Sunday Mailbag

December 12th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: How do you choose the colors for your illustrations and parodies?¬¨‚Ć Do you use the colors you see in the DVD’s and photo boards, or do you just make them up?¬¨‚Ć I know the basics of color selection such as the color wheel etc, but do you have any special techniques?

A: Occasionally I am asked the same or similar questions for the mailbag, and every once and awhile I will repost the answer to a commonly asked question for the benefit of those who are newer readers, although I often add things to them or expand on the original answer. This is such a case:

I am definitely the wrong guy to ask this question. In my opinion my color use skills are not very good, and certainly not very thought out. What (very) little I know about color I picked up on my own and never studied any color theory or application anywhere.

People that know what they are doing with color understand that “pure” or “primary” color is bad. In real life, the colors we see are never pure colors, but are always influenced by the colors and light about them. A red ball sitting on a blue floor will have elements of each other on their surfaces because of the light that reflects off each and onto the other, and the shadows that are cast also cause color shifts. Color is caused by objects reflecting different wavelengths of light off their surfaces, and that light can get changed by the various objects it comes into contact with. Therefore an environment tends to have an overall color cast, where the colors are pushed towards a common color. “Monochromatic” is a term that means something that is all in shades of one color… I don’t mean that. I mean having all colors incorporate a hint of a single overall color that creates a cohesive feel.

Painters can create this effect in several ways, one of which is to simply incorporate the colors of surrounding objects into the colors of that which they surround. Another method is to use a “limited palette”, where they might have only two or three colors of pigment and force themselves to paint their image with only combination of those colors. MAD Magazine genius Harvey Kurtzman used a variation of an old painter’s trick called an “underpainting”, where he would paint the entire area he was coloring with a layer of color… say yellow… then would paint on top of that color. The end result was an image with an overall warm, yellow feel but not monochromatic. Not paying attention to this concept (which I rarely do) is called using “local” color… meaning the natural color of an object unmodified by the light, shadow or any other influence from around it. I use a lot of local color in my illustrations…. I like the bright look and it works well with my cartoony style.

Color has a lot of complexities to it, but I take a very simple approach. I think of color in terms of the focus on the illustration and depth/perspective. The more saturated/intense the color, the more it draws the eye and “comes forward” in the image, and the less saturated the less noticeable it is and the father back it seems. Likewise with warm versus cool colors. Warm colors advance while cool colors recede. Here’s an example from 2008’s¬¨‚Ć “Who’s thinking What at the Obama Inauguration” for MAD. I added increasing levels of blue casting to the colors the farther back the crowd goes. The colors at the bottom of this image are more saturated and less blue than those at the top:

Obama Inauguration Colors

values are also as important as color. More so, in fact. The value (level of lightness/darkness) of a color changes it’s impact within the image. Objects painted with less contrast between it’s elements will be more washed out and recede while those with intense values and contrast will pop out. I use the old “squint” test when assessing values of my colors (squint your eyes and look through your eyelashes at the image, this helps see vague shapes and values as opposed to detail).

Those are really the only rules I keep in mind when doing color, otherwise I select colors based on the subject matter and environments I am coloring. Sometimes what you are coloring dictates the type of color you should use. For example, some years ago I did a parody of the film “Van Helsing” for MAD. If you are unfortunate enough to watch the movie (yeah, it’s that bad) you might notice that there is very little color in it. They went for a drab and gray color palette to match the sullen Transylvania countryside in winter. I therefore leached much of the color out of even the skin tones in my art to give it the same effect:

Van Helsing Color

At other times I might punch up the color to be more garish than usual, if I am doing something that demands it, like my MAD parody of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”… lots of color in this show with their decorating makeovers and clothes:

Queer Eye Color

Mostly, though, I just pick colors to make things pop out that I want to pop out and to make things recede that are less important. Simplistic, I know, but I’m no painter.

Well, I managed to type a lot of words about something I don’t know much about. I’d seek knowledge about use of color from books or resources on painting. Color theory applies to any medium.

Thanks to Ken Best for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


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