filling in a coloring book when you were a kid, only you got paid for it (remember, that's very important!).

Then came the tedious and somewhat baffling part: In order for the separator to discern exactly what colors the colorist wanted, he had to write down short codes for every color on the guides. If he chose a specific green, for example, that was the only way to make sure that exact shade of green made it onto the printed comic page. Each color on the chart had a corresponding code, and the coloring wasn't complete until the colorist coded the stack of photocopies. . . .

At this point, the colorist handed in these color guides to the editor and got paid for the work. A few months later, the colorist got to see the fruits of his or her labor when the printed comic hit the stands. Most colorists had very little idea of how their painted and coded guides got from that stage to the final publication.

Here's how it worked: The comic book company's production department would send out the coloring guides and original art boards to their separator, where a group of old ladies would sit around applying dark brown paint to acetate copies of the artwork. I swear, it's true!

A room full of women who were making minimum wage would darken in four sheets of acetate for each comic book page. Using the colorist's original color guides as a roadmap, they would apply varying shades of the dark brown paint to the clear acetate, making camera-ready film that could then be photographed onto four metal printing plates. The four sheets would correspond to the four colors required for printing: one each for yellow, magenta, cyan, and black.
Nowadays colorists work on computers with digital files, and can produce a much wider range of colors and various atmospheric effects. Look at, for instance, the work of Paolo Lamanna in the Artemis Fowl graphic novel, one of last year's Cybils winners.

Separations are still an important technical step before printing, but that process too is handled on computers. More fine jobs lost to technology.


David Maxine said...

Perhaps of interest is that Hungry Tiger Press's first major publication, Oz-Story No.1 (in 1995), had a mechanical "hand-done" color separation by Eric Shanower. This was still a different way to do the old-style color seps. The artist would essentially create four drawings: a black-line drawing and three other sheets covered with various densities of stickyback film, one sheet for each process ink color: cyan, yellow, magenta. We chose this vaguely old-fashioned technique because it was much cheaper than photographically separating a painting and Eric knew how to do it from his training in art-school. We got a call from our printer liaison who wasn't quite sure what to make of these odd bits of artwork. But she showed them to one of her elders who smiled and said he'd take care of it all. It came out beautifully. Many would never guess it was a hand-separation job.

Now it is much cheaper and easier - indeed only a few mouse-clicks in Photoshop. But it's kind of sad that so much craftsmanship is now long gone. Sigh ...

J. L. Bell said...

A lot of older picture-book artists also remember creating separations by hand.

I recall reading that when H. A. and Margret Rey came to America, they were taken aback by their new publisher’s insistence that they create the separations for Curious George. Apparently European publishers weren't trying to save money that way.

Later Ed Emberley's wife Barbara did the separations for Drummer Hoff, and in gratitude for that tedious work she was credited as author, though Ed had written the book's text.

I suspect the necessity for color separations influenced some picture-book artists' approach to color, such as Ellen Raskin.

It's neat to know that Eric Shanower stands near the end (?) of a venerable tradition.