[From the drawing board of Hilary Sycamore]
People ask what I do for a living; I say I’m a colorist. They look at the usually- challenged hair with a puzzled look of: “…and you work in a hairdressers and they let you out like that!” I then explain that I color graphic novels, not hair, which leads occasionally to a knowing “ahhh” or an explanation of what a graphic novel is.
So if you are reading this blog and have found your way to First Second’s brilliant site, there’s a good chance we can skip that stage.
The next question is, “How did you get to be a colorist?”—easy, I’ve always been a colorist. I just didn’t know that it was called anything. Apparently, my first word was “blue” and I’ll save you the rest of the biography except to say it involved a lot of paint, dye and food coloring along the way…
OK, so let’s have a look at color—it’s funny the way people talk about bias in terms of someone’s view being “colored.” That alone should tell you that color is a very personal and therefore subjective matter.
The ability to perceive color is inbuilt in the human design—and yet the many color-blind people manage perfectly well. Hey, we even survived black and white TV. So what does this color perception do? Why do women usually have slightly more sensitive color perception than men? Perhaps it’s a trait connected to maternal preservation and prevention skill; for example, you can tell if someone is getting angry—or getting sick—by subtle changes of skin color. We use color diagnostic skills to see if it looks like rain, to see if the toast is brown enough or that my husband’s science experiments, a.k.a. left-overs, really do need to leave the fridge.
Well that’s fine but doesn’t explain our emotive connections to color. These color connections are even in our language: seeing red, feeling blue, green with envy, in the pink… to mention a few. For a moment let’s forget color and move to music. Sometimes you want to listen to a particular kind of music that just seems to fit the mood. Then, at other times, a style of music can actually change your mood. Well, color works in exactly the same way. There is much research about the effects of different colors—one, which made me smile, was that they painted a high security prison with nursery pinks and pastels (including teddy bear borders) because it made the inmates calmer and better behaved.
So color has a variety of connections and associations. The trick with coloring graphic novels is to use color that actually helps to tell the story. It really is like adding music to a movie—try muting the soundtrack and watching a movie with just subtitles and you’ll see what a difference the music makes.
Putting colors together is like having the right distance between people, some you want up close and personal and others at a good distance. There’s no such thing as a bad color, just a right color in the wrong place, like showing up at a funeral in fancy dress—and I guess even that depends upon the person! I tune colors, like people tune the radio, until it gets the optimum effect. So that the colors make each other look good, for that mood, time and place in the story.
So that’s enough of this horribly difficult writing—thank goodness for writers—and back to the fun stuff, where pages arrive miraculously already drawn and inked. Thank you so much to a whole bevy of First Second artists who release their hearts and souls in the form of black and white line work for a stranger to color. At least these days I don’t need to spend hours with colored cellophane pressed to my face to see what the world looks like yellow; I can add a tint layer instead…
[UP NEXT WEEK: STEVEN SEAGLE]