Digital Comic Coloring Tutorial: Introduction

Ah coloring. You make comics look so good. Yet you’re one of the most fussy, time consuming parts of the process. Every time I pick up the stylus it’s like I’ve forgotten to sacrifice a goat to Poseidon. Seriously, why couldn’t he make me spend 20 years at sea fighting cyclopses and things, like a proper punishment? In fact, the only things more time consuming than coloring are backgrounds. And backgrounds can bite me.

Top: Dodge/Burn much?
Bottom: Still looks good!

My early attempts at coloring comics met with mixed success. Some of the pages that I did I am still proud to call my own. Others were more like muddy dodge-burn massacres than art. But no matter how much I felt like going Jackson Pollock on a page, cutting corners just ended up making the piece look even worse.

When I came down in tendentious, though, I knew I was going to have to do something different if I were ever going to come out with an ongoing comic in a timely fashion. At least, if I wanted to do so without my hand snapping off at the wrist. So I began to experiment.

As it turned own, the key to reducing the time it takes to color a comic came down to running my line art through a little vector program called Inkscape to clean it up. Inkscape is a vector art program like Adobe Illustrator, except that it’s free and made of awesome. I could then use fill coloring to quickly finish the page.


What is Fill Coloring?

Every digital artist has their own unique way of coloring. This often involves a great many Photoshop layers or the manipulation of channels. Personally, I like fill coloring. Basically you treat the line art as a “cage.” You fill each cage with color using the paint bucket tool.

A broken line means that the fill has escaped.

Now, this does take special attention when you do your line art. Any breaks in the contour of the individual “cages” will cause the color to escape into the surrounding art.

Many novice cartoonists use fill coloring because they either have limited art programs that do not support layers, or simply because it’s fast. Unfortunately, they don’t always know how to do it properly and end up with what I call Evil Jaggies.

The Evil Jaggies strike again!

See, the paint bucket changes one color into another. But what if there’s an area between that color and your line art that is somewhere in between? Depending on your bucket’s settings, it won’t touch those areas, leaving you with Evil Jaggies. Or, if it does fill them it might also engulf some of your line art. But, if you run your line art through a vector based art program it can clean up your lines and gives them enough contrast so that you rarely get the Evil Jaggies.


What are Vectors?

There are two main ways that art programs approach digital graphics- by making raster or vector images. A raster image is composed of hundreds of pixels, each one a different color. Programs such as Photoshop, GIMP, and Painter primarily work with raster images. These are your JPGs, your TIFFs, your GIFs, and the like. They’re great for painterly effects, and your really want to use this kind of program if you want to approach digital art in a way that’s more reminiscent of traditional art.

Vector images, on the other hand, all come down to math. They are not built on pixels, they are built on mathematical expressions that form lines, curved paths, intersecting points, and the like. Sure, you use a visual interface such as Illustrator or Inkscape to make vector art, but it is the math that defines them.

In simple terms, Raster images are like Legos, and vectors are Knex.

Top: Enlarged vector
Bottom: Enlarged raster

The main difference between the two is how they scale. If you enlarge a raster image, it will look ill-defined and pixilated. If you enlarge a vector image, it will look as crisp and smooth as it did when it was small. This is because there is only so much detail in a raster image…it can only really go down to the individual building blocks, so those blocks are what you get when you enlarge it. But because vectors are based on geometry, they scale beautifully and are ideal for logos, signs, and anything you need to significantly resize.

Most people do comics as raster images. Oh, some use vectors to do art to glorious effect, but most people find raster images easier to work with. I include myself in this group, even though I have done logo and sign design. But, as I said, converting line art to vector and back to raster is a wonderful way to clean your lines, especially if you want to do fill coloring.

I will give you a step-by-step tutorial on how to do this in the next article.


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2 Responses to Digital Comic Coloring Tutorial: Introduction

  1. Tigershark06 says:

    Hmmm…I was nodding as I went through and read this. I’m rather looking forward to seeing how you put your art through the process! I don’t think I’ve used my actual original drawings ever to do a comic page. I scan, ink, and then color. I think it’s because my art has always been very sketchy and I’m not sure even a vector program could clean it up! :D

    Will be looking for the next tutorial!

    • Robin says:

      Really? I think your style would suit it quite well, actually. To preserve lines, what I often do is to have several layers of the lineart. One for fills, and then one on top at 70% opacity. This preserves a lot of the lines. But hey, what’s simplest for me isn’t necessarily simple for other people. I have to take into account how long I have to apply pressure to a mouse button or stylus because of my tendinitis. This isn’t a concern for most people.

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