Most Sunday funnies are now done on Photoshop. You can tell this most easily by the increasingly-used gradients for backgrounds and shading on the characters. Now don’t get me wrong: Photoshop is probably the greatest piece of software ever created. That being said, it takes some skill to make a comic not look like it was done on Photoshop. When people say a drawing has been “Photoshopped”, they don’t always mean that in a positive way. People will look back on the Sunday comics done now in the same way that we look at those done in the 50’s – there are the comics that show the limitations of the time, and those that strove to exceed them. It’s the same way with music. You can place an album by the way it sounds, by the recording quality, more easily than by the songs themselves. If an album sounds like it was done in the 80’s, with that awful reverb on the drums and the fake-sounding keyboards, it pulls me right out of the song. Same thing for a comic. I don’t want to be reminded of what program was used to color a comic strip; I just want the comic to look good.
There are, as always, artists who apply their style to the medium, rather than the other way around. I read in Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell that Mr. McDonnell uses watercolor (or, at least he did at one point) to color his Sunday strips. There was a reproduction of a strip ready to be sent to the printer which filled me with dread. Every color in the comic, no matter how small, was carefully marked with a number, the number corresponding to a color at the printing press. There were lines with numbers all around the strip. It looked like the strip had been attacked by spears. McDonnell worked with the limitations of the printing process and still managed to create a beautiful color comic strip. It required more effort than simply slapping a gradient across each panel, but it looked all the better for it.
I really admire the color on a few comics: Bizarro, Funky, Mutts (as mentioned), and, of course, Calvin and Hobbes.
I don’t often work with color on Falling Rock, mostly because I run in papers that don’t print their comics in color. When I do have occasion to use color, I try my hand at Photoshop. I can say from firsthand experience how hard it is to color a comic and make it not look like it was done by computer. There is always the temptation to use the abundant filters Photoshop offers. I discovered that you can use flat colors and it comes out fine. I now think of it as using – surprise – watercolor paints. Paint a color in, and if it needs something more, pick another color and paint over that. I use the “darken” and “lighten” features, which make the colors act more like watercolors and less like acrylics.
I have to say that, although it’s a lot of work, coloring a comic is pretty fun. I especially like to see the finished product. Sometimes the colors add atmosphere to the drawing, giving it so much more depth than the black and white line drawing did.