When you ask people who they think are some of the best comic book artists working in the industry today, chances are they'll only name pencilers and inkers, which means they're forgetting an important and often neglected group: colorists. Colorists enhance line work, create the mood of a scene, and are often tasked with incorporating and designing special visual effects.
To get a better understanding of what it is colorists do, CBR News spoke with Eisner Award-winning colorist Laura Martin about her creative process, her current and upcoming projects, and her exclusive deal with Marvel Comics, announced at Marvel's "The Women of Marvel" panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego.
Readers have seen Martin's work on a variety of Marvel projects, including such high profile books as "Thor" and "Secret Invasion." Her current assignments include Marvel's adaptation of Stephen King's "The Stand" and a top secret project. "I was considered for 'Ultimate Avengers,' and I loved working with Carlos Pacheco on 'Superman/Batman' several years ago," Martin told CBR News. "However, I've been slated for a top-secret project that I can't talk about, which conflicts with 'Ultimate Avengers.' So, since I can't talk about that one, I'll talk about 'The Stand'!
"It's a real honor working on 'The Stand.' It's my favorite Stephen King novel, and I am totally in love with how Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Mike Perkins are adapting it into graphic format. They are staying very true to the original, while keeping the pace appropriate for the monthly format. Mike and I get to do a lot of research into locations: Vermont, the CDC, Texas, the Lincoln Tunnel, Central Park. Mike's taken a ton of photos around New York, and that makes my job so much easier and more enjoyable to share the same vision that he has in this way. For locations where we haven't been, such as Arkansas or the CDC in Vermont, I'll look around on Google Image Search to find similar settings and build my palette from there. But mostly I like the Randall Flagg scenes -- how can I work in some blood-red somewhere in there?"
One of the chief tools Martin uses for her work on 'The Stand" is the computer program Photoshop from Adobe. "Photoshop lets us do so much more than we could do manually," Martin said. "A lot of information falls to us to create, such as stats, textures, and special effects like glows, fog, rain, fire, or anything that obscures or changes the color of the line art."
For Martin, coloring a page and creating the various effects in a book like "The Stand" usually begins with getting line art from Marvel. They send it to her as a digital file, and she'll prep the page for coloring by putting the line art on a separate layer or channel. "This allows me to color 'under' the line art," Martin explained. "Imagine that you're painting on a blank canvas, and there's an acetate overlay of the line art. When you lay that acetate down, the colors are underneath the line art. Same idea, except it's all digital."
Once Martin completes her prep work, she moves onto the first step in the coloring process: "flatting" a page. "I usually hire someone to do this step for me, so I can concentrate on the next step. Flatting is just putting in the basic flat colors for each area: a character's skin, hair, shirt, pants, belt, and shoes are each a single color," Martin said. "It's a lot like Sunday funnies at this stage. Very simple.
"During this stage (or, if someone else flats it, right after this stage), I'll decide on a color scheme, based on what's going on in the story. I'll think about how this scene is supposed to feel. What's the mood? Where are the important focal points on the page? What's the setting? I'll think aboutthese three things when I'm building a color scheme for a scene. I'll choose a simple, relatively limited palette and begin filling in the colors based on that palette."
The next stage in Martin's coloring process is rendering. "That's adding in all the highlights and shadows on everything to make it dimensional," Martin said. "I'll use all of Photoshop's brushes, gradients, and other drawing tools to achieve the different surface textures (skin; spandex; metal; feathers; etc.), while still remaining true to the mood, focus, and environment of the scene in question."
Martin doesn't start thinking about special effects until she's satisfied that a page is close to being finished. "For instance, on 'The Stand,' I'll change Mike's ink-washed foliage to green, or I'll make the line art around clouds a lighter color so the clouds look less solid. If it's a rain scene, I'll put some rain streaks in, or make it foggy by lightening up the line art for objects in the distance.
"This is a tricky stage because I don't want to obliterate the hard work that the inker did. It's very easy for a colorist to overpower the line art, so I try to maintain as much of the original line art as possible, while still creating fancy effects. Anything that changes the line art itself goes on a layer above the line art layer. I always set up my files so that if there are any changes, I can make them as easily as possible."
After completing her work on special effects, Laura Martin sends her finished pages to the book's editors and creators for feedback. "If they have any corrections (which can range from 'Make Tony Stark's eyes gray-blue,' which is an easy fix, to 'oh no, so-and-so's powers are blue, not yellow,' which requires an entirely different color scheme), I'll do them and send another jpeg file over," Martin explained. "Once the page is approved, I upload the final high-resolution file to the server."
This process and her ever increasing body of work helped establish Martin as a reliable and talented colorist. She began working in comics professionally in 1995. Since then, she's worked with a number of companies like Image, WildStorm, DC, and Dark Horse. In recent years, Martin's worked as a freelancer but accepted many assignments from Marvel. In fact, the company began talking to her about an exclusive deal back in 2005.
"I was quite comfortable in my position as a freelancer; I could pick and choose the projects that interested me from any publisher I wanted. Seemed like a fine situation to be in, so I was in no rush to sign anything," Martin said. "But when I sat back and really looked at the projects I was choosing, it occurred to me that 90% of my work was already coming from Marvel. I gravitate toward Marvel's stable of characters, and I have a great working relationship with pretty much everyone there. And yet, I was still free to color anything I wanted. How would signing a contract make any of this better?
"I balked for a long time -- until two things happened: the economy tanked, and Marvel made me an offer I couldn't refuse. How could I say no anymore?"
Another reason Martin said yes to Marvel was because she felt that the company understands coloring. "Maybe not the intricacies of color theory or the arcane knowledge of Photoshop; that's my job," she said. "But they understand the nature of our work; they understand the pressure we have, at the end of the production line of art, and they understand the scheduling issues that stem from working on multiple projects. But more than that: Marvel is the only publisher who acknowledges colorists' creative contributions. We, like inkers, enhance the penciled art and give dimension to the storytelling. Marvel honors colorists by offering us part of the sales incentives, just like writers, pencilers and inkers enjoy. And I respect that a great deal. How nice it is to be recognized for not just my contribution, but the contributions of all colorists working on Marvel titles? If other publishers would catch up and grasp this concept and embrace coloring as an integral part of the creative process, rather than a production process, perhaps my decision to sign with Marvel would have been more challenging."
Colorists often think about the artwork of a story as a whole, but like all creators they have certain favorite characters to work on. Martin's favorite characters from the Marvel stable are an eclectic mix. "Each colorist has his or her favorite stuff to render. I love rendering faces and anatomy. I also love fur, feathers, metallic figures, and blonde hair. Armor (like Iron Man's) and tech are a challenge. Little details are time-consuming, like chain mail, but the effect is really nice. So you can see why I like characters like Hank McCoy, Colossus, and Thor," Martin said. "But I also enjoy realism, so The 'Stand's' normal American characters appeal to me a great deal as well.
"Really, it's more about the story and artwork. Last year, I was working on three very different books: 'Thor,' 'The Stand,' and 'Secret Invasion.' I had a different coloring style for each book. 'Thor' was sort of painterly; 'The Stand' was a mix of painterly and airbrush; and 'Secret Invasion' was rendered mostly flat, like cel animation. I really enjoy switching it up like that; it keeps me thinking constantly, and keeps me out of a rut of formulaic coloring."
Working on books like "The Ultimates" and "Secret Invasion" means Laura Martin has already been part of stories featuring most of Marvel's heroes, but she does have does a wishlist of characters, concepts and settings she would like revisit in the months ahead. "If there was ever an Ultimate Thor spinoff (yeah, I know he's 'dead,' but so was Regular Thor, wasn't he?), I'd love another crack at him," Martin stated. "It would be awesome to explore the underwater world of Atlantis. I have a soft spot for big bad guys like Thanos and Dr. Doom, and it's been a very long time since I colored Silver Surfer. Then there's 'Pet Avengers' -- holy cow, what a cute book. I wish I'd had the chance!"