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Color Guides

What are color guides anyway?


When I first started as a color artist in comics in 1991, Photoshop was not yet being used at the big companies.  Shortly after that, Image Comics started making major changes to how comics were colored using some software from Codd Barrett that was called variously either Color Prep or Tint Prep.  This is what was used at Olyoptics, Steve Oliff's famous and groundbreaking color house of that era.  This software was vector based, which meant it could not do blends on top of other blends.  Which led to a chiselled or cut color approach to rendering that was very effective at building up a nice, rendered look.  This was used for Spawn in the beginning, for instance.  A short while later, Digital Chameleon was using Photoshop and soon after, it's use became widespread.  I don't claim to know who was first in the record books as far as all of this goes, but that's my memory.


Marvel and DC had their own color charts too, but this was the most common one to see around.
Old Comico Comics Color Chart.


Before that, color guides were very crude.  A black and white photocopy was given to the color artist and they then painted it, usually with Dr Martin's dyes.  You would then have to write the CMYK codes on the page to indicate what the color codes were for your painted colors.  These color guides were then handed to a separator.  In those days, separations were done by hand.  Eventually, they were done on computer.


Lineart by Walt Simonson.  Copyright 1993 Dark Horse Comics.
Vortex cover for Dark Horse Comics.
If you worked for DC Comics, you were limited to 64 colors.  This consisted of no k tones (black) only 0%, 25%, 50% and 100% increments of Cyan, Yellow and Magenta, which makes for 64 colors total.  Missing that 75% increment meant you'd have big, chunky cuts between colors sometimes.  And no blends were allowed except on covers.


Lineart by Sean Phillips.  Copyright 1995 Vertigo.
Hellblazer #86 for Vertigo.
If you worked at Marvel, you were given that extra 75% increment, which meant you had 125 colors instead.  Vastly more!  If you worked on certain books, like Punisher, you were also given K Tones, which gave you even more colors.  And sometimes you'd even get blends on interiors.


Eventually, I went staff at Dark Horse and they gave us 5% increments of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black to paint with.  Much nicer.  They were using Tint Prep then.  This is in 1993.  By that time Image was sweeping the world with their much more advanced color technology and better printing.  And shortly thereafter the switch to Photoshop started taking root.  It picked up steam and eventually most comics would be colored using Photoshop.  The guides on this page are from Dark Horse and Vertigo, using a more painted approach to paint the guide, with full color range and unlimited blends.  These are not indicative of the older, flatter guides.


Lineart by Steve Dillon.  Copyright 1995 Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon.
Preacher #3 for Vertigo.
Even then, though, often one artist would do color guides and another would do the separations.  Sometimes guides were coded, sometimes not.  Then a separator using Photoshop would attempt to copy the painting.  There were companies that did only seps and some companies that did guides inhouse, then the seps too.  Quality on seps was variable even within one seps house.  You could have a supervisor come into a room with 6 separators and hand each one a page of your color guides.  You'd be lucky if the good separators did more of your pages than the bad ones.  Sometimes they'd be amazing.  Sometimes they'd be horrible and colors would be totally wrong.  Nowadays most colorists paint straight in Photoshop.


If you want to see more color guides, look in the Hand Painted Colors submenu under Comics, above.


If you want to read about Visual Effects/CG, click Next below.

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