March 17, 2008
Posted by: Mark Siegel
Categories: :01 Stop: Watch

[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

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…


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