Comic Culture: Chris Sotomayor
Today on Comic Culture, host Terence Dollard talks to color artist Chris Sotomayor. He explains the importance of the use of color in comics and how he elevates storytelling through color.
- 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 Chris Sotomayor.
He is a color artist.
Chris, welcome to Comic culture.
- Hi, Terry.
Thank you very much.
I'm glad to be here.
- So you are a color artist.
And obviously, most people are aware that, you know,
the comic books are the four color hero.
So I'm wondering what your method is
to put colors on the page.
I mean, I know in the old days it used to be, you know,
maybe some color inks and a color guide,
and it's a lot different now.
So if you could tell us a little bit about your process.
- Yeah, well, I actually got started
in comics as a color guide artist.
So, I've run the gamut from, you know,
old school like '80s and '90s coloring,
to more current modern computer coloring.
Right now, yeah, I'm a digital color artist,
I work on a Mac with Photoshop.
As far as most are concerned,
that's still pretty much the standard,
although other software's creeping in.
And yeah, what I do is, after I get the artwork
from editorial, from whatever publisher I'm working with,
I try to get a copy of the script, I try to talk
to the editor, the writer, the penciller sometimes.
Actually, the penciller most times.
I try to get a feel for what their intent is,
what kind of story it is.
And just try to figure out from reading the script,
how I can help tell the story,
'cause the storytelling is the key.
That's the main focus.
As long as the story is clear, and the intention is clear,
then everything else just kind of falls into place.
- I think we're familiar with the pencil art
and the inked art looking a certain way.
And, color art is designed to enhance
and maybe add some effects.
So, it's interesting to hear that you are, I guess,
speaking with the penciller to make sure that
you capture that feeling, and make sure that
you sort of enhance his or her vision.
So, has there been a time when you've looked at something
and maybe they were thinking one thing,
you were thinking the other, and you just kind of had
to hash it out based on what you saw?
- Oh, yeah, definitely.
Whenever I start, like, especially a new project,
any kind of number one that I work on,
I'll do a couple of pages just so that the penciller
can see where I'm coming from,
and the writer can see where I'm coming from.
And then, you know, we'll go from there.
We'll use that as a starting point.
And sometimes, I'll completely change my approach.
Actually, I just finished a New Mutants book
with Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz,
and I did a few pages first.
And it was kind of a bit of a tighter deadline than usual,
especially for the size to the book it was.
And I did a few pages, sent them along to Bill and Chris,
and Bill right away, he gave me some feedback.
And I kind of rethought my whole process.
And what we wound up with was, I think,
100 times better than what I started out with.
So yeah, that happens.
And I'm totally prepared for that.
Yeah, I'm a soldier.
You know, there's no ego.
I get the thing.
You tell me what the thing has to be, and I do the thing.
- You mentioned Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz,
and they are, I mean, legends in the field.
So, I know if I were signed a book like that,
I might have, you know, some nerves dealing
with those two creators.
So I'm wondering, when you get something, I mean,
you're a fan of comics, obviously,
or else you wouldn't do it for a living.
When you get work from people that
maybe you grew up reading, how do you kind of say,
okay, now I'm up to this challenge.
- I've been doing this for a couple of decades,
I have to act like I've been in the end zone before.
You know, so as long as I don't embarrass myself
or start gushing like a fanboy, I think I'm okay.
Bill is a special case because he's one
of my favorite artists.
Another one of my favorite artists is Denys Cowan.
And I just happen to be working with them
on the new Question series for DCs' Black Label.
So again, I had to kind of rein it in,
because I've known Denys for a very long time,
and he actually had a hand in me
becoming a professional comic artist.
And Bill, I've loved him forever,
and you know, since Moon Knight.
And them together, you know, I remember that from Dr. Zero
and that was pure magic.
So, I've admired a lot of the people I've wound up
Alan Davis who I'm working a couple of issues with on Conan,
a savage story of Conan.
You know, Bill, Denys, you know, anybody.
I am a fan of comics, you know.
I grew up with comics, and comics meant a lot
to me growing up.
So yeah, I just gotta steal myself and,
you know, plow ahead.
- I spoke to Tom Orzechowski once and he said,
some of his earliest assignments were, you know,
Jack Kirby and, you know, maybe Steve Ditko
or someone like that.
And he said, just actually seeing those pencil pages
before they were inked was worth all the effort that he put
into that book.
And it's great to see that there's still that connection,
that love, even though, as you say, you've been
in the industry for a few decades, which leads me
to the fact that over the decades,
coloring and comics has changed.
I guess going back to the 90s, when image started making
colors a lot more important to the story,
not that they ever were unimportant.
But, when you get a book like New Mutants, which was,
you know, in the 80s, with that simpler color style,
and you take a story that I would imagine
with that same creative team, maybe they wanna be
reminiscent of that style, but at the same time,
it's you know, 2019.
How do you sort of come up with that approach?
I mean, you mentioned that you spoke to the artist
to make sure that you matched his feeling,
but how do you kind of balance that aesthetic
when you're sitting at the tablet?
- What we did with that book in particular was, like I said,
I had a different approach.
I went highly rendered, and I tried to keep everything loose
and energetic like Bill's artwork is,
but when we started hashing it out,
what Bill told me was that he wanted it to still seem,
you know, like a dream.
He said it was more like a dream sequence.
So, there were a lot of like murky things,
and he didn't want everything to be overly rendered.
He wanted everything to just kind of live in an environment,
in an atmosphere.
So that was, just those few words,
that description right there, helped me immensely
to kind of figure out where I wanted to go with it.
So what I wound up doing was, a less rendered style,
which was less intensive as far as time spent on each page,
you know, I didn't have to noodle every little thing.
But what I did was more broad stroke stuff,
and I went for a simpler but more water colored look.
So, that was an excellent case of a book being, you know,
a little retro but being way modern at the same time.
And I have to say, you know, I think it's funny.
Comics coloring has gone from very flat simple,
and then there were a few painted books
like Blue Line books, like Electra Lives Again,
and Dark Knight Returns, Green Arrow Longbow Hunters,
those were painted books.
And then we went into computer coloring,
which had a very slick kind of feel to it.
Very edgy, and you know, lots of blue and orange,
and purple and yellow, and red and green, and red and blue.
And now we've come back to kind of making the computer
colors mimic some more traditional techniques.
So, I find that hilarious in a lot of ways,
that it's come so full circle.
- When you take a look at the pencil and ink art,
a lot of times you have, I guess, two approaches.
You have some artists who are very realistic
in their approach, and every page looks like every single
detail has been added by the penciller and the inker.
And then you have some artists who seem to maybe go more
with a looser line and less spotted blacks
or something like that.
So, when you get art that's on either end of that spectrum,
how do you approach it and put the right amount of image
into that, or not image, I guess the company,
but aesthetic into that so that, you know,
you match the pencils that are over rendered,
and the pencils that are leaving more room
for you to do something.
- You know, it really depends on what the book needs,
the context of the book.
Like, I was fortunate enough to work with Rick Leonardi
and Ande Parks on Batman Beyond.
And Rick's style is, you know, it's a little loose,
high energy, I love those high energy styles.
But there were things in there that left a lot of room
for me to go in and add a little extra,
you know, power effects and spotlights
and city scapes that I could paint in.
Whereas something like that, you take a look at it and go,
you know, that's the style that could go for a simpler look.
I kind of went in the opposite direction because,
I mean, it's Batman Beyond, so there has
to be a certain level of tech, and you know,
glowing things and design elements.
And some of that was better rendered,
or better maybe a little more complex
or sophisticated than a simpler style would have been on it.
So that, you know, that was another case where I worked with
the editor and the writer Dan Jurgens and Rob Levin.
And we figured out an approach that would work within the
context of the book, and still play off of Rick's strengths.
So I mean, one of the things I love about comics is
how collaborative it is.
You know, it's a bunch of guys who love comics
or a bunch of folks who love comics, and we're all trying
to tell a great story, and we're all trying
to get the best work out of each other.
And you know, you'll have something like Batman Beyond,
I told the editor that that was a really great experience
for me, professionally speaking.
Because the editor got a lot of really good material
out of me, I felt.
And the same with the new Mutants book, you know,
working with Bill, it's Bill Sienkiewicz.
So how can he not elevate you?
You know, even with some simple notes.
So, the collaborative part is really one of the aspects that
really appeals to me, 'cause I think it's so unique
and it's so important.
It's not like film where, you know,
there's a lot of moving parts.
Comics is a little more intimate, in that collaboration,
because it's only a few people in there,
just trying to point the ship in the same direction.
- And you mentioned Dan Jurgens, Rick Leonardi.
You're mentioning people who have had long careers
in comics, and you've had quite a career in comics.
So, that tells me that you've learned a few things
over the years in order to hit deadlines
and get the product the right way for the editors
to not only want you back because you hit the deadline,
but because you did a great job.
So, how did you sort of come up with that professionalism
to make sure that you got everything done when you needed
to get it done, and made it look the way it should look?
- Terence that's a mouthful.
But, I would say a lot of it comes down to,
when I first got into comics, you know,
working professionally, I was a lot younger than I am now.
You know, I was really young, and a lot of it was fear.
I gotta say.
You wanna do right by the editor,
you wanna do right by everyone involved in a book,
and you wanna be called back,
and you wanna be thought of for the next thing.
And just like any other business in entertainment,
everyone always looks at the last thing you did.
So if my last thing was good, you know,
hopefully I'll be called back for the next thing,
and the next thing will hopefully be bigger and better.
So, a lot of it had to do with fear and wanting to please,
which is maybe you know, my neuroses.
But some of it I think is, I really tried
to be easy to work with.
It's really hard to upset me, number one.
Number two, I tend to have a lot of empathy towards
my collaborators, and editors, especially 'cause I know
what the editorial job is.
I actually started out as an editor for a couple of years.
So I got a taste of what that part of the job was.
And I understand the deadlines that artists go through,
and the deadlines that writers go through,
and how many rewrites they go through.
And with artists, how many times they're asked
to redraw stuff, because maybe a layout didn't work.
Or an inker who has to, you know, do a patch for a page
because maybe a costume was wrong, or the texture was wrong,
or they read the line work wrong and,
you know, they got to redo stuff.
So I know we're all just trying
to just have each other's back.
So I try to be an ally.
You know, I try to make that,
if the penciller is running late,
I let them know, hey, I'm only up to this page,
you go ahead, you take whatever you need,
as long as I stay right behind you, and you just let me know
how much time you need, I'll let you know where I'm at,
and then we'll meet in the middle,
and everyone will be happy.
You know, and if I know it's an issue with a penciller,
or an inker, if the inker hasn't said anything
to the editor, I'll let the editor know, hey, you know,
we're collaborating, we're working together,
we're coordinating to get these pages done.
So you don't have to worry, trust me,
this stuff will get done.
And, I think that has really helped my reputation
in this business because, I like to think that editors
and other artists and writers know that if I'm
on a book number one, it's not gonna miss the deadline.
It will always ship on time.
No matter what, I put the time in.
And number two, I'm there if there's a note.
Like I said, I'm a soldier.
So, I'll do the thing.
You tell me the thing that needs to be done,
and I'll do the thing.
Whether it's a note I agree with or not,
I'll figure out a way to make it work.
'Cause a lot of times, notes I get from editors or artists,
some of them are not really reacting
to the thing they think they're reacting to.
So I can change other things, so that the thing
they're reacting to works in the way they want it
to work even though I didn't change that thing.
It's a context thing.
- And you said you'll find a way to get the work done.
So I'm assuming that this is not necessarily a nine
to five job, or a two to 10 job,
you are maybe sometimes putting in those all nighters.
And I know for me, if I've got a project
that I've gotta get done, I'll get it done.
But Gosh, the next day I'm kicking myself.
So I'm wondering if this is something that you've managed
to work out or if you're still, you know,
just down in a Red Bull and going to work?
- For a very long stretch of my early career,
I subsisted on coffee and rice krispie treats.
And I gotta tell you, that is not good for your health.
I stopped doing all nighters about 10 years ago,
maybe 12 even.
I just couldn't do it anymore.
You know, after a while, you know, you get older
and your body changes, and you don't have the stamina you
used to have.
So, what I used to do is,
for a while I was just getting up extra early.
House is nice and quiet, my office is nice and quiet,
I can get a few pages done before I have
to get the kids to school or what have you.
I would rearrange my schedule a little bit on the front end.
Nowadays, I mean, like I said,
I've been doing this for a while.
So I've got things I can tweak in my workflow that can make
pages go faster or projects go faster.
You know, little tips and tricks here and there.
And also, I make sure that I break up my work day.
I do a series of sprints instead of a long marathon,
'cause I don't wanna get tired at the end.
I want the last page to look as good as the first.
So, the big chunk of my day will be, you know,
nine to five or 10 to five, then I'll go do something else.
I train in martial arts.
You know, sometimes the kids need to go,
and they have things that need to be done,
so I'll take them to that.
And then after all that's done, and I've made dinner
and I've had dinner and you know, the kids are to bed
or what have you, where things have just slowed down
a little bit, then I'll go back to the office
for a couple more hours.
Usually, no more than three,
and I'm in bed by about midnight, one o'clock.
But at the end of the day, I've done you know,
maybe 10 hours, which isn't so bad.
I've learned to get more pages done
in a smaller amount of time, but I prefer to take my time
and be able to put the work into, you know,
three or four pages a day instead of doing like eight
to 12 pages a day for a deadline that's really tight.
- And you mentioned that you
had some shortcuts that you'd I guess,
stumbled upon or decided had worked best for you.
So, is that something that maybe it's an approach
to a background or a way to do?
You mentioned some high tech effects in Batman Beyond,
something like that, you've got that bag of tricks that you
can apply sort of generically to a project to then tweak it
to something specific for that project?
- Absolutely, if I know, like on Batman Beyond,
and actually did a YouTube video on my channel for that.
Because there's so much you know, high tech background work,
a lot of city scapes, what I did was I created a grid,
just a very simple gray scale grid
that's just black and white.
It's all black line with white squares.
And what I do is for those city scapes,
I take pieces of that grid,
and I paste it into the line art on another channel.
And I'll kind of warp it so that it looks like windowpanes,
and then I'll select some random spaces inside the grid,
and then I'll just throw in a color,
and then all the windows are gone.
So things like that, sometimes I have different
kinds of backgrounds that I use.
I have a colored file that's just like all these random dots
that are like really close together.
It looks like a Chuck Close painting, almost,
you know, but it's a big mess.
But I know if I take that,
and I paste it into a crowd scene,
and then fiddle around with it, tweak some of the colors,
make it all look, you know, like it belongs in the space,
and then I'll add a couple of random marks on top.
It looks like a crowd scene, and I can be done
with a crowd scene in like a couple of minutes.
So little things like that here and there
and some custom brushes.
If I think something's gonna run late consistently,
you know, I'll use some custom brushes that I know
will do like double duty on some things
or that I know will give me a desired effect
that I could use throughout a whole project.
- And when you are working on a sequential page,
when you are getting the characters and let's say it's,
you know, Batman from Batman Beyond,
he's got a certain costume, but you're also going in there
and you're putting in different shading and texturing
and that sort of stuff.
So when you're actually doing the coloring of a character,
is this something where it's just one layer
and you're putting it all together
or are you compositing a number of layers together,
and then you can turn one on or off,
then see how you like that?
- Actually, I work on one layer.
I always color on my one single background layer.
If there are any effects or anything,
I'll put those on other layers,
or textures, I'll put on another layer.
But basically, I went to art school.
So I learned to paint with oils and acrylics,
and stuff and watercolors.
So you know, you go to art school and you only have
like the one board or the one canvas.
So I just learned to do it like that,
and that's the approach that I mimic in computer coloring,
just as if I were painting.
- I've spoken to a couple of colorist and they're talking
about how, I've got my flat layer, and then on top of that,
I put my highlights and then I put my.
So you're working as if it's just the board in front of you?
That's fascinating. - Right.
Yeah, you know, this is what I was used to,
this is what the my painting teacher drilled into my head.
So it's just what I've always done.
- You mentioned before we started taping that you have some,
I guess, action figures on the wall that are actually pieces
that you contributed to the product art.
So I'm wondering when you're working on something like that,
or you're working on a cover, do you approach that
differently than you would the colors on a sequential page?
- Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Sequential pages, since you're telling the story,
you have to worry about mood and lighting consistency,
and, you know, direction and how things behave
in certain spaces and lighting.
For stuff like covers, my main focus is
to make sure that one cover doesn't look like the same cover
from the month before or two months before.
So I like to see what that last cover was
or two covers ago were, and then I just make sure that it's
just a very different color design.
Like when I worked on Nightwing,
I was fortunate enough to do all the covers,
or all the regular covers, not the variant covers.
But all the regular covers,
they all had different color designs.
So, if a book is racked one or two months previous,
one or two months back with the current issue,
then fans don't get confused.
Readers don't get confused.
They don't say, oh, did I get this one already?
It looks like the other one.
'Cause I know I've had experiences like that
when I was buying certain books that
had very similar covers.
I wouldn't know if I had that issue and I'd wind up,
you know, buying two or three copies of the same book.
It gets so frustrating.
With stuff like the toy stuff behind me,
that all has to have a very specific and distinct look,
and consistent look, because it's packaging art.
So, I keep everything very local, very straightforward.
Make sure it's just all lit, you know, very similarly,
because it all has to sit together on the racks,
on those pegs.
So that has a very specific look.
And I just, I deal with that as a whole, you know,
and on those back there,
I worked with Ed McGinnis on those.
And he brought me into that job,
and we kind of worked on that stuff together.
- I'm imagining for a store display, the character has
to be in a certain spot because there'll be the figure
in the package, and then they'll be the bubble
and everything else.
So, is that something that you're considering?
- Yeah, when I worked on that stuff,
and when my studio worked on a bunch of licensing images
for Marvel characters, we had very specific parameters.
- All the characters had to have like daytime lighting
and local colors, and you could only use like certain reds
for certain things, and certain blues for certain things,
and they all had to be consistent.
So we made sure that, or I made sure that
all of Iron Man reds were consistent throughout, you know,
all the images and his golds were consistent,
they were handled the same way.
And then for whoever's drawing them,
there are certain parameters as far as size
and how much space it actually takes up on the card back.
So that's something that needs to be considered.
And for me, also what background they're going to use,
if they're going to use a background that
has a lot of light in it, then you know,
maybe I wanna not add, like some rim light on the side
'cause it's gonna get all bleed together.
You know, so I'll use single light source techniques
and stuff like that.
Everything is kind of its own different animal
and needs its own kind of attention.
So I try to keep that stuff in mind and you know,
having done so many things different things like that,
it gives me the opportunity to really be,
well, again, like an allied to the rest of team,
because I know what that entails, and I know what this needs
to be at the end.
So, it just means less editing later on, less feedback,
less notes, you know, fewer back and forth sessions,
you know, things like that and just being easy
to work with like that, I think is part
of the thing that helps my longevity.
- Now, Chris, they're telling me we have about a minute,
a minute and a half left before we have
to wrap up our conversation.
So I was wondering if you can tell me
a project that you've worked on that we should look into
because you think it's perhaps your best work?
- Well, you know, I'm really hard on myself.
- [Terence] No pressure.
- I suffer from imposter syndrome a lot.
But I have to say I'm probably right now the most proud
of that New Mutants war child book,
with Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz.
I think right now that's the thing,
at least until The Question comes out,
and then I think that'll be the thing.
- Chris, I'm sorry.
We've run out of time.
I'd like to thank you so much for taking time out
of your schedule and talking with me today.
I'd like to thank you at home for watching Comic Culture.
We will see you again soon.
- [Narrator] Comic culture is a production
of the Department of Mass Communication at the University
of North Carolina at Pembroke.