Monday, November 7, 2011

Interview with Nathan Fairbairn

Batman Inc #7
When I started reading comic books (just a few years ago) I mostly paid attention to stories. Writers were the first names in the credits I started recognizing. But over time, my attention shifted more and more toward the art, to the point where the artist is usually a bigger determining factor in what I decide to buy than the writer. (Although, obviously, the best comics are the ones that combine great writing and great art.) As my appreciation of the art and craft of making comics deepened, I also started to realize that a big part of what defines the art that I like is the way it is coloured.

Colourists are still largely unsung heroes, not always recognized as part of the creative team. But their work has a huge impact on my enjoyment of the comics I read. I got really excited when I started to notice that some books by different artists had a distinct quality that I liked because they shared the same colourist. This was what prompted me to read the credits more carefully and make an effort to remember the names of the colourists whose work I liked.

One of those names I started noticing was Nathan Fairbairn. Recently, I was particularly impressed by his work on Swamp Thing (colouring Yanick Paquette's art) and Mystic (colouring David and Alvaro Lopez's art), two very different books with completely different tones, art styles and colour palettes, and yet both visually striking.

I wanted to find out more about Nathan's approach to colouring, so I reached out to him and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions. As it turns out Nathan is not just a talented artist, but also an eloquent writer with some very interesting things to say about his craft. Read on for the interview.

[Note about spelling: I use Canadian English spelling ("colour") for this blog, but I opted to keep Nathan's use of the US English ("color") since that's how he submitted his answers, hence the inconsistent spelling in this post.]

Irrelevant Comics: Aside from the obvious task of adding colour, how would you define the colourist's role in the production line of comics? How do colours contribute to the storytelling?

Nathan Fairbairn: A colorist has three main concerns: mood, depth, and focus. Mood is pretty simple: the palette needs to suit the tone of the story/art/genre. Depth is also pretty self-explanatory and mostly involves using lighting and atmospheric perspective to break up the planes of the art and generally add to the illusion of volume and third dimension. Focus is perhaps the most important aspect of the job. As a colorist, it's my responsibility to help the writer and artist draw the reader's eye to the crucial element in any given panel or page by playing with contrast of value, hue and saturation.

IC: In a lot of mainstream comics, the colours tend to be "invisible," in the sense that you don't really notice them unless they are strikingly bad. Is that a deliberate choice? Are colourists encouraged to stick to the "house style"? Do you ever wish colourists would make bolder choices or experiment more?

Swamp Thing #2
I actually disagree with the premise that colors are ever "invisible."

In addition to coloring comics, I also play the bass. Now, if you ask the average casual listener what they think of a bass line in any given song, you might get a shrug of the shoulders in response, but that doesn't mean the bass line is inaudible or unnecessary for the listener's enjoyment of the song. It just means that the listener is either incapable of distinguishing the bass from the other instrumentation, or that they're so focused on the melodies of the vocals that their awareness of the accompanying music is almost subconscious. This is why when you go to a live show and a band starts to play one of their hits, you often get two waves of recognition and appreciation: those who pay attention to the music respond with applause after the first notes or bars are played, and then a few moments later, those who only pay attention to the vocals start applauding when the first words are sung.

I think that it's kind of the same thing with comics and coloring. Some readers (usually those who are as interested in the craft as they are in the stories being told) are as keenly attuned to the color in a comic as they are to the pencils, inks, or lettering, and for them, it's never invisible. Like bass players, colorists can be boring, uninterested, lazy, technically incompetent, brilliant, astonishing, masterful, prosaic, formulaic, daring or just downright shitty. Like with any art form, there's a full range of practitioners.

In answer to your question about a house style, I wouldn't say there is one (except, obviously within color studios such as HiFi). I would say that there are definitely those colorists out there who have no interest whatsoever in reinventing the wheel. And usually they're right to do so. There's a time and a place, you know? You don't try to cram a funk bass line into a Bruce Springsteen song.  Similarly, if you're coloring a George Perez drawing of Captain America throwing his shield, don't get cute about it, right? Conventional stories require conventional art require conventional colors, whereas unconventional stories require unconventional art require unconventional colors.

IC: Part of a colourist's work is very technical. For example, you need a good knowledge of anatomy and lighting when adding texture and shadows to a character's face. But there's also an element of design to the work, in terms of how the colours match on the page and giving the book a distinct look and feel. How important is design for you?

Any art form requires a considerable amount of technical knowledge and coloring is no different. Without that foundation, no amount of raw talent is going to sustain you or your career. Which works out nicely for me, since I don't actually consider myself super talented artistically. I just work hard and think about what I'm doing a lot. I always have a reason for why I'm doing what I'm doing. You point to any color on a page and I can articulate to you why I chose it. There's very little that is free or spontaneous about my work. It's all very deliberate.

Hawkeye & Mockingbird #1
As for design, it's extremely important to my work. When approaching the colors of a single page, it is important that the reader's eye moves around within a panel and then on to the next in the way that I want, and knowledge of basic principles of design and composition is key to achieving this. Obviously, it's best if the penciller also has this in mind right from the outset, and I can just enhance the design that's already there, rather than try to impose a design through color that doesn't already exist. Furthermore, the initial and overall color design of an entire project is an incredibly important phase of my work. The look and feel of my work is clearly going to be directed by the line art on the page, but I also want to suit my color work to the story being told, which is why my work with the same collaborators often varies from book to book. If you look at my work just with Yanick Paquette, you'll see how my palette and overall rendering style changes depending on the project. Batman Inc is a bright and saturated pop art world, whereas Weapon X is duller and grittier, slightly washed out at times even, and Swamp Thing is vibrant, but dark, if that makes sense. Better yet, if you look at my work with David and Alvaro Lopez on Hawkeye & Mockingbird and on Mystic, the difference between the overall look of the books is massive. David didn't really draw Mystic much differently than he did H&M, but I decided I wanted to color the whole mini like it were a Disney movie. It took a bit of convincing, but the team all had great faith in me and I think I was able to pull it off  almost exactly as I'd hoped.

IC: I was really impressed by your recent work on Swamp Thing and Mystic. Not only do both books look gorgeous, but they're also very different styles and colour palettes. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached each project? Did you discuss the colours with the artists or writers or editors, or were your choices mostly based on your own response to the art?

I rarely discuss the colour design of a book or the specific page-to-page, panel-to-panel color choices with the writer before I get to work. I'm not opposed to it; it just rarely happens. Sometimes there is a specific note in the script to the colorist and sometimes the editor has some ideas for me before I get started, and occasionally the artist has some requests/preferences that he makes known up front, but usually my choices are just a careful response to what's written in the script and drawn on the page. If I have any concerns, I ask the team, but generally I just go for it. Comics are usually done on such a tight schedule there's really no time to color by committee.

IC: Without providing an in-depth tutorial, can you give us a quick step-by-step breakdown of your technique?

All of my work is done in Photoshop. The first step is always to drop in the flat colors on a layer beneath the line art. I spend a fair amount of time on this step, making sure that all my choices are right. This is where the real thinking is done, when all the design and storytelling issues are figured out. After that comes the lighting and rendering of the scene and figures, followed last by whatever special effects are required on top of the lines and color (glows and explosions and the like). Oh, and sometimes there's a layer for color holds, which is when you go in and actually color the inks themselves, as I did on Mystic. You've got to know your tools, obviously, but there's really not much technical knowledge required. I could teach you everything you need to know about Photoshop to do my job in a day. Someone once asked me at a con how I colored a particular page in such a way that it was clear he knew a lot about Photoshop and next to nothing about art. I had my laptop with me, so I opened up the file and showed it to him. It was very satisfying to see his face as he realized there were only 3 layers: the colors, the lines above that, and a layer with a few glows above that. In other words, no fancy tricks: I just colored the bloody thing.

IC: Where did you learn the craft and technique of colouring? Anybody can pick up a pen or pencil and start drawing at home but colouring is mostly done by computer. How does an aspiring colourist start to learn the basics?

Mystic #1
Well, get your hands on Photoshop, obviously. There are free trial versions, and cheaper editions for students available. Then buy some books, such as Color Theory, by Jose Parammon, and the DC Guide to Coloring and Lettering, by Mark Chiarello. Get your hands on some line art online and start practicing every minute you can. Take life drawing classes and design classes if possible. Pay attention to color design on the page, canvas and screen whenever you see it. Take up traditional painting. And for God's sake, get impartial feedback. Go to cons and get your samples in front of professionals.  Put your work on art forums and really listen to what people are saying. Check out, a forum specifically for colorists. It was an invaluable resource in my own studies. Above all, just do the work and enjoy the process.

Oh, and if you want to color comics, then color comics. I'm amazed by the number of wannabe colorists I encounter who don't have a single page of sequential art in their portfolio, just page after page after page of pinups and covers. I don't keep count, but I'd guess I've colored 2,000 or more pages of sequential art in my career and maybe 60 or so pinups and covers. The job is telling stories, not making pretty pictures.

IC: Colourists rarely enjoy the same kind of name recognition that writers or artists do. How important do you think Marvel's policy of including the colourist's name on the cover is? Does it bother you that not all companies do the same thing? Where do you think that reluctance comes from?

It's great that Marvel gives colorists the credit that they are due and a share in the incentives/royalties program that writers, pencilers and inkers participate in.  They've been doing so ever since I started working for them in 2007, and frankly I never gave it much thought. It just seemed obvious to me to include the colorist as part of the creative team. So when I started working for DC recently, yeah, I was pretty disappointed to find that they don't consider colorists to be members of the creative team, but rather the production team, and so give the colorist neither cover credit nor royalties. From what I understand, it's an institutional holdover from the very early days of the company when comics coloring was pretty rudimentary, restricted to a basic palette of like 27 colors, and no one cared if the sky was yellow, the road green and the buildings pink, as long as the Flash was red. Back then, it honestly didn't matter who colored a book -- it would always look much the same (i.e. terrible). Pencilers and inkers were the show; colorists were just the stagehands. Nowadays, the colorist has a profound influence on the finished product, in many cases moreso than do inkers, and should be recognized accordingly. It drives me nuts when a book or series is nominated for an Eisner and the entire creative team, including the colorist, isn't included. Dave McCaig, for example, despite being the sole colorist on several Eisner-award-winning books, such as American Vampire and The Other Side, is somehow not an Eisner Award winner. It's a scandal.

IC: When you started your career in comics, was your goal always to work as a colourist, or did you first want to be an illustrator? If the latter, then is that still something you aspire to, or did you discover that colouring was your true calling?

I have some fairly lofty ambitions in the comics medium. In addition to my training in art, I studied English Lit and Creative Writing at university and worked as a journalist, editor, and English teacher before becoming a full-time freelance colorist, so it may not be surprising to hear that I want to write comics as well as draw and color them. Heck, I'm even interested in the art of lettering. In music, I have a lot of respect for a guy like Dave Grohl, who started out his career as a drummer -- a role player -- on someone else's project and today is a respected and successful singer/songwriter/guitarist/frontman of his own band who is also considered a dream collaborator as a drummer on other musicians' projects. In 10 years, I hope to be producing my own graphic novels, writing an ongoing series or two for other artists, and coloring the occasional project by artists I admire.

Nathan Fairbairn's website is here. You can also follow him on Twitter.


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