Award-winning color artist Alex Sinclair shares his color philosophy and how comics compete with the films they’ve inspired.
TERENCE DOLLARD: Hello, and welcome to Comic Culture.
I'm Terence Dollard, a professor in the Department
of Mass Communication at the University of North
Carolina at Pembroke.
My guest today is color artist Alex Sinclair.
Alex, welcome to Comic Culture.
ALEX SINCLAIR: Hi, thank you for having me.
TERENCE DOLLARD: Now, Alex, you are a color artist
of, well, a great reputation.
You've worked on a lot of really high profile books
in your career.
And you were getting your start, I think,
in the industry when it was moving over
from traditional hand coloring to digital coloring.
So I was wondering if you could talk
a little bit about that time and how you sort of got started.
ALEX SINCLAIR: Right around when I was graduating from college,
I was getting an art degree from UCSD,
I had decided to kind of change my portfolio
and go after a career in comics, or at least a job in comics.
And I think like every other colorist and inker,
we all start off aspiring to be pencilers.
So we create pencil, ink, and samples and we show them around
at the conventions to editors and other artists.
And I think most of my conversations
were critiques on my pencils, critiques on my inks,
and, hey, but I really like your color.
And so, when Jim Lee and the rest of the guys
broke off and created Image Comics,
they all had their own studios.
And Jim, in one of the issues of Wildcat,
put a talent search in the back of the issue.
And I decided to answer that.
And I decided that I was just going to send my color work,
because that was what was my strongest skill at the time.
And so I sent only color samples.
And at that time, most of the books
were still being colored by hand, with guide,
and the color palette was a very limited palette.
And each color had a code.
So I had to learn how to code.
So the samples I sent then were geared for that kind of a job
where I was I was coloring stuff and coding it.
And so I sent my samples in.
Within two, three weeks, Jim called.
And the first thing he said is like, hey, we got your samples.
But we don't code anymore.
And so he started to kind of ask me.
The interview basically was like, hey,
do you know what Photoshop is?
And I had no idea what Photoshop was.
It was 1993.
And so Photoshop was version 2.0.
My Mac that I had at home was a little classic black
and white computer.
But I had a program on it that kind of
mirrored what Photoshop had done,
with a lasso tool and a brush tool and a pencil tool.
When he heard that I knew what those tools were and how
to use them, he was like, well, come in.
We can try it out, see how things work out.
We really want to push everything digital.
And then I came in, did some tryout pieces
with them, spent two weeks basically teaching myself
While I was at the studio, mock-coloring
stuff that they were having colored elsewhere.
And then after two weeks, Jim asked me to stay.
And from that I started working with John Nee, who was then
running the studio, on how to, right, now how do we do it?
How can we-- yeah, you colored it,
but now how do we get from here to film?
And he owned a separation house at the time.
And so we, John had a ton of the technical
and the practical input, where I was just
coming in as an artist, trying to see if it could work.
And there was a lot of head banging
and screaming and yelling and pulling and pushing,
but it helped us create a system that worked, and established
a studio that had some great colorists come out of it
and worked there.
And obviously, Joe Chiodo was probably
at the head of a lot of that, in that he
was creating color guises that we were interpreting digitally.
So I think Joe was the highest influence,
I think, there, artistically, when it came to color.
TERENCE DOLLARD: Image is one of those that's
a turning point in comics.
I mean, we see that those seven creators leave Marvel
and they start their own studios.
But they really do transform the medium
as we know it today, by bringing in different paper
and, obviously, the digital coloring.
And it's got to be exciting, in a way.
You're in sort of on that ground floor, and you start to see,
this is the way the industry is going.
So there's a point where color work changes even more, where
now we see the colors are filling in a lot of the darker
tones for inkers, and it just seems
like there's almost a more cinematic look to a comic.
So, as you go from 1993, just knowing
that you have a brush tool and a pencil tool on your Mac,
to 2021, where Photoshop and Clip Studio Paint
and Procreate, all of these great tools for you,
how do you sort of interpret the pencil art or the ink art
that you get and turn it into those great pages that we see?
ALEX SINCLAIR: Well, what was great about Photoshop
and all these new programs that kind of started,
I think these new programs pushed Photoshop into having
to become more artist-friendly.
I think from the outset it was more a photographer's program.
But these other companies that were creating a painting
application and programs pushed Photoshop into just
continue to excel and improve their product.
And I think somewhere along the line it stopped being a program
and became a painting medium.
And that it facilitated a lot of what
we were used to using as artists,
with actual paint brush, whatever medium you're
using, to paper, we started to be
able to mimic that digitally.
And I think, at a certain point, it became a painting medium,
and for a lot of us who trained traditionally as artists,
it was great, because then we didn't have to rely on maybe
I'm going to paint this and scan it and then add it to whatever
I'm doing, which I did early on, and just went strictly
straight into the computer.
And that became my painting medium for comics.
And so I think it also allows for the manipulation
of the ink, which is something that when you're doing it
on paper, you really have to paint over them, literally,
and would have to trace the inks to change it,
where with digitally, it's so much easier
to just grab them and isolate them and do with them
as you please.
It allowed for an extremely larger palette.
So you went from 378 colors to millions
of colors, painting replication where you have gradations
in every page of every panel, every character, when
in the past everything was flat color.
And, again, the special effect is what really pushed it.
And I think these guys from Image,
that's kind of what they were going, right,
what the next evolution of comics is.
While we're competing with movies and video games
you got to make it look like that.
And that's the digital coloring, I think,
was one of the biggest jumps in the medium in the last 20-30
TERENCE DOLLARD: It's fascinating, too,
because you see artists like Kevin Maguire, who
got his career started in the 1980s at DC.
And his line work now is a lot lighter.
There's a lot less shadowing.
There's a lot less spotted blacks in his work,
because he knows that the color artist,
whether it's something that he's doing himself
or something that he's handing over to somebody else,
they'll be filling that in.
So, as you're working with artists today,
are they giving you that room?
Or are they giving you the hard blacks
and you have to sort of interpret that to the color
palette that you create?
ALEX SINCLAIR: I think you get a little bit of both,
depending on which artist you're working with.
I think the really great artists are
the ones that are the pencilers that
are penciling, anticipating what the inker and the colorist
are going to do.
I think that's when you get the really well-rounded piece,
where it's not just my pencils, it's, hey,
I'm working with these two other artists,
and I'm going to do my best so that they
can have a say in what the piece is
going to look like in the end.
It's a collaborative mentality that I think
the really great artists have.
TERENCE DOLLARD: There's credits on the cover of comics.
And I know in the 1980s when I started reading comics,
it would be the writer and the penciler and maybe the inker.
But now we're starting to see that the whole team is
getting credited on the cover.
So there is certainly more understanding
of what a color artist is doing.
And when I look at some of your work,
there's a great range between what you do on one book,
compared to what you do on the other.
So when you're given an assignment, when
you are asked for, you know, an editor calls you and says
they want you on their book, how are you approaching the look
that you're going to give them based on, I guess,
what information they give you and your own personal set
ALEX SINCLAIR: I talk with the editor.
I talk with the artist, what kind of approach are we doing,
what type of approach would you like to do in this book?
Sometimes the script will dictate
a lot of what the book's going to feel like.
So when I'm doing a Harley Quinn book,
and it's all about the craziness of, not just the character,
but all the supporting characters, and the stories,
and everything is kind of about to go off the rails,
so the palette kind of almost mirrors that image.
It's a very bright, explosive kind of palette.
And then you move from that to Batman's grave, which
is all about the mood, all about the mystery of the story, where
you come in with muted palettes and very limited palettes,
to help focus the mood, especially
in a story like that.
So a lot of those, sometimes the conversations are
between the artist and myself, just
to make sure that we're both on the same page, or all three
of us are on the same page.
And then the other two, it's one of those things,
that, hey, I'm going to go with this approach,
if that's cool with you.
Most of the time the vetters are very, very receptive
to the discussions that we've already
had as the artistic team.
TERENCE DOLLARD: You talked about the mood.
And I've seen your work on Harley Quinn.
And that's a book that, that character is larger than life,
and there's a great deal of humor to that.
And it immediately strikes my mind as very much like the 1966
Batman TV show, where it was a bright, colorful background,
and those cool Dutch angles whenever
we'd see the Riddler or Egghead or something like that.
Are you tapping into that sense of fun, that a book like that
might have had?
Or are you tapping into an era when you're looking at a book?
You're adjusting as the book goes on.
But do you ever think to yourself,
this should capture that classic Marvel look of the 1970s,
or that classic Superman look from the film.
ALEX SINCLAIR: Yeah, I do.
I do kind of borrow from eras or movies.
Sometimes it's, oh, I really enjoy a movie
so much that I'm like, I really loved how the cinematographer
really handled the lighting and the color choices
in that particular movie.
And when a book presents itself that shares
similarities with maybe that movie, I'll bring that in.
I'll borrow those sensibilities to help enhance the book,
to help get that same feel that I got from the movie.
Hopefully the readers when they're reading it,
they get that same thing, that great feeling that I got
when I was watching the movie.
TERENCE DOLLARD: Another thing that I've
noticed with the use of digital color,
some color artists are adding things like lens effects,
like a lens flare, or something like that, to the page.
Now I'm not sure if that's something
that you do specifically.
But I'm just wondering, from the standpoint of films having
a certain technical way that they're created using lenses
and lens flares occurring when the light hits that lens,
are you thinking that that might be something
that you'd want to put into the comic,
because we're used to seeing things, especially
with the DC Expanded Universe or the Marvel Cinematic Universe,
we're used to seeing stuff like that.
And why not put that into a comic?
ALEX SINCLAIR: Sure, I mean, we want
to make it look as cool, as realistic, as possible.
And so a lot of those lens effects or glows or explosions
that you see from the special effects studios,
all that kind of stuff is stuff that we soak in,
because we're going to try and replicate it or do something
similar down the line, to give them that same feel, especially
nowadays, right, when we're seeing
a lot of what a lot of us read when we were younger
is actually on screen.
And it's so cool to see, Oh my God,
they borrowed that from that issue or that run of whatever
the movie or the program is about.
And so it's upon us to establish that paper form
so that when it gets translated to the movies or TV,
it's already kind of bridged for them.
TERENCE DOLLARD: Also very interesting
when we see, let's say, a character like Green Lantern,
where now they sort of project the Green Lantern
symbol floating over his chest.
And I'm assuming that's something
that the penciler is showing us, but the color artist
is interpreting and putting their own spin on.
So as you start to get more into creating these cool
effects, and these great tricks of digital technology,
as well as an expanded palette going from a few colors
to millions of colors, are they giving you more time
to actually work on this?
Or is it still the same sort of deadline of like we needed that
ALEX SINCLAIR: It's like a blessing and a curse,
right, because you can do more, but you either
have about the same amount of time or less time to do it in.
So it's still a very deadline-driven job.
And so, for the most part, especially recently,
I've been able to have plenty of lead time.
But especially early on, when the studio was still
kind of getting going, we were really,
it was this kind of bail or sink mentality, where it's like, oh,
we got to get this book out this week.
Otherwise, you know, we won't have a book
out for the month of whatever and we need that revenue.
So it really became about like everybody killed themselves
to make sure that the book got out,
because it meant that we could all still
work, at the end of the month or the week
or whatever that happened to be.
So very early on, the amount of time that we spent
at the studio was quite a bit.
We had specific furniture there that we
could use, because of the amount of time
that we spent at the studio.
So it's gotten a lot much better, I mean,
working from home definitely makes a huge difference.
So that as the computers, you know, became more affordable,
it was easier for us to kind of break away and work from home
and establish our own schedules, and all that stuff.
So it's gotten a lot better, thanks
to the technology, the accessibility of it, for us.
There's still, depending on who you're working with,
some folks give you the week and a half to two weeks
that you ought to want to color a book,
and some folks, you know, turn in the last few pages the day
before they're due, so for me.
So you get a little bit of both.
TERENCE DOLLARD: You mentioned that you work from home.
And that is both a blessing and a curse
sometimes, because I'm sure your family is fully aware that when
you're in your studio, that's your time at work
and unless the house is on fire, they
shouldn't come and knock on the door.
But it's also got to present problems,
because you are at home and there are things going on.
And maybe someone's going to give you
a call in the afternoon because they think, oh, you're
just at home.
You can help me move that sofa.
So how do you sort of balance all the stuff
that happens at home with all the stuff
that you're doing as your profession, that just happens
to be in your studio at home?
ALEX SINCLAIR: And it's hard.
It really takes being really good at scheduling yourself.
So if I know that I'm going to, and especially
when my daughters were all younger,
it was like I'm going to go on the field trip with Harley
on Thursday, and Blythe has her concert on Tuesday.
I kind of work around it, and anticipating those moments,
to make sure that I do spend the time with them, as well,
because there are weekends when I have
to work through the weekend.
And then it's not fair to them because, to them, that's
their free time.
And so it's a lot of discipline, as far as
like when I'm sitting at my desk,
I'm working, and not necessarily surfing through the internet,
or wasting time on Instagram or whatever social media
it is that people are on all the time.
And so it's definitely a lot about that discipline
and dedication, knowing that you're
doing it to alleviate the time later
on that you're going to want to use to spend
with your family, or the trip, or whatever it is
that you want to be a part of.
TERENCE DOLLARD: You say the word discipline.
And I'm imagining, with a career that goes back to the 1990s,
you have a great professional discipline.
So if you have a deadline, you're
probably not the type of person who's
waiting until the night before to start a project.
So that allows you to schedule all that other stuff that's
So if you're given a book and you're
told that you have a week and a half to color it,
how do you sort of divide the day,
so that way you can get everything done
and make sure that you still have all of that other time?
Are you kind of doing it like, it takes me this long to do
a page, so if I'm not done with this page by this time,
I'm off schedule, or is it something where you might just
get into a rhythm and do more pages than you
thought you were going to do?
ALEX SINCLAIR: Yeah, I think it's
more of like I kind of have like so many pages should
take me this amount of time.
And so that if I have to do 20 pages by Friday,
if I can do four pages a day, that's five days,
that should work.
At four pages a day, I should be able to do two,
two and a half hours per page.
I kind of set myself these like small goals per page,
so that, if I'm not hitting them,
I'm realizing that that means I'm
going to have that much less time per page down the line.
So I do have like a little timer that I set.
So if I've decided it's going to be like a two and a half hours
per page kind of a week, I set two and a half hours
when I start the page.
And then that tells me if I finish
that page before the timer is out,
then I've bought myself that much amount of time
for the next page, and so on and so forth.
And so it's a little more regimented,
as the deadline gets tighter.
I didn't quite go as fast as I thought,
so this week, the dog doesn't get the walk on Wednesday,
because that's an hour that I need to be able to work.
Those little things kind of start to get compromised.
TERENCE DOLLARD: That's interesting,
because you sort of build into your schedule.
What I always tell my students is,
you don't plan on having a flat tire,
but you always keep a spare in the trunk of your car.
So it seems like you have--
it's bad for the dog that the dog doesn't
get to go on a walk, but you do have that hour to kind of play
with it, if you are not quite done
at two and a half hours on that page.
So that way you can still kind of keep to that schedule.
Another question is, if you're working
on a book that has one look, and a book that has another look,
are you just working until the one look is complete,
or do you kind of just jump back and forth,
because maybe you get bored with one look
and you want to try something like a sorbet,
so to speak, to kind of cleanse the palate
and do something different?
ALEX SINCLAIR: I change it mostly
to adapt to the artist, one, and two, to the story.
And so that's probably what's going
to determine what route I'm going
with the palettes and the style.
Most of the work that I'll do is just kind of linear.
So I'll do Fireman issue, whatever, this week,
and then next week it's Batman, whatever.
There's been times when the deadlines have
kind of intersected and the art's
kind of coming in sporadically.
So I will bounce between one and the next.
It tends to be a little bit harder,
especially if I'm changing palettes,
and then I have to kind of remind myself
that when I was doing like Harley Quinn and Batman
at the same time, those two palettes are really different.
So it's harder because you kind of get
into a role and a mindset.
And you stop because you're running out of ink, you jump on
to the next one.
And you start and it's a little bit
like a restart of the computer in my brain,
so that I'm adapting to the nuances
of the art and the story.
And so bouncing back and forth tends to slow me down.
So that's why I prefer just kind of doing one issue entirely,
and then doing the next.
TERENCE DOLLARD: And you also just
said that you might be working on Spiderman,
which is a Marvel character, and Batman, which
is a DC character.
So if you are working for two competing companies during one
month, is there pressure put on you from one, maybe saying
we need you to pay more attention to us
than to our competitor?
Or are they both like, well, you know
what, if you want the best, you just
got to take what the best is able to give you at that time.
ALEX SINCLAIR: I think as long as I
hit the deadline that they've given me, they don't care when
or what I work on.
So if they give me-- if the book's due tomorrow
and I turn it in, they don't care
what I did leading up to that.
And so as long as I can hit my deadline,
I think they're happy, which means that I can kind of bounce
back and forth.
And so, you know, if there's decisions
that I have to make that, as I'm working along
on the interiors of one book for one company,
the deadline for a cover for a different company is coming up,
so that I have to jump off, do the cover to make sure
that I hit that deadline, and then come right back on
so that I can continue and finish,
and turn in the other job for the other company.
So it wasn't a problem for me for the longest time.
I was exclusive to DC comics for 22 years,
up until this last December.
And so that's when I decided not to sign for another exclusive
with them and go full freelance then.
I've only been doing Marvel work for four months, or
and actually worked for other companies, to be honest,
for the last four months.
TERENCE DOLLARD: And that's got to be
both liberating and maybe, I'm sure the decision wasn't
an easy one to make, because there's always,
you don't know where, as a freelancer, where the next job
is going to come from.
But again, twenty some odd years in the industry,
they're pretty much going to be knocking on your door.
So when you're making a decision like that,
it's probably something that weighs on you.
So is this something, obviously, you're
going to probably talk to the family,
make sure that they're all cool with that.
But are you talking to other professionals who've
maybe done something similar and kind of gotten a pressure,
blood pressure, sort of, from them
to see if it's worth trying?
ALEX SINCLAIR: Yeah, I definitely
was reaching out to some colleagues
and asking them, hey, how did it work for you,
knowing that you're not exclusive.
It was a little bit easier in that my daughters
are mostly all grown up.
I only have two more years worth of college tuition to pay,
So but it was scary, right?
It's like you go from a guaranteed kind of gig
to, all right, now you're going to have
to go kind of sell yourself, and let people know,
all right, I'm open for business.
So it was hard.
I'll tell you the first time I uploaded
work to the Marvel server, which was weird,
felt like I was cheating on somebody.
[chuckles] In the past, people would ask me,
you've worked for so long in the industry,
which character would you love to work on.
And it was always characters on the Marvel side,
because I just haven't worked on them before.
So I'm getting the--
characters off that list now, thanks
to going freelance like this.
TERENCE DOLLARD: And you've had the opportunity
to work on the biggest characters in all of comics.
You worked on Superman, on Batman,
and not just the regular run of the mill issues.
You worked on the big high-profile storylines.
So is there one story that stands out to you, that you
look back at, and you're just absolutely dazzled by the work
that you've done?
Maybe it wasn't that big A-list story that we're thinking of,
but it's just another one that you really
felt that you nailed.
ALEX SINCLAIR: I've been lucky to have worked with so many.
I mean, everybody knows me for my work on Hush,
and it's still one of my favorites,
and it's because of just, it was the right everything
at the right time for all of us.
And so definitely that one sticks out.
As far as like a book that isn't on everybody's radar
that I'm very proud of the work that I did,
Arrowsmith with Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco, Jesus
Merino, which I still love what we did there.
It allowed me to explore European palettes,
from like European comics and European artists.
I really kind of dove into a lot of their work
and extracted what I felt was going to work for the story.
So I really enjoyed the work that we did with that.
And then there's other projects like Blackest Knight,
which is probably the hardest job I've ever had to do.
And at the end of the day, everybody
welcomed and loved it.
And so it becomes this, like, man,
I don't know if I'd be able to do it all over again.
But I'm glad I did, because it taught me
a lot, a lot about light and multiple light sources.
And I struggled at times.
But in the end run, I'm very proud of that work, too.
TERENCE DOLLARD: Well, Alex, they
are telling me that we are just about out of time.
I want to thank you so much for taking time out
of your busy schedule to talk with us today.
ALEX SINCLAIR: It's my pleasure.
Thanks for having me.
TERENCE DOLLARD: And I'd like to thank everyone at home
for watching Comic Culture.
We will see you again soon.
ANNOUNCER: Comic Culture is a production
of the Department of Mass Communication at the University
of North Carolina at Pembroke.