Colour a crazed comic character
Dave Wilkins shows how to go from tonal rendering to colour image using traditional comic-book colouring technique and a flexible process
Dave Wilkins uses traditional techniques.
tarting with my final tonal
Srendering of everyone’s favourite psychopath, the Joker, I’m going to take you through my comic colouring process, step by step. This is a simple, straightforward approach to colouring a tonal or greyscale work, using various tools, layer modes and the like, all within Photoshop. The process is very flexible and enables me to manipulate and control the hue, value and saturation levels at each stage of the painting. When approaching a character as outlandish as the Joker, this will prove extremely helpful.
My goal is to apply colour while still preserving the tonal rendering, so that I can solve each visual problem separately. Once I’m happy with the base colours and lighting temperature, I can smudge and paint on top to unify the image.
Being asked to do the Joker was like visiting an old friend; the crazy one who always got you into a mess while he walked away unscathed. So let’s go back to Gotham and see what trouble we can get into, shall we?
1 Tonal effects
Once my greyscale values are in place, I convert the greyscale to RGB. Then I make the image fully sepia tone, so there’s a blended-earth tone in the background as opposed to pure black, which has a tendency to get muddy. I open the Color Balance menu (Ctrl+B) and adjust my mid-tones to achieve the sepia tone effect.
2 Flatting the image
I take the Polygon Lasso tool, carve out individual shapes and fill them with a tone to represent the final colouration. Using the Magic Wand tool I click in and out of selected areas, adjusting parts without disturbing successful areas. This is helpful later when the full image is merged down and blended together and I need to make final tweaks.
3 Colour selections
I set that layer to Overlay. This gives me an instant snapshot of colour, where the flats are working and what will need fixing. I can see the beginnings of the colour selections that will transition throughout the piece. The Joker’s signature purple suit and shock of green hair aren’t quite on the mark yet, but I have the major landmarks.
4 Contrast and shading
I select certain flat areas, and using Overlay and Multiply modes, I start to see the contrast and shading within the forms. I used to use Ctrl+ C and Ctrl+V to copy and paste and almost always it would paste off centre and lining up the offset was frustrating. Last year a colleague asked, “Why don’t you just use Ctrl+J?” Thanks Evan – I use it all day every day now!
5 Personal tastes
This process is repeated and overlayed and multiplied. Copy and pasting the layers, and then utilising the Overlay or Multiply option quickly results in deeper values and more saturation. I then erase out what’s too dark and keep what’s most successful. I’ve always loved the red inflamed-eyes of Dave McKean’s Joker, so I aim to emulate that distinctive look.
6 Hatching colours
Using the Eyedropper tool, I pick colours from the face to hatch and blend, for a clown’s makeup foundation. I build up the forms, keeping it cohesive. I hold off using bright or hot colours. When doing a character as garish as the Joker, it’s easy for colours to overpower and the values to lose out, so I save the rim-light hotspots and highlights for last.
7 Reference search
I continue the process of selecting from the flat layer, repeating steps two, three and four throughout the entire body, including the suit, bow tie and hair. I cruise the internet for suitable photo reference. When I have the time, I like to shoot my own reference for folds, wrinkles, lighting and such-like, as well as sculpt characters in ZBrush that I can light for the tonal and values stage.
8 Brightening it up
I use the Polygonal Lasso tool to carve out shapes that will represent highlights on the lapel and sleeve. And I then use Ctrl+J to drop that layer with my selection in place and turn the layer to Screen. This brightens that area and the more I use this technique, the closer my colour goes to white.
9 Highlights information
My brightening technique gives the painting some harsh, faceted edges, but I’ll deal with them during the next stage. This is just an over-simplified bright shape that gives me some highlights information on the top of the sleeve.
10 Blending shapes
I select the Smudge tool to smear and blend the harsh shapes together for a more cohesive piece. I continue this blending method throughout the image, until the desired look is achieved. Once I start to mimic the materials that I’m going for, I know I’m on the home stretch.
11 Refining the scene
I continue to refine edges and forms, cleaning up edges and fixing anything glaring or that looks off. This is the tedious part of the painting process so it helps to have some decent tunes (I prefer 80s and 90s anime) to push through this part… ugh!
12 Making the figure pop
With lighting, the forms must read no matter what. Does my silhouette punch out well? Do fabric folds show clearly? Once they do, I settle on the lighting and start the rim-light to pop the figure forward, like the film posters I grew up with. Richard Amsel’s awesome Flash Gordon and Mad Max posters, and pretty much everything Drew Struzan has ever done.
13 Controlling the light
When using such flamboyant colours, it’s helpful to use a layer with a colour gradient over the scene, which enables me to erase areas that are too saturated. I use the adage: warm light equals cool shadows, or cool light equals warm shadows. I’ve given him a warm rim-light, which dictates the cooler shadowy areas below the door handle and in the background.
14 Making my final tweaks
On the rim-light layer I put a Layer Style on, use Outer Glow and adjust it to an earthy orange. For final tweaks I use the Lasso and Warp tools to nudge things into place. I do this as a last resort – I usually make adjustments along the way, redrawing and reworking, so I’m constantly learning and reinforcing traditional skills. Remember, Ctrl+J all day!