This is a transcript of the Oct. 1 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan.
This season, we’re sitting down with the writer and artists behind the comic book Batman, or in this episode, a book called All Star Batman, to learn a little bit about how their stories of the Dark Knight come together, from concept to execution.
For this episode, we spoke with Dean White, a trained painter who has been coloring comic books for more than two decades, literally putting all of those hues and shades and textures that don’t come from the pencils or the inks or the other parts of the art process. He talks about the tools of the trade, the computers he uses, about how he uses colors as well to control our sense of the passage of time, and discusses the pleasure of collaborating with other talented artists and creators.
Then, in a Slate Plus extra, White talks about how he’s influenced by cinematography.
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Brogan: What is your name, and what do you do?
Dean White: Hi, my name is Dean White, and I am a colorist, or color artist, for DC Comics.
Brogan: What does that entail? What does it mean to be a colorist or color artist in the comic books industry?
White: Well, it’s changed. Before, it used to be kind of a flat color laid underneath the line art, just to help separate, and the last 10, 15, years, 20 years, it’s really turned into a highly rendered painting aspect. So the important thing is that when I get a comic, I read the script and try to figure out where the emotional beats are along with the big action beats. And then I try to use color to enhance those moments. So it’s almost—I think of it like a soundtrack to a movie. So when we get to exciting action, more action parts, I’ll probably play a little bit more colorful, I’ll do rendering and do a little bit more chaotic rendering to make those moments seem kind of more exciting. And when we to the more emotional moments, I’ll change the color and rendering to kind of set that. So it’s all about trying to enhance the story. A lot of times, to the viewer, it’s going to be subconscious, but you’re trying to enhance it and make it read, so it’s through color, lighting, and rendering, a lot of stuff.
And in coloring nowadays, you have couple of different schools. You have a light, almost flat coloring still going on, and then you have a more highly rendered school. And if you’re a good colorist, you can do both, but usually I am hired for the highly rendered, almost painterly comics.
Brogan: We’ll talk more about that in a second, but before we get to it, you’re working—you said you work for DC Comics—you’re working on a book called All Star Batman, I think, right?
White: Yeah, I just finished up All Star Batman, I did 1 through 5 All Star Batman and then Issue 8 of All Star Batman. And then I just finished up a crossover that DC’s doing, it’s called Metal, and it’s called The Drowned. And then I’m also doing a Night Wing miniseries right now.
Brogan: Cool. So what is your background? Did you go to art school? Did you train for this work that you’re doing today?
White: Yeah, well, from age 4, I knew I either wanted to be an artist or a scientist. And I didn’t have the brains for the science, so I had the skill for the artist.
Brogan: Same, except that I also didn’t have the skill for being an artist.
White: So I went to art school, I trained in illustration and fine arts. Actually at 16, I got my first job storyboarding for local commercials, and have done paintings, illustration, for years, and then done even storyboards for live action, some animation stuff.
Brogan: Were you always interested in comics, or was it just something that you found your way to through that other work?
White: Oh, you know, comics were fantastic for me. So when I was going to first grade, back in the Dinosaur Age, they had the book Dick and Jane Run Up the Hill. And the teacher said I was dumb, basically, because I wasn’t reading these books. My Dad said, “Well, you’re just boring him. These things are boring.” So he went out and bought me my first comics in first grade. And I got so in love with it that I just became a veracious reader. And then next thing I knew, I bought my first novel, because I’d been learning how to read really well through comics, which was an Isaac Asimov novel, and next thing I knew, my reading level was five grades above. So comics were my gateway into reading, and helped me to find that love and interest in reading, expanding one’s mind through reading.
Brogan: What was your gateway to becoming a colorist for comics, though? How did that happen?
White: Well, you know, actually, it’s funny, because I was at San Diego Comic-Con, I got my first job at San Diego Comic-Con. And I was going around, I was showing painted pages, so originally I was looking to do sequential art work myself, fully painted, and I got two job offers. One was from an editor who used to be at DC actually, who unfortunately passed away, by the name of Lou Stasis, who was interested in me doing something called A Swamp Thing backup story, where I was going to fully paint it. And another was for this new company Image that started, and they wanted me to come in and see—because I could paint so well—if I could learn the computer, and they had me come in, and I never touched a computer before then—and next thing I know, it’s 20-some-odd-years later. It just kind of, I kind of fell into it, and to start having a blast, because at that time, you were using, like, Photoshop 3 beta. We were some of the first people who’d be doing coloring with Photoshop on Mac and stuff like that. Just kind of got just sucked into it.
Brogan: That’s interesting. So it was really through comics that you started doing more digital work. You’ve been doing—
White: Oh yeah.
Brogan: Working with physical materials more before that?
White: Oh yeah. I was trained with oils, acrylics, watercolor, charcoal, pencil, ink, all that stuff. So I hadn’t done anything on the computer until I walked into Image, which was a subset of Image called Top Cow that used to be in Santa Monica, on 33 Promenade, and I walked in there and sat down, and they just said, “OK, these are the tools.” And I just approached it like I was painting, and they came back a half hour later and were impressed by everything. So I got hired and just went from there.
Brogan: Did that background as a highly trained painter, did that influence your early digital work? Does it maybe even influence your digital work today?
White: Oh yeah, yeah. I’m old-school this way. Anyone who’s going to get started in arts, like I’ve taught for years, too, and when I teach, I tell everyone, try to learn how to do everything by hand. Learn how to draw, paint, and sculpt by hand, because the computer is just a tool, but when you learn how to do something by hand, you have to really commit to something. You can’t do the Command Z to undo. And, yeah, painting really influenced all the digital work. And I approach everything I do like I’m painting. And the knowledge of volume, the roundness of something, mass, color, all that stuff.
Brogan: So what’s a typical day like for you, if we can just talk the particulars for a moment? Do you work this as a nine-to-five job?
White: No. I try to, but it depends on the deadlines. If I can, I like to be up about nine or ten at the computer working, and then try to wrap around seven or eight. But a lot of times, you have a lot of the pencil and ink pages coming in late, so you have to do so much so quickly that it’s going to entitle you to be staying up even later. Like just this last week, I had to make sure I did a couple all-nighters just to get stuff done, because I had so many pages coming in.
Brogan: If I can read between the lines there, it’s partially because other people’s pages are coming in late, because other artists aren’t always working 100 percent on schedule? Is that fair to say?
White: Well, no, I wouldn’t say it’s that. There’s a lot of, it’s tough when you work on monthly books, because you set up the optimum way it should work, and then somebody gets sick, there’s a power outage. One of the reasons I had to do it, is we had a power outage here on Wednesday, like they’re working on a thing on our power grid, I knew I had to get my work done. I couldn’t tell DC, “Hey, sorry, my power is going to be out.” So I had to stay up and do one of those all-nighters just for that. And then we had another, the artist had a real serious situation to deal with that I would hold nothing against him, anyone would have to deal with that. So it’s just life, life gets challenging. You get sick, you run a little bit slower, and you still have to work. And that’s the being about being freelance, it’s great that you get to be freelance, or even if you’re under contract, the company is great, because we work out of our house. But at the same time, we have to produce. And it doesn’t matter if we have a cold, are sick, or something else is going on. You still have to produce.
Brogan: So you do work out of a home office?
White: Yeah, yeah, I work out of—it’s actually just my living room. I have a formal living room, and I have it set up so that I can be around for my kids, because we have two kids that we’re homeschooling, and so I’m able to be around for them.
Brogan: That’s awesome. So is it just like a desk set up? Can you describe your actual work space to us?
White: Well, we have a formal living room, and that’s where I’m set up. And it’s just, my workspace is, I have a great desk, I highly recommend, called Geek Desk, and it’s one of those electronic desks that goes up and down. And that’s like a four-foot wide desk, and I have a Cintiq set up to my iMac.
Brogan: What’s a Cintiq? For listeners who aren’t artists.
White: Cintiq is a screen, it looks like a regular computer screen, but you can actually draw on it. And how much pressure you apply to the screen, it’s just like drawing on paper or painting. You can apply pressure and it makes more digital paint come out. It’s fantastic. Costs about the same amount, they run between two to three thousand just for a Cintiq screen. But for what we do it, you can’t live without it.
Brogan: Do you have special tools for creating kind of paintlike effects on that, or do you just use a—
White: It allows you to put your pen right where you’re drawing and actually work on it. Nowadays, I have an iPad Pro with an Apple pencil, and I’m starting to be able to do some of my work on that as well. So it’s almost like that, but imagine it’s 24 inches big instead of, you know ... I have the 12-inch iPad Pro. Imagine it’s 27 to 24 inches bigger, so ...
Brogan: That’s interesting, because that’s actually similar to the size of the pages that you’re working from before they get digitized, I think.
White: Right, right. Usually, the pages are 11 by 17. 11 inches by 17 inches, sorry. Then they get shrunk down to 10.5 by six or seven inches.
Brogan: OK, and then you blow that up when you’re working on them on the tablet?
White: Oh God, yes. That’s actually the thing you have to be careful with, because you can get so blown up that you can get lost in the details. But the thing is, we’re also going into the age of digital comics, where people are blowing up the screens and looking at them. Digital comics for me, digital comics on an iPad is just amazing, because you’ve got a fantastic screen, especially with a 12-inch iPad Pro. I love looking at that stuff that big. It’s fantastic.
Brogan: So generally speaking, you say you try to get started around 9:00 or 10:00, how much of the day do you spend working? What are the rhythms of your mornings or afternoons like?
White: I generally work, I’m usually going—once I sit down, it’s usually just going, take a quick lunch break, and then go back to work and go. Unless my family needs me, or I need to take care of something. But I’m usually working straight through.
Brogan: And how long do you spend typically working on a given page? Is a page an all-day thing, or is it less?
White: Oh yeah. Well, this is the thing that you get to—there’re different styles in coloring. If you’re doing more of a flat style, there’re a lot of people that go through and will do four pages a day, no problem, and it’ll look fine. But because usually what they’re hiring me for, is highly rendered, that takes a lot more time to not only put the color in, but then also you have to sit there and completely paint, model, or form. So you’re looking at, where is the lighting coming from, you’re setting up the lighting, and do you want to go naturalistic with this kind of lighting, because it’s a location shot and you’re setting up the mood of the location, day/night scene. Or you’re going for overdramatic, because it’s like, this is a real dramatic moment and you want to change the lighting to accompany that. So that takes a lot more time to do the highly rendered stuff. Because it’s just more time going in there and figuring out how someone draws.
Because that’s one of the things I’ve found is that—I’ve worked with a lot of great different artists—and the key thing is to figure out how they draw, and then to match my rendering to them. Because if I approach everyone the same way, it’s not going to work, because some people will build stuff up by boxes, some are a little bit more sketchier. And so inevitably what I have if I’m working with a new artist is, I actually pull up their page, and then I’ll pull up a piece of paper and I’ll just kind of sketch what I’m looking at, their artwork, and start trying to figure out how they’re building up the forms, and then how to make sure the rendering works with it. Because I never want my stuff to jump out. You do, but you don’t want it to look different. You want to look like it’s the whole art. When you get done and someone looks at the comic, it should be, “The page looks awesome.” You shouldn’t look at one part and go, “Oh, this person did great, but this person dropped the ball.” So you have to make sure it all syncs together real well.
Brogan: One of the issues that you colored recently, this All Star Batman Number 5, had, I think, one pencil, but something like four different inkers working on it, each of them had subtly different styles. Does something like that, the different ways that people are inking, even one penciler’s work, affect the choices you make throughout that issue?
White: Well, it’s funny because John Romita Jr. was the penciler, and then we had Danny Miki, who is the series’ regular inker, and then we had, helping out was Richard Friend and Sandra Hope and Tom Palmer, and they all ink really differently. And that changes the pencil. So, yeah, you have to adjust from there. And I’ve worked for John Romita Jr. for, I think Black Panther was our first comic book years ago, and every time you get a new inker with him, I have to slightly change it, because it changes his art. And that’s what John wants. John wants someone to come in and bring art to the piece. John is a fantastic collaborator to work with.
Brogan: So let’s talk about the way that goes, generally. What form is a page in when it first comes to you? Do you just get an email that has a big old inks page in it, or what’s the story there?
White: Well, a lot of times what I’ll get is, I get the script, and I usually don’t have any say on the script. I look at the script, and then, as the penciler’s working out, a lot of times they’ll send JPEGs of the pencils that they’re working on, so I can see what the page is going to look like. Sometimes I work with people who just do pencils, and then I have to work off their pencils. And then other people, like with John Romita Jr. All Star Batman, he pencils, then he has the inker come through, and so I’ll see his pencils, and then the inker will finish the page, and then they’ll send it to me from there.
So I have a page, and it’s black-and-white, and you’re looking at something, let’s say Batman in the middle of a field, and you’re looking and going, “This is a day/ nighttime shot, what do I need to do to make this really stand out?” And also, “Is this a moment that should stand out?” Because in comics, we control time by how long you stay there. It’s not like movies where—a movie’s a lot more passive. You’re sitting as an audience member, and the director is controlling the time. With comics, the viewer gets to look at the panel and decide how quickly they go through the panels and flip the page. So you’re trying to decide, how much detail do I want to put into that panel? An artist is deciding this, an inker is deciding this, and the colorist is also deciding this. And so you have to look at the panel, “I got Batman in the field, is this a quick moment, so it’s supposed to go by real quickly, so the person just reads it in one second?” Or are we supposed to feel like this is a moment where he’s contemplating, thinking something, so I need to then change everything. Change the color, the rendering, everything, to get that moment across and make the reader stay longer on there.
And then you have to do that through the whole page and figure out the balance of the page. Because not only do you have that one panel, you also have five or six other panels that have to go along with it. And you can’t have, every panel can’t have the same intensity to it. There has to be a rhythm to it that goes up and down. So the artist and inker who have gone through there, they thought about this, the writers thought about this, and then usually the colorist is the final artistic process that the book goes through, where you can really change the artwork radically. Because I’ve had scenes that have come to me that were drawn as daytime, and I had to make them nighttime scenes, and all that kind of stuff. Or the moods change, or I had to redraw stuff. So it’s taking that black-and-white page and then going, “What is it? Is this day? Is this night? What color is it?” And so on.
Brogan: What program are you using to manipulate or work with them as you’re first starting to make these choices?
White: Mostly it’s been Adobe Photoshop for years. They kind of have a monopoly on the software on that side. So I’ve mostly been using that, but lately I have been using Procreate on the iPad to do some of my work on that, and that’s been fantastic as well. Highly recommend Procreate on iPad. Fantastic.
Brogan: What about your interaction with the script as all of this is going? You said you read through it to get a sense of the emotional beats, of the rhythms of the story, where it’s headed and such. But are you also constantly referring back to it as you work, or is it just once through, and then you’re doing your job?
White: It depends on the script. Some scripts you really need to be paying attention to, because there’s a density to it. And other ones, it’s more like Batman lands in the field and he’s running and he has escaped this person, and at this moment, he’s having a flashback, and he’s remembering, and you can read those real quickly. So it depends on the script, but I need it there to understand what the writer’s intent was. At least for me that’s really important, because it starts with the writer coming up with the stuff, and you want to make sure that the whole team’s happy. That’s everything. When I finish a page, I send it to the whole team, so they can then see it—writer, inker, penciler, editor, letterer—and I try to include everyone, so they can all see it and make their comments.
Brogan: Usually the letterer’s work is not on the page at the time that you’re working on it, right? My understanding is that that sometimes happens simultaneously.
White: It seems like nowadays a letterer is actually doing a lot of his stuff on the black-and-white, so when inkers finish, a lot of times they’ll send that all off to the letterer, and he’ll do his initial letter placement on the black-and-white, and then they composite everything once the colors are done. I don’t always see the lettering. But that’s why I try to include it to the letterer when I can, so they can see what colors I’m picking and stuff like that.
Brogan: So what kind of feedback do you get when you send those color pages along? Are there ever members of the team that are like, “Scrap it, start all over,” or is it more of a back-and-forth that happens?
White: Everyone’s had “Scrap it.” I did a double-page spread on this one book and I thought it was great, and everyone else hated it. And it was, well, “Scrap it.” And we talked through where the miscommunication went through, and we understood where it was, and I had to redo it. But I’d say, for me, at least, that’s really rare. I’ve been doing it for a while, they usually know what they want, so I think most of the time if I get any notes, it’s for like, hair, eye color, this consistent stuff. Most of the time I’ve been very, very lucky. I get to work with great people and they tend to give me a lot of leeway, and give me a lot of respect at what I do.
Brogan: So I was wondering about that. How much freedom do you have when you’re deciding how things should look?
White: Well, within my field, I have complete freedom, pretty much. Other than you need to know if it’s a nighttime scene, a daytime scene, you have to do that. You can’t switch it just to have fun with it. You need to adhere to that. But no one’s going to tell me how to render, no one’s going in there telling me what colors to pick. So I have complete freedom in that. And usually, like I said, I’ve been in the field for a while, so when they hire me, they usually know what they want, we’ll talk about what kind of mood you want for the piece. So for All Star Batman it was kind of a high-octane, kind of Quentin Tarantino kind of feel to it, and so you’ll want to get that through in the colors. So you don’t want to go through and make everything somber, because that’s going to fight with the intent of the pieces. But, yeah, freedom, I’m pretty lucky, I don’t have much control over me in that way.
Brogan: One thing I noticed when I was paging through an issue of All Star Batman, Issue Number 5, was that there are sometimes these almost impressionistic details that sneak into your coloring. There’ll be sort of swashes of little lines of aquamarine that trace across Batman’s mask in one scene, or this incredible shading, subtle shift of colors across the clouds as our heroes are leaping off of a waterfall. How much do you spend thinking about those, really, I want to say, “eccentric,” but that’s not quite the right word, but those really particular details they are introducing on to these pages?
White: Usually what I’ll do is, I’ll usually set up the page and I’ll pick the whole panel, and I have a couple different Photoshop brushes I created that are kind of loose and sketchy brushes. And what I do is, I’ll go through and I’ll pick the panel, and I’ll just paint quickly—so I call it painting—I’ll paint quickly on the panel, and I just kind of block out big color for the whole panel. And I go through the whole page and I do that. So I block in the whole page with color, building up my color, how I want color to move around the stuff. And then I start going into detail. And the hardest part is usually the initial block. Not the hardest part, but the part where you really think about is that initial part where you’re laying in the big colors for the panel, and how it works for the next panel, and how it works for the next page. And then when you start fine tuning it, you’re just kind of feeding off what you did before, and so it’s process.
You think about it and go, “Yeah, I really want to have this vibrate here,” or “I want this to slow down a little bit more, and I want a sense of these clouds to have this kind of etching style,” so I’ll go through and I draw all these repetitive lines over and over again through them. It’s hard to say initially why I chose that, it was just more like I wanted this kind of feeling to it. And Issue 5 is the last issue, and we were under a really stressed deadline, so trying to get that out in time was just super-challenging. We didn’t quite, it was the end, so we pulled back, we made it a little more “action feel” to it than the other issues.
Brogan: Many of the characters that you’re working with have these really iconic costumes. Often in bold, primary colors, probably partially as an effect of the way comics colors used to work. Do those longstanding, age-old design choices place limitations on what you can do as a colorist today, ever?
White: No, I call it “challenges,” but if you got Two Face, and you’re going to put him in a giant, red costume, and you have Batman who’s black, and you have another character who’s green, usually what I’ll do is, I’ll put those colors in, but when I’m doing the initial scene where I’m painting in the whole panel, I have those reds affected by the scene around it. So if it’s a blue atmosphere, and I’m popping someone in there as a red outfit, I’m going to tint all that red and paint a lot of blues into that red. Same into the greens, and same into the black. So it’s really affected by the color of the panel, what kind of mood I’m trying to get across in that.
Brogan: Interesting. So you’re kind of bringing the world of the panel into the design of the characters in those moments, fusing them together a little bit?
White: Yeah, because if I just did the straight color that they were chosen, and then I do this really realistic scene, sometimes they’re going to really stand out in a way that doesn’t fit in the environment. It’s not going to work. You might have a scene that’s red. Let’s say we have a hot red scene, and also you’re going to put Two Face’s red suit in there, he’s going to blend into the background. So what are you going to do? Well, you want him to stand out, so maybe because he’s in a red-yellow atmosphere, maybe that light’s behind him, blowing him out, so maybe it’s going to make him all darker, so you tone everything darker so he stands out—dark against light. And if he’s in a blue environment, let’s say he’s surrounded by a bunch of waves and mist, if you’re also going to have him in straight red, he’s going to jump out and not look like he’s part of the environment. So I’m going to have all these blues and stuff going through his red, so he feels like he’s really married and he’s in that environment.
Brogan: So it’s really about bringing the whole world of the comic together, making sure that nothing stands out in the wrong ways.
White: Yeah. I have this weird process that when I get a page, usually the first thing I do is I look at it and imagine I’m a landscape painter. What would the natural light of this be? And I have this three-process: It’s kind of funny, because I’ll look at it and go, “If I was there in real life, if I was out in this wheat field”—Batman’s out in this wheat field, or he’s on the riverboat, going to jump off the end of this waterfall—“If I was there, what would the lighting look like?” And I kind of try to imagine what it looks like naturalistic. And once I get to that phase, I kind of get a feel for the environment. Then I take it and I move to the second stage, and I think, “OK, if I was actually a stage play, I need to change the lighting around, so the light’s just right on Batman here.” And then I go to that phase. And the final phase is, I almost imagine it as an abstract, the whole page is an abstract, and go, “OK, because we read the whole page as one subconsciously, how do I make sure that your eye moves from one panel to the next?”
Brogan: Do you think that the people you collaborate with on these books are aware of how much you’re thinking about these issues of composition? Do you talk with them about this at all?
White: Not really a lot. Some are, some aren’t. It really depends on how much they know of painting and drawing themselves. And some are highly knowledgeable, and can notice immediately. Like there’s a close-up of the eye, and there’s a moment that’s being sold here, I highly render that eye and use jagged lines, because he’s saying something like, “I hate you. You’ve cursed my life.” And we want the intensity. So instead of doing soft S or C curves for the rendering, maybe I’m using jagged lines into the eye and around the eye to give a sense of that emotion. Some people catch that and some people don’t. But subconsciously they always pick up on it.
Brogan: We talked a little about his, but what kind of conversations do you have with your collaborators, with the other people in the creative pipeline? Do you talk to them on the phone, or is it mostly just bouncing emails back and forth? What’s that part of it like?
White: It depends on the people you work with. We have a cross section of new, younger creators coming in, and we have some real old-school people. Some people just say, “Go do what you want to do, I love what you do, go do it.” And then others want to get on the phone and they want to go, “I was really thinking through this process…” And usually the best thing to do is to get on the phone, and anytime I start with a new penciler, I try to get him on the phone, and if I can’t get him on the phone, I’ll email him and go, “Are you familiar with my work, do you know what I do?” Like I said, usually people come to me for a highly rendered look, and some people might not want that, so you want to make sure right off the bat, “Do you want this look, or do you want something not as highly rendered?” And then it’s, “What is your intent? Tell me the kind of mood you want.” That’s usually what I tell my collaborators. Like, “What kind of mood do you want?” and then let me build from there. And it’s just, you find what people are comfortable with.
Brogan: How do you end up assigned to a particular book, say All Star Batman, in the first place? Is it the artist who requests you, the writer, or is it just that you get assigned by an editor after they find out that you’re available, or whatever?
White: All three. I’ve had all three happen. Usually it’s about building relationships with the people you work with. And All Star Batman, I would say without doubt, that John Romita Jr. brought me on that book. But—
Brogan: He’s a venerable, revered penciler in the business, been around for a long time.
White: Yeah. And I’ve been lucky to work with him for a lot of years, and he’s a saint to me. He’s just, “Go do what you want to do, Deano.” He always calls me Deano. “Go do what you want to do, Deano. Make it look good.” And I’ve had other ones, I’ve worked with Rick Remender for years, and he would pull me in on projects. He’s a writer. And he would pull me in on projects because he and I had a great working relationship. And I’ve had great editors I’ve worked with that have pulled me on to books. So it’s all about the relationship you create, people are like, “I like working with this person, he’s going to deliver this kind of look.” I’d say a lot of times artists get—usually I have a longtime working relationship with artists—and usually, because I can do only so many books, usually it’s no more than two or three books at the most a month. It’s usually less than that, if it’s the highly rendered kind. And a lot of times, once an artist gets with me, we keep on working. Like John asked for me on every project, so that limits how many things I can do outside of that.
Brogan: Yeah. You have been in this business for a really long time. You’ve been working, you said, for 22 years, since ’94-ish, is that right, as a colorist?
White: 22 years.
Brogan: How has the business of coloring changed in that time?
White: Well, I was lucky, because, like I mentioned, when I came in, they were first starting to use Photoshop 3 beta to color, and before that, they were doing a lot of stuff with, I forget the program, but it’s kind of mathematical-factor program, and they have to color code everything. And Photoshop was the closest to painting, so for me, it was kind of perfect. So I came in right when they’re moving something that was close to what I did naturally.
And then it was just learning how to take Photoshop and do what you want to do. And I think it probably took me eight years before I finally said, I was trying to copy what everyone else was doing, which was using Frisket and Lassos, when I first started, everyone was using this Lasso tool in Photoshop, which allows you to select an area and cut it off. So it’s almost like you take a piece of paper and cut a hole, and then when you get rid of that hole is you can spray-paint in there, but it doesn’t affect anything else. And that was how comic books were colored. And I think I was doing that for eight years, I was unhappy, I just said, I’m just going to color how I paint. And the minute that happened, I could hear all these voices in my head saying, “Don’t do that, because that’s not how we do stuff in Photoshop, that’s not how we color comics.” But the minute I changed over to that, that’s actually when my career really started taking off, and I became more of my own person.
But I’d say the biggest thing, Photoshop’s been there, and the tools have changed, I think some of the biggest stuff is, I used to have to have FedEx people come to my door and have everything on drives and ship it to New York, because I live outside in California. Or I have to run to LAX at 12 o’clock midnight to make the last plane and fly it out to New York to get it to printing. You can send all the files through the internet now. So you get to be working up to the last minute, and send stuff over the internet. I’d say that’s probably been some of the biggest changes, and I think the last couple years, you have different tablets like iPad Pro, you have different workstations that are now allowing you to be even more mobile. I think that’s going to be the next big change is, how mobile we’re going to start being able to be. You don’t have to be locked in to a big computer at your home, but you can go to the park and work at the park, work on an airplane.
Brogan: Just thinking as a comics fan, thinking of someone who’s been reading comics for as long as at least as you’ve been making them, probably longer, one of the things that also seems like it’s really changed in terms the way comics are colored is the kind of paper that comics are printed on, and the way that they’re printed. I don’t know how much that has happened in the last 22 years, but we talked earlier a little bit about the bold colors of characters’ costumes being partially a product of the limitation of printing technology in the 1930s, 1940s, when superhero comics were first debuting. That’s changed a lot. You have access to more colors, to more printing technologies. But have there been any changes in the ways that comics actually get printed that affect what you do in the years that you’ve been in the business?
White: I’m not knowledgeable enough on that. I was spoiled, because when I started at Image, Image was really pushing the coloring at the time, and the paper, and we were working on high-quality paper at that time. And then by the time I went and started working at Marvel and then now DC, they’re now pushing stuff. I’ve been lucky that way. I think there’re less printers now than there used to, so I think there’s a whole challenge with manufacturing that DC production probably deals with, that I am not familiar with.
Brogan: Sure, yeah. Like those are separate issues, in any case. But what’s it like when a book is printed? Do you actually look at the finished product on the page? Do you page through it after a copy is done?
White: Yeah. The hard thing is that, that’s the other thing, every printer prints slightly different colors. So I want to see immediately that the book looks close to what I planned. And some printing places will print, you can send two printing houses the same files, and they can print slightly different. So I get the books, I immediately look at them, as quick as I can. I’ll go out, if I have to, I’ll go out and buy the book the day it comes out just to check. DC is fantastic about this. They send stuff out to us the week before. Love DC for that. So I can immediately see if there’s anything wrong. Because as one book’s coming out, I’m working on the second or third issue after that, and if something’s too dark, or the colors are shifting too much, that can ruin a book. And that’s one things I’ve learned is, for me it’s all about values. So for a long time what I would do, is in Photoshop I’d have a black layer I’d put on top of all my other layers, and I’d turn this on, trying to color so I could see the pages in black-and-white, and make sure that the book would read, if it lost all its colors and was just black-and-white in values, that it would read that way.
So for me, values are really important. So that if the color shifts from, let’s say a blue to a blue-red, and it shifts everything else, it’s still going to work value-wise. You’re not going to lose stuff. If I was working more impressionistic where it’s about color shifts, not value shifts, and you’re separating someone by color shift, and all of a sudden the color shifts radically, you’re not going to have the separation that was happening before, so ... I love working, when I paint traditionally by myself, I love working impressionistic. But when I’m working in comics, I make sure that I’m watching the values. Because color shifts can happen.
And that’s the other thing, I think it’s really important, I’m figure drawing every Saturday. I go to figure drawing, working with a live model, working on my figure drawing. I try to be out drawing and painting from nature, I’ll go out and do little landscape drawing and paintings, and try to keep my artistic well filled. Because you never know, also when you’re working on a page, and you’re having a flashback to something that you’re drawing from life just the week before.
Brogan: So when you look at a book, you notice that something’s off, that the values levels aren’t quite right, you might make changes that affect future issues of that title. Do you ever go back and rework an issue if when it’s printed the colors don’t come out right for future reprintings of it? Or once it’s set, it’s set?
White: I do it sometimes, if they allow you to do that. I have done that. I don’t get paid anything more for doing that. But sometimes I have done that. I have more and more that’s happening, and there is a series I want to go back and adapt a little bit, especially with how I see it works on digital comics. So you can do that, because the monthlies come out, each issue usually comes out once a month, then after an arc is finished—so for the All Star Batman, 1 through 5 was one storyline—and when that’s finished, we have a hardcover or trade paperback come out. And so usually, after you finish those five issues, you have a little time to go back and do any adjustments that you need to do and change some of that stuff. And I know with All Star Batman there is some adjustment, because Issue 5 was so quick. We were doing the best we can. I was dealing with my mother, who was really sick at the time, going through cancer surgery—she’s fine now. But we’re juggling all that stuff during that last issue. So I think we went back and did a little bit more of adjustment when the hardcover came out.
Brogan: I’ll just say, you’d never know it from looking at the pages that you were rushing in any way. It’s a terrific-looking book.
White: Thank you.
Brogan: In this series of Working, we’ve talked with some of the other folks in previous episodes about the relative lack of appreciation that, say, inkers and letterers get from fans in the comics business. Do you feel like that is true for colorists as well? Do you get respect, admiration, love, following from readers?
White: I think colorists are getting more and more fandom, because it’s changed, and I think it’s really evident how much a colorist brings to the page now, compared to how they used to be. So it’s changing. To me, this seems silly, but I have people that tell me all the time that they buy books just because I’m working on it, and I’m like, “Why?” So you do get people that follow you more and more. I also still think that there is—I don’t think there’s a knowledge of how much work that there’s done in what we do and what we add. It’s hard, because it’s almost like being part of a band, and the penciler and the writer are kind of like the lead singers, and you’re kind of like backup vocals and instruments and they get to shine a whole lot and your job is to make them shine. I think it’s changing, I think it could be a lot better. But I don’t go through feeling mad or anything. I feel lucky to have the job I have and have the career that I have.
Brogan: Is it a financially stable line of work? I mean, maybe that’s a dumb question, but can someone make a living from coloring?
White: Oh, yeah. You can make a good living doing coloring.