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Color Commentary: Matt Wilson’s Career in Coloring

by  in Comic News Comment
Color Commentary: Matt Wilson’s Career in Coloring

Matthew Wilson has been in the industry for more than a decade now, starting his career at a studio in the spring of 2003, before beginning to color under his own name in 2008. One of comics’ most in-demand colorists, you may have recently seen his work in “Wonder Woman,” “Swamp Thing,” “Young Avengers” and the current Image Comics series “The Wicked + The Divine,” to name just a few of the books he’s worked on in 2014.

Wanting to find out more about his work as a colorist, CBR News spoke to Matthew about his career thus far — how he broke into the industry; how comics coloring has developed over the years; and how the process and craft of coloring works.

CBR News: How did you first get into coloring? Was coloring always the first thing you wanted to do in comics, or did you start as a writer, or a penciller or something else?

I went to college in Savannah, Georgia and got a degree in Sequential Art from SCAD. I drew and sculpted and painted, and I was decent at each. After graduation I didn’t have any reason to stay in Savannah, so I moved back home which was about five hours away. I worked in a restaurant and at commercial printer while I sent out portfolios and resumes trying to get any job that involved drawing or sculpting.

While I did want to draw for a living, and got a degree in comics, by the end of school I wasn’t interested in actually drawing comics. Sometimes you just know when a particular job or activity isn’t for you, and I knew I wasn’t a comic artist. I was more interested in story boarding, concept art, character design, sculpting, things like that.

So the fact that I ended up working in comics was just by chance, but it’s worked out really well and I love being in the industry.

Anyhow, I was carrying on a long distance relationship with a girl from college at this point, and she was also looking for jobs. She thought she had landed a job back in Savannah so I took a better look at what job opportunities Savannah might offer. The one good option for me in Savannah at that time was a comic coloring studio called Zylonol Studios that was started and run by the colorist Lee Loughridge.

I emailed Lee during my job search and asked him if I could stop in and show him my stuff. I drove the five hours down to Savannah and stayed for a few days. I showed Lee my portfolio and hung out for a bit in the studio, meeting some of the other guys that worked there. I remember being incredibly intimidated by the whole thing, but the atmosphere was really laid back and all the guys were cool. At the end of the day Lee told me he liked the work I had in my portfolio but that the studio was full at the moment.

So, no job for me. I headed back home and back to work at the restaurant and print shop.

A few weeks later, Lee calls me up and tells me that a guy from the studio got engaged and was moving to Boston. There was now an open spot in the studio, and it was mine if I wanted it (the guy that was leaving was Nick Dragotta of “East of West” fame). Lee sent me a test page and told me to time myself flatting the page, and then time myself coloring the page and send it back to him.

I completed the test page and decided to take Lee’s offer and join his studio. I moved back to Savannah and started out flatting for Lee and scanning the original art that the publishers sent us. Soon after that I moved up to doing color separations based off of color guides. Then eventually I moved on to full on coloring for the studio. About a year later Lee shut the studio down but kept some of us on, and we all worked from our houses.

I kept working for Lee for a few more years and then eventually, through meeting people at conventions, began taking coloring jobs on my own. Early on, a friend I had made, Ivan Brandon, recommended me to a bunch of people that had Image or Dark Horse books that needed colorists. In fact, most of them are people that I still work with regularly today like Rick Remender, Jamie McKelvie, Kieron Gillen and a bunch of others.

You mention Jamie McKelvie, and one of your more high-profile current projects is as colorist for “The Wicked + The Divine.” Do you find that some artists – like McKelvie – often request you as a colorist?

Oh, sure. There are a few artists that I work with regularly and that I know request me when they can, Jamie McKelvie being a great example. I’ve colored almost all of his work for years now. Jamie and Kieron requested me on our previous project, “Young Avengers” at Marvel because of all the work we had done together in the past. Chris Samnee often requests me to color various covers based on our prior work together.

Then I’ll have the opposite, where I’ll get requested by an artist that I’ve never worked with before because they liked what I did with another artist on another project. I’m always looking to become someone’s “go to” guy for colors. It’s fun to build long lasting artist-colorist relationships.

Do you view yourself as a freelancer, even when working on something like “The Wicked + The Divine”?

I view myself as a freelancer on all company books, for sure. Work for hire, no ownership. I do the job, I get paid. There have also been some independent books where all I got was a page rate and no ownership or backend pay, and I viewed myself as a freelancer on those projects as well (Because that’s exactly what I was!). There’s nothing wrong with coloring any of those jobs. They offered me a fair rate, and I agreed to color the book for that rate, and we all ended up happy.

But I’d be dishonest if I said I cared any more for an independent book that paid me a page rate but I had no further stake in versus a big publisher’s book with the exact same setup. In both cases I want to do my best work, and be proud of the finished product. But once I’ve colored my pages and been paid for that job I mentally move on to the next gig.

In the case of “The Wicked + The Divine,” Kieron and Jamie were gracious enough to bring me in from the beginning and give me a stake in the property, and it has dramatically changed the way I see my role in the project. I’m much more involved with the book and informed in all the behind the scenes decisions that go into getting the book made. It’s all really exciting to see, especially because the typical place for a colorist is at the end of the process — you know, when all the decisions have been made and everyone’s just waiting for you to color the pages so they can get the comic out the door.

To any writers or artists out there trying to decide how best to include a colorist into your creator owned project: give them a stake in the project and include them as much as possible. The excitement that inclusion generates in someone that’s usually on the periphery of a project will increase their dedication and enthusiasm for the project and enhance the end result.

What’s your process when you start work on a comic? Do you talk things through with the writer, artist, or editor beforehand?

My process when starting involves reading scripts or artist notes, and a lot of thinking about palettes and storytelling, and then looking up reference if needed. Some days the only thing I get done by mid-afternoon is coming up with a palette and getting a scene’s colors all set up. Those days can be frustrating because I don’t feel like I’m being very efficient with my time. But I’ve learned that if I start to dig into a page before I really know my palette or direction, then I often spend more time wrestling with the colors later in the coloring process, and I’m usually not as happy with the results.

I talk with the rest of the team quite a bit. Usually it’s the artist and I that talk the most, but I hear from everyone at least once on a project. I’m told about the overall feel for a project most of the time. Before I started coloring “Wonder Woman,” Cliff [Chiang] and I talked at length about how he wanted the colors in the series to feel. Jamie and Kieron and I are always talking, even before we knew exactly what “The Wicked + The Divine” would actually be, we were talking about how the book should look and feel.

Where do you first start with the actual business of coloring a comic? What comes first?

I start by setting a scene’s palette, or the overall colors of a scene. After my flatter (an assistant that helps prep pages and take them from black and white to basic flat colors) sends me the pages, I’ll change all the colors to how I want a scene to look. Then I’ll work on backgrounds, adding gradients, painting in textures and lighting, and separating foreground middle ground and background.

Then I’ll work on the characters, adding shadows and highlights, textures, and details. Next I take another pass at the backgrounds and look for anything I might’ve missed or new things to add. The last things I do are any color holds (change some line art from black to a color if necessary) and glows or special effects.

My workflow in a given day is usually determined by my page count goal. I’ll try and color between five and seven pages a day on a normal work day. I try to color entire scenes at once so I can stay consistent with my techniques and colors. For example, one day I’ll color a two-page scene and a four-page scene. The next I’ll color two different three-page scenes and a one-page scene.

When coloring a scene, I’ll open all the pages for it and set the palette on all the pages at one time. Then I’ll go back and do all the backgrounds, then go back and do all the characters. For me, working in this assembly line structure helps me make sure I don’t forget anything while coloring.

How do palettes work, and how do you decide which colors complement or contrast a story?

The book’s color palettes are the first thing a reader sees. Before any fancy rendering, or special effects, the reader’s eye soaks in the overall color on a page and immediately gives them information about what they’re looking at. You should be able to quickly flip through a book and see the color palettes changing as the locations, time, or emotions change in a story.

There are a lot of factors that go into deciding palettes. If you were to categorize palettes, the broadest two categories would probably be literal pallets and emotional palettes. Within the literal category you’d have things like time of day, or location, or time period. A scene set in a desert can have strong real world influences on its palette that would be very different than a scene set in the snow. You can use these contrasts to quickly convey to the reader a change of location from one scene to the next.

You can indicate that the story is progressing by being mindful of time of day when choosing a palette. There can be three scenes in a row that in black and white have no real indication of the time of day. But according to the script time is progressing. So you can start one scene in the middle of the day, then the next at sunset and the final one at night. A location’s lighting is also another literal influence on a palette. Characters start inside a warmly lit bar but then stumble out into a cold rainy night. With literal palettes you can use real world influences for contrast and storytelling.

The opposite of all of that is an emotional palette. Often this is based on a character’s feelings, or the mood of the story that needs to be conveyed by color. Maybe a mother and daughter are fighting and enhancing the character’s anger with a warm reddish palette is more important than accurately coloring the inside of the house where the scene takes place. Perhaps it’s important to show how bright and cheery it is when a character is at a friend’s house that has a good home life, and then how dreary and depressing it is when they go home to their less-than-loving family.

Often you can use both literal and emotional palettes together. Sometimes they happen to coincide, a character that’s distraught on a cold rainy day or two people lusting after each other in the hot neon lights of a dance club. Then the flip side of literal and emotional palettes working together is when you play them off of each other for contrast. An example of that would be a more literal palette for a present day scene, then a monochromatic palette for a flashback scene. Or a literal scene until the action breaks out and you use abstract colors to sell the impact of a punch.

Do you feel like readers/comics media/publishers themselves still take colorists for granted, somewhat?

Yes, and in all areas of the industry to varying degrees. That said, the opposite is true as well. There are people in all areas of the industry that do acknowledge colorist’s contributions. While it’s easy to find examples of our work being ignored I can also find it being praised. I feel like at some point in the future when everyone understands and appreciates what colorists bring to the comic industry, you’ll be able to trace the beginnings of that appreciation to this current period of coloring.

It really feels like the beginning of a new era for comic coloring to me. Colorists are getting better and better, and reviewers and fans are starting to catch on to how important colorists are. DC just updated their incentive payment structure that had excluded colorists for the last for 30 years or so, and now include us. More companies and creator-owned books are giving colorists cover credit. Things are starting to change.

I still see plenty of people arguing against the importance of acknowledging colorists contributions. I’ve seen people say that covers are already too crowded with names. Or that the names on a cover are more about advertising the contents than crediting the creators. Or that changing a colorist doesn’t change the sales. But how do those people think that will change? By doing nothing?

What do you think creators, editors, publishers could do to better emphasize the work that colorists do?

Treat them as a full-fledged part of the creative team. If an artist is credited, then the colorist should be as well. Unfortunately there will sometimes be circumstances that make it hard to get colorists credited or promoted everywhere an artist is. Double shipping and tight deadlines often lead to a last minute change in the creative team, or a book is solicited before a colorist is even hired. I can understand things like that. But I think the best way to bring more attention to colorists is for publishers to tell their readers that they should care about colorists.

For more on Wilson’s work, check his blog or follow him on Twitter @COLORnMATT.

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