Monday, 17 August 2009

Introducing Melanie Cook: Queen of Colours

Mel Cook was the first ever artist signed by Insomnia, for the cult teen sci-fi book Cages, described by horror master Ben Templesmith, no less, as "Lovely...lovely and disturbing".

Mel's soft, illustration style artwork set against the very adult issues of identity, power and freedom at the centre of the story, bring a haunting poignancy to the events of the book and, as good art should, add a deeper emotional complexity to the questions explored.

Appealing equally to readers of classic thought-provoking sci-fi and watchers of high concept anime the book was a fantastic first launch for Insomnia and was described as “Mother of a compelling read.” by Comics News.

It was this ability to bring out the psychological and emotional aspects of a script that made Mel the perfect choice for her next Insomia project, Cancertown, where the place is in many ways as much a character as the people that inhabit it. Bryan Talbot, in his foreword to the book, picks out the "atmospheric colouring" for a particular mention - and that is a man who knows his colour work.

Of course we weren't about to let Mel escape once Cancertown was done, and she is currently colouring Average Joe (by Thomas Romeo and Kelvin Chan) and has just begun work on The Indifference Engine (by Cy Dethan and Rob Carey).

And here it is, the very first peek at a panel from The Indifference Engine itself:

Then it will be back to Cancertown for Mel next year for Volume 2: Blasphemous Tumours.

And finally, at the risk of making her blush, it needs to be said how much Mel has also brought to the Insomnia family behind the scenes. Although incredibly busy with her books for us, work for other publishers, and projects in a whole variety of other media Mel has always been happy to take the time to offer help and advice to newer artists . She is pretty perfect, really, and a demon on Rockband, so I hear.

So, buckle your seatbelts for a trip inside the head of the talented Miss Melanie Cook...

Q:Tell us a bit about your artistic background (self taught, art education, experience etc) and how you got into working in comics.

A:I've always loved drawing and being creative. I was passionate about my art studies throughout highschool, but never managed to take my formal art education any further. Most of what I have learned post- highschool has been thanks to the bevy of wonderful resources available in print and online these days. That said, I also couldn't be where I was without the time spent studying cinematography and lighting at film school. It was actually thanks to film school that I first began working in comics. Cages writer Xander Bennett had seen the storyboarding I was doing for my cinematography projects and invited me to work on a comic pitch with him. I took him up on the offer and the rest was history.

Average Joe

Q:What does the job of a colourist involve?

A: At its most essential, the job of colourist involves working with colour and tone to create an atmosphere and mood that parallels the narrative. Practically speaking, this usually requires a fair amount of collaboration with the writer and artist, as well as a thorough breakdown of the script and some trial and error exploring various styles and techniques.

Q:How /where does a colourist fit into the team and what does the colouring bring to the finished pages and how do you accomplish this?

A:The colourist joins the production line once the pencils have been prepped for printing, either via traditional inking, digital inking, or a digital darkening of the pencils in a program like Photoshop. The colourist then works traditionally, or digitally in Photoshop or Painter, to build upon the guidelines established by the artist/inker.

Q:What is the process for colouring a page in technical terms, how long does it take, what tools or programs do you use?

A:When I first receive a page, I open it up in Photoshop to make sure it's saved in the right resolution and page size for printing. For comics printed in the US, those specs would be 6.875" by 10.438", and for the UK, 6.537” by 9.883”, both at 300dpi. If I'm working on an uninked page, my next step is to then clear up any pencil smudges or unwanted marks that might have been accidentally picked up by the scanner, and then digitally ink it if necessary. I find this process works best if I'm operating in grayscale mode, where I use a combination of Levels and manual selecting-cutting to eradicate unwanted lines. If inking is also required, I darken the pencil lines as best I can and fill solid areas of black with a simple lasso-select and fill technique.

Once the linework is ready and secure on its own channel, and the colourspace has been set up, it's time to start with the Flatting. I would liken Flatting to laying down the foundations for your soon-to-be coloured page. It basically involves manually selecting the different parts of the artwork and filling them with their solid base colours. Though an essential part of the process, it can be rather tedious and time-consuming and take between half an hour to an hour and a half or more depending on how detailed and busy the page is.

After the flats are in place it's finally time to commence colouring. The actual colouring of the page, where you go in and work out your tones and textures, can take anywhere from about two and a half hours to five or six, again depending on how involved the page is, and how much trial and error is needed. I usually commence colouring a page by roughing in my light and shadow in each panel, then building in the detail, adding textures and finally putting in any special effects or colour holds needed. Once the colouring is complete, all that's left is to separate the blacks, double-check your printing specs and upload it to the ftp server.

Q:How do you go about deciding on colour schemes, palettes etc ? I've heard it said that colourists are the cinematographers of the comics industry adding lots of additional information regarding context, feel, moods, psychological tone and setting, what do you think about that?

A:I would agree that there are elements of cinematography shared with colouring. But I believe the artist/inker to be as much a cinematographer as the colourist. Not only that, but it could be said that they share similarities with the position of production designer on a film set as well. Like a cinematographer, the artist/inker sets up the composition of the frame and provides guidlines for the mood and lighting. And in the role of production designer, the artist/inker creates the design of the mise-en-scene within each panel.

The colourist then works with the artist/inker's guidlines and uses colour to create the illusion of light within a panel. It's the role of the colourist to think practically about natural and artificial lighting, key-lighting and back-lighting, and the colour temperature of different light sources, as well as the emotional and psychological effects these colour choices might have on the reader. In addition to these cinematographical aspects, the colourist, like a production designer, makes conscious decisions about the colour of objects, places and people within the frame. He or she must ascertain how these components might work to influence the mood of the page and how they might detract or draw attention to key story elements within the panels.


Q: There are many pre-existing colouring conventions in comics (eg primary colours for 'good' characters), do you find you use these at all, are they helpful or restrictive?

A: Having entered into this field with very little prior knowledge of pre-existing conventions or norms, I'd have to say that they haven't really had much of a conscious effect on my work. Most of my colouring decisions and approaches have stemmed from colour theory in general and inspiration from the works of other artists.

Q: Has colouring become an entire art in itself now, rather than just a part of the production process, allowing the development of personal techniques and styles?

A:Indeed. And I think that it's largely thanks to the improvements and advancements being made with digital painting software, and the ease at which artists from any background and media can communicate via the internet. Colourists are able to work much more efficiently in programs such as Photoshop and Painter, giving them time to explore the vast array of tools, techniques and ideas at their disposal.

Q: What are the differences in doing 'full art' and colouring someone else's work? How do you deal with the different styles of underlying pencils, different tones of scripts etc?

A: Although I enjoy doing 'full art', it's been a wonderful learning experience working with someone else's work. There is less of an emotional investment when working with the linework of another artist, and I think that this frees the colourist up to take risks and really explore a page's potential.

It's also not uncommon for a colourist to receive the script around the same time as the penciller, so to be able to have access to the written visual cues from the beginning, and witness another artist's approach never fails to inspire me. It gives you an opportunity to get inside the head of another artist, to explore and examine their decision making, and should their style be considerably different from your own, you have a chance to approach colouring in a way you may not normally consider.


Q: What advice would you give for people wanting to become colourists?

Aside from just 'practice, practice, practice', there are a lot of wonderful books and forums out there to explore, which will certainly give any prospective colourist a better understanding of what the job entails.

The most helpful book for me so far has been Hi-Fi Color for Comics by Brian and Kristy Miller. It has some invaluable information about the technical side of colouring comics, such as page and printing specs, how to set up an efficient workflow, and creating cuts, grads and colour holds. Plus there's a bonus CD of goodies with things like lineart samples for you to start working on. Brian and Kristy Miller also have a second book coming out at the beginning of 2010 which takes colouring comics to the next level, and looks at different colouring styles for Manga, Superhero comics, covers etc.

In addition to this there are a number of forums you can go to where I'd recommend posting your work, getting feedback and finding advice from fellow colourists. The two main ones I can think of are Gutterzombie and Huedoo. The former is often frequented by colourist veterans Laura Martin and Dave McCaig, and the latter is run by Brian and Kristy Miller.

Q: Which artists and colourists do you admire and inspire you?

Laura Martin is certainly a colourist that stands out in my mind. Her work on Warren Ellis' Planetary was the first time I was ever consciously drawn to the colouring of a comic as much as, if not more than the artwork itself. Which is saying something, because John Cassaday is an amazing artist.

I also love Dave McCaig's work on Mark Waid's Birthright. You have to be a real master at cuts and grads to be able to use them in such a distinctive yet suitably understated way as he does. That particular colouring style stands up on its own, yet never draws so much attention to itself as to detract from the rather fine linework.

Outside of comic book colourists, I find I'm currently drawn to the amazingly hyper-real paintings of matte painters Dylan Cole, Dusso and Dan Wheaton, and a number of storyboard/concept artists and character designers, like Adrien Van Viersen, Dawood Marion, Brett Bean and James Paick.

Q: You also do work for film and television as a digital artist and storyboarder. Tell us about some of the projects you've worked on, and a bit about what is the same / different about working in these various media.

My film work has fallen more and more to the wayside as I've become more involved with illustrating and colouring comics, but I do still create the odd concept art and character designs here and there for various pitch projects. Probably the most notable project I've worked on was an Australian feature film called Crooked Business, where I was responsible for churning out storyboards for the 95 minute film. Aside from this I've also worked as storyboard artist on a number of short films, music videos and commercials, and created concept and character art for feature and television pitches. Nothing overly fancy, but it helps to pay the bills.

I think that the biggest similarity between my roles in film/tv and comics is the use of sequential imagery to tell a story. However, that's possibly where the similarities end.

With comics, the artwork is the end product, there is little else to consider other than the limitations of the page, and there is a great deal of freedom awarded to the artist because of this. With storyboarding on the other hand, the artwork is merely a small cog in a very large and complex machine.

When storyboarding a project, attempting to get story across quickly and visually is not your only major concern. You've also got to take into consideration how your shots might influence or be influenced by the production of the film. A storyboard artist needs to be aware of things like film lenses, camera limitations, budget limitations (most everything that's drawn needs to be recreated somehow on screen), and communicating necessary visual information to the various departments. It's a rewarding if not stressful process, but I much prefer the creative freedom offered while working in comics.

Q: Colours often look different on the printed page, to how they look on screen. How do you work around that?

A: Send hate mail to the Printers? No. That's a lie ... mostly. It is a big issue, and it's been said that you almost need a background working with commercial printers in order to really understand the mechanics behind the printing process. I can't say that it's something I've managed to satisfactorily work around yet, but I'm learning more about it as I witness more of my work being translated from monitor to printed page. At present I'm experimenting with working in Photoshop in RGB mode with WorkingCMYK (under View >> Proof Setup) turned on. Previously I merely worked in CMYK mode, but after doing some research and reading up on what a couple of veteren colourists have said, this current method seems to provide the most accurate depiction of what your colours will look like once printed. Or at least that's the plan. I'll let you know how it turns out when the next book comes out.

Q: What is the hardest thing about being a colourist?
A: Flatting? It's mind-numbing and I hate it. Seriously. No, but honestly, I'd probably say that all the technical learning involved with colouring digitally has been my biggest hurdle. I was never previously all that technically inclined, but I must admit, that once it's under your belt and you can get back to focussing on the creative aspect, the rewards are astronomical.

Cancertown Double Page Spread with Initial Colours

Cancertown Double Page Spread with Full Final Colours

Q: The story is now well known that when Xander Bennet asked you to do the art for Cages it was the first time you'd done a comics project of that length. How did you go about jumping into that, what did you learn from it, and was having the freedom to start from scratch and develop your own method liberating or terrifying?

A: It wasn't a small jump, I can say that. I think from memory I spent two months during my last year at university being force-fed comics by Xander. It was his way of introducing me to the medium. This was closely followed by an insane number of technical books on making comics and creating art digitally.

The whole process ended up being quite long and drawn out. I was trying to learn about the medium I was working in from scratch, as well as the tools I was working with, whilst simultaneously attempting to produce as professional a looking product as my meagre art skills would allow. Up until this point, all I'd really done was draw quick, crude storyboards in pencil which I didn't even ink.

So yeah, definitely more terrifying than liberating.

You'll be able to find out more behind the scenes info on Mel's work in The Insomniac's Guide To Cancertown next year.

Who Wants To Be A Zombie?

Rich McAuliffe and Mark Chilcott, the slight unhinged creators of Damaged Goods, are currently on the prowl for victims...umm...I mean willing immortalise within the pages of the dark and twisted story The Bride.

All you need to do is send a photo of yourself doing your best zombie or victim expression.

Should you be one of the 3 that makes the cut (sorry, I tried to resist doing that, but I was weak) and be chosen as the model for either a zombie or a wedding guest then you'll appear in the story, get a full name credit in the book, have your original photo appear in the back matter and receive a free copy of the book.

Full details of how to enter can be found over on Rich McAuliffe's blog.

You can read Tea Party from Damaged Goods as a free preview on MyeBook to get an idea what you might be in for:

Myebook - Damaged Goods: Tea Party - click here to open my ebook

Sharing The Love

The next but one Accent UK anthology, Victoriana, will include a story from yet another Insomnia Supergroup. At this rate we're going to be able to play "Rock Family Trees" for the comics industry in no time!

Michael "Quarantine" Moreci has penned "Wolf Like Me" and art is in the capable hands of the Kronos Citizens Alex Willmore and Lauren Anne Sharp.

You can see a sample page over at Michael's blog.

Things are starting to gear up for BICS 2009 now...more news very soon.

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