Sunday Mailbag

November 7th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Your color work in MAD is wonderfully intense and unique. It is unlike any other digital coloring I’ve seen in comics or cartooning. Did you go to school for that or where did you learn your digital coloring techniques?

A: First off, thanks for the compliments about my work. It’s incredibly gratifying when someone takes the time to say they like what I do. When one works in the solitude of a quiet studio it is always a treat when they get feedback from someone who enjoyed what you did. Thank you.

Concerning my color work- in that I can say with confidence it is what it is because I have no earthly idea what I am doing.

I went to college in the late 80’s, and the concept of doing illustration on the computer was science fiction at the time. Oh, there were signs that somewhere down the road we might see illustration moving into the digital world, but back then “MacPaint” was the cutting edge program and that was light years from being able to really illustrate on the computer compared to what you can do today.

In the early 90’s, after my college years were done (I graduated in 1989) I began to realize that the digital format was going to be the future of my profession. Increasing numbers of clients wanted to receive final art as a digital file, and who could blame them? No more spending the time and expense sending out original art for drum scanning and color separation, a process which involved peeling the surface off illustration boards, having a color imaging service scan the art on a huge drum scanner and provide four films of the image, one for each CMYK ink color, which then had to be stripped into the printing of the publication. This took time and money for both the transits back and forth of the art and the process itself. With a digital file and the advent of digital publishing with programs like Quark and now Indesign, it was a matter of a few seconds to format the image and drop it into the document.

The other technological innovation that got me into digital work was the Wacom tablet, which took the physical process of drawing from the mouse to a much more natural feel. Between using an actual pen and the pressure sensitivity of the tablet, it was much easier to do things that didn’t look digital, which was one of the things I was striving for.

My digital coloring techniques, such as they are, I developed by just experimenting and comparing the printed results with how it looked on my computer screen. I don’t use many filters or other PhotoShop tricks because I don’t really know any. Mainly I use the pressure sensitivity of the Wacom tablet to vary the opacity of my colors, and do a traditional media-like series of washes to get (hopefully) a watercolorish look. You can check out my coloring tutorial more details on the technique.

In my view the computer is just another form of media for creating art, like oils or pastels or watercolors. The computer won’t do the work for you, it still takes a creative hand to produce a good looking piece of digital art.

Thanks to Grant Jonen for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar,¬¨‚Će-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Connie Nobbe says:

    What was your major in college, Tom? Was is Illustration? Graphic Design?

    • Tom says:

      It was illustration. Technically a bachelor of fine arts degree. My school had no cartooning classes or curriculum for humorous illustration, so I had to sneak that kind of thing in whenever I could.


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