Diary of a MAD Job, Part 6

July 20th, 2006 | Posted in MAD Magazine

Now we are in the home stretch! It’s time to get coloring. Those of you who are looking for a tutorial on my painting techniques will be a little disappointed I’m afraid. In order to do that I need to save steps along the way, and I did not do that with this or any past job in anticipation of a tutorial. My apologies, but I will save those steps the next chance I get, and will put together a real tutorial on how I paint my line art soon. In the meantime, here are the basic steps:

When painting I used to use a Wacom tablet with PhotoShop. My technique is meant to imitate a traditional watercolor look, and using the pressure sensitivity of a Wacom tablet is crucial to accomplish this. I got along fine with the tablet, even though I was not looking at my hands as I painted but at the screen. You quickly become used to this, and after a time it seems very natural. A few years ago Wacom came out with a new piece of equipment called the Cintiq, which is a combination tablet and monitor. With the Cintiq you draw and paint right on the screen. Despite the steep price tag I took the plunge and got the Cintiq 18sx. It took a little time to get used to it, but eventually the Cintiq became indispensable. Recently while on a road trip I was forced to use my laptop and a standard Wacom tablet to color the last two pages of a MAD job. It was a bit awkward after using the Cintiq at the studio, but it turned out fine. I’d recommend either the Cintiq or a tablet, depending on your budget. Either way using something with pressure sensitivity is a must. A mouse will not do the job. I just upgraded to the Cintiq 21ux this winter.

The first thing I do is lay in flat color in the background layer throughout the panel or panels I am working on. I use the paint brush tool at 100% opacity and turn off the pressure opacity settings. I lay in a midrange color for almost every object in the panels. I say “almost” because I always skip hair and anything needing a fuzzy edge. These I’ll do later when using the pressure feature of the pen. I have to use the brush tool for this, as I am painting on a blank layer and using the fill bucket wouldn’t work… no lines to contain the color. It wouldn’t work with my lines at any rate… I never close off my paths like you need to in order to keep the color fill in place. I ink too loosely for that. The flat color looks very flat. No life at all. I’ll add all the values in the second stage.

By now, the deadline is likely right around the corner. Endurance is going to be a must now, with late nights and early mornings, and probably at least one all nighter at the end. Those MAD guys are slave drivers. Now the audiobooks I mentioned before are the only thing keeping me from going crazy. Also: enter energy drinks. Three Monster Lo-Carbs will keep me up all night. I’ve got a small refrigerator in my studio, and all that’s in it is Monster. I can’t drink the sugared stuff, However. That will cause you to crash thanks to the insulin spike it triggers, and besides the outrageous calories in them would make me into Tom the Hutt in short order. Audiobooks and Monster Lo-Carb… my secret anti-distraction weapons.


Listening to Frodo crossing into Mordor with a belly full of L-Carnitine, Taurine, Caffeine and god-knows-what-else, I keep on task. The next step is rendering. It would be easy to isolate each panel and color it as a separate illustration, but that leads to trouble. I admit I used to do this. Now I try and keep the entire page in mind, and even the spread of two pages when it comes to color choices and establishing values. When I lay in the flat color, I’m thinking about how things balance. You can’t have panel after panel of saturated, bright color… that’s like listening to an entire album of loud dance music at full volume.. you’ll be exhausted by the end of the album and your eye will be exhausted by the end of the story. When you see a panel in silhouette or with monochromatic color, it isn’t the artist being lazy, it’s done to give the eye a chance to rest and makes the rest of the page more effective. Okay, sometimes it’s because I’m being lazy, but not often. Well… not all the time.

Getting back to rendering, I use the magic wand tool to select a flat area or areas of color. For example, all the skin tones in the panels. I then go in with darker colors for the shadows and start building up values. Now I use the brush tool again but with the pressure sensitivity set to control both opacity and brush size. I lay in layers of color and build up values. I do this all on the background layer, right on top of the flat color. I know, I should do this on a separate layer so I can make changes easier, but I have trouble keeping track of all those layers, and end up painting on the wrong one too often. So, I just paint like it’s a piece of illustration board. I also add other colors as needed, like blue and red tints, maybe bring in some color reflected off some other background object, I usually start out painting the hell out of everything and then have to skip some of the smaller details as the deadline looms. I always start with the splash and spend a lot of time on that, but after I will skip around so the last page isn’t the one that always suffers from the dreaded deadline crunch. Speaking of that, the deadline is getting closer, and I am basically in my studio all the time now. I still find quality time to spend with my family, however. Here’s a picture of me having a nice conversation about the day with my four children (that’s the door to my studio):


I got the Cintiq in the first place because I thought it would speed me up with the painting. It had the opposite effect… At 100% zoom an area that will be only 1/2 by 1/2 inch on a printed page is about 4 inches square on my monitor. What happened was I would spend a ton of time rendering some reflected light on the side of a face that ended up printing 1/4 inch high in the magazine. That is overkill and a real waste of time. To combat this, I do my rendering at 50% zoom on the images, which makes the physical size of the image on my monitor about 150% of the size it appears in MAD. That’s a good size so you have some tightening up as it’s printed, without wasting time to painting effects that will be lost completely.

Back to rendering again, now I come in with the highlights. That’s the beauty of digital… you can go from doing washes of darker values to opaque highlights without missing a beat. I’m painting loosely and leaving things looking kind of rough and chunky. I almost never use the airbrush tool or the blend/smear tool to smooth transitions and blend edges of color. That’s because the physical act of printing already melts these values together enough to make it look painted rather than digital. Because I am painting line art, I can afford to be loose. The lines define the edges and forms, and the color just adds to the values and depth of these forms. By way of demonstration, here’s a finished section of the image with and without lines:




You can see that without the lines it’s undefined and looks terrible. The lines hold it all together. Fully painting something without lines means the artist must establish all edges and forms with values and color. I could probably work the rough painting above into a fully painted version, but then I’d need to haul out the blend tool and add a lot more contrast and definition to the painting.

By now, the deadline is getting ugly. Even the Monster will fail eventually, and I’m not getting any younger…


Finally, the last panel is done and the job is finished. I flatten the final page and save as a TIFF file. I send the final art to MAD via FTP. On my way up to bed I check the mailbox for my paycheck from MAD for the job I just finished. It’s never there! They pay pretty fast but not that fast.

Here are some images from the final splash for “Extreme Once-Over: Home Repetition”:

Click for closer look






  1. Hahaha oooh the life of a caricaturist… the wee hours of the morning are far more familiar than they should be. I thought I was the only one who passed the late night/early-morning caricaturing silence with audiobooks on my iPod! I’ll admit, I read Lord of the Rings in book form, but almost everything else I’ve read since then has been on audiobook… Nice work Tom. It’s been great to see this process as its unfolded; a real inspiration.. Holy crap it’s 3:00am.. better get back to work.. *drinks Red Bull*


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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