Coloring is something you’ve known how to do since you were an adorable little diaper-filler with a set of crayons and a coloring book (or the white walls in your house).  The way you learned how to color was simple: the tree is green, sky is blue, doggie is brown, blood coming out of the cartoon of your teacher getting pulverized is red. You were coloring the objects the way your mind registered them in the simplest form; this is something art theory calls objective color.

This isn’t something that’s exclusive to children, either. A lot of the books and comics you grew up with were also colored in a basic, simplified way (although whether this was a conscientious choice of those artists or just the limitations of printing at the time are debatable). In a Spider-Man comic, Spidey would be colored in a flat red and blue; those reds and blues were often the exact same ones as another red or blue character or object in the same scene. As printing presses grew more advanced more colors became available, opening up a wider variety of hues to choose from (Spidey’s red no longer had to be the same red as the blood coming out of the teacher he just pulverized…geez, I was a messed-up kid).

The point is that objective color in comics had finally given way to subjective color, the way your eyes and brain perceive the color of an object. Your red car looks like a different kind of red whether you look at it in the morning or night, because the light is affecting the way you see it.

How do you best use subjective coloring for your comics? To me, coloring isn’t just picking the right color for the right object; the aim is to guide the reader’s eye to focus on what you want them to see, like you would do when choosing your panel/page compositions and your inking. Coloring can greatly enhance your comics if you know how to use it right, and your aim shouldn’t be to make a colorful but confusing mess (unless if you’re making a comic about the psychedelic adventures of Owlsey Stanley).

Creating atmospheric effects is as simple as this: your eyes can better perceive objects that are closer to you, as well as colors.  The green on the leaf in your hand seems much richer and saturated than that tree four hundred feet away (you may want to go outside and play to better get this effect). Therefore you probably don’t want to color your green character with the exact same hue of green as that other green character in the background, whether they’re fifteen feet away or floating off in space because you blasted them out of an airlock.

This is a poopoo example, but it gets the point across. Scapula feels slightly closer to you in the picture on the right because I’ve desaturated the background colors (and all I did was put a low-opacity color rectangle on top of the background). He’s more in focus than that French thing behind him, and it’s as simple as guiding the color choices.

Not impressed? Okay, let’s try a real example. Open up Photoshop and turn to page one!

This is a panel in progress, with only the foreground characters colored. So far we’re just using objective color: I keep a color key of the characters and color them appropriately. This is pretty much how I always begin coloring, unless if I’m going for an unusual mood in the scene (we’ll get  to ‘mood effects’ in another lesson).

Now I’ve laid down a simple background. You may have noticed that the crowd to the right have all been given a simple flat color. I chose this because the individual colors of the members of the crowd (and every specific little thing they’re wearing) are not important to this panel; the focus is on the foreground characters. The only importance for that crowd in the back is for your brain to read “crowd” and focus elsewhere.

So far the sky is a flat objective color, and it’s pretty garish. The saturation is much too strong, and it’s fighting for your eyes’ attention which is supposed to be on the foreground characters. What should we do?

This is a bit better, but why? If you look closely at the sky gradient, you may notice that the dark part on top is more drab and paler in color than the bright yellow it fades into. This is because I want your eye to follow to that brighter part, since it’s leading right to the foreground characters.

[This is why I always choose to do gradient effects with the Brush tool instead of the readily available Gradient tool; gradients are not always perfectly even when atmospheric perspective is in effect, and even if they were my idea is to still lead the eye where I want it to go. Nature be damned!]

You also may notice that certain parts of the crowd have been colored differently, as well as being slightly darker. Choosing between light and dark is always a matter of balance and contrast; the crowd that’s colored with the stronger red will “pop” out from the background crowd (but not enough to compete with the foreground characters). This is another atmospheric effect, showing that the crowd goes back a distance establishes the environment of the scene.

This is only a slight adjustment, but look closely and you’ll see that I have laid a picture of clouds on top of the background color. However, notice that they have been greatly faded out by altering their opacity. A lot of people who do fumetti (photo comics) or use photographs as background elements never consider atmospheric perspective, and the results are often crap (characters look like they’re standing a foot away from a huge flat photo). Balance is key here, and although I’ve chosen to add this effect, I have also taken effort to make sure it’s not competing with where I want the reader to focus.

Now that’s all well and good, but wait! Those foreground characters are still objectively colored.

You may recall before in that Eiffel Tower example that I accomplished that effect by just laying a single color (albeit at low opacity) on top. This not only slightly desaturates the background, but it also gave it a universal lighting effect. Everything in the scene was affected by the blue I chose, as if to simulate the light on a blue sky day. This introduces something called local color, and that effect comes in handy here.

Using the Eyedropper tool, I chose a middle-ground color from the background (not too light, not too dark, but just right for that home-wrecking Goldilocks); I laid down a color rectangle at very low opacity so that every color in the background now included just a little bit of this single color. I went to the layer with the foreground characters and selected all the colors with the Magic Wand tool (the easiest way to do this is to click on a blank space on the layer and Select Inverse, now all the content will be selected). Then I created a new layer on top and laid the single color over it. Changing the opacity takes some tweaking, but essentially depends on what layer type you choose (Normal, Multiply, Overlay, Soft Light, etc) and what opacity your layer is set on. You may have to tinker around with this, but once you get the hang of it you’ll know what to choose in the future.

The end result is that the characters in the foreground are now sharing just a bit of the same color as those in the back, making it look like they are all being affected by the same light in the scene. However, the foreground characters are still the ones in strongest focus, due to the choices in balancing out the background elements. There are also some slight highlights and shadows on some of the characters in both the foreground and back, but again, this is all about pushing things back or pulling things forward.

So that’s your first taste of coloring the Scapula way. The next lesson will be all about throwing away everything you just learned above in favor of something I call mood effects!

If there are any artists, professional or beginning, who wish to support or debunk my lesson, please feel free to comment below. I may just listen, if I’m not too busy finishing my lifelong graphic novel “Teacher Must Pay For Ripping Up My Cartoons”.