Comic Culture


Comic Culture: Sean Ellery

Today on Comic Culture, host Terence Dollard talks to color artist Sean Ellery. Ellery shares some of his past and present struggles of working as a colorist.

AIRED: February 24, 2020 | 0:27:46

[upbeat cinematic music]

- 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 artist Sean Ellery.

Sean, welcome to Comic Culture.

- Yep, g'day, how're you going?

- So Sean, you're coming to us via Skype from Australia.

So I'm wondering how somebody from Australia gets a start

in American comics.

- I don't know, I just started off as a hobby.

It was a cheap hobby.

I was at university

at Edith Cowan University here

and I got a copy of Photoshop 4

and started playing around with it

and I needed a Christmas card of all things

so I found some line art and decided

to teach myself Photoshop and how to color it.

It looks horrible, I've still got that file.

But, yeah, I just went, "Oh, that was fun,"

you know, "Let's give that a go again."

And 20 years later, here I am.

- Photoshop, that's a program that a lot of people can get.

I mean, I know Adobe has a subscription service,

so, how difficult was it for you

in the early days of Photoshop to get started

and how could that knowledge maybe inspire someone

who's watching the show to give something a try like,

you know, coloring some line art?

- Apart from the fact that I knew nothing about Photoshop

when I actually opened it,

I literally knew nothing.

I knew CorelDraw,

and I had this Photoshop,

and I just started hunting around

for the various functions and so on,

and I said, "They've got to be here,

"it's just a matter of where."

So I dug around,

and I bought a "Photoshop in 24 Hours" book,

I went down to a local bookshop, and I got that

and sort of went through the different chapters

and sort of worked it out from there.

And then I went to Bali

and bought a pirated [laughs] copy of Photoshop 5,

but we won't tell Mr. Adobe that.

And I used that for a while,

and now I've got CS6 which I have on a disc.

We got an educational discount to buy that on CD,

DVD, CD, and I intend to use that

until it wears translucently thin

because I refuse to subscribe

for something I've bought once outright already.

- Well it's interesting too

because you're working in a digital environment

and I'm imagining that that makes it easy

for your clients to reach out to you and say, you know,

"We got something," and the artist could be anywhere

in the world and put it in a location

that you can find instantly

and you can transfer back and forth.

So how does that digital workflow help you out?

- Yeah, that's actually pretty good.

I've literally bounced around the world.

I did this tutorial, and was an article,

screenshots and picture for a book

which was from the United Kingdom.

They got in contact with me.

I had to go and find some line art to use,

so I actually had this picture

from a guy in Russia,

so I got in contact with him and said,

"Can I use yours?"

And he went, "Yeah, fine."

I then gave it to a guy in Canada who I knew,

and said, "I need this inked up by three days

"from yesterday."

And which he did for me,

he just dropped everything

and literally did it overnight and emailed it back

to me, and then I had 10 days to color it

and write the tutorial.

And we all ended up getting a bit of money for that

and a copy of the book and so on like that.

The picture actually ended up on the cover.

But yeah, that's an example of how it just bounces

around the world, you know, from UK to Australia

to Russia to Canada back to Australia back to the UK.

- So with the time difference between, let's say,

the United States and Australia being

about 12 hours or so, how do you make sure

that you're hitting the deadline

when they're asking you for something on a certain time

and date, that way you're able to get that done?

Plus, you've gotta balance, you know, a full-time day job.

- Yeah, I know.

Well, being in the future helps.

We still don't have jet packs unfortunately.

Yeah, I'm 12 hours ahead of you.

It's the epitome of 0-dark-30 outside at the moment.

It's absolutely pitch black and almost 1 a.m.

in the morning for me.

But yeah, that actually works to my advantage

because when they say, "We need it by Wednesday,"

for me that's actually Thursday.

So it gives me an extra 12 hours to get things done

and I have though literally been up

at 2 a.m. in the morning doing picture,

gone to bed and then gone to work the next day.

But I think every digital artist

has done that at some point.

Get some rush orders,

but generally it works out pretty well.

Yeah, just the fact that we're ahead of most

of the United States.

Well, we are ahead of the United States.

Works in my favor.

With England, it's a little bit harder, Europe and so on,

'cause they're eight hours behind us.

So when they say "Wednesday"

that actually means Tuesday afternoon for me

which is annoying and more difficult.

So anyway, I just have to do the math in my head

and work out what time's when, you know.

- You have a day job that's not in comics,

so I'm wondering,

when you are getting an assignment,

how are you sort of figuring out

how you can balance what you have to do for the regular job

and then what you get to do for this creative venture

and make sure that you're still hitting that deadline?

- I just have to do the math and work out

what I've gotta do for my teaching job.

I'm a high school teacher.

That has to come first.

I mean, that's the bread and butter.

So anything I have to do for that,

I just have to get that out of the way first,

work out how much time I've got and start doing it.

But generally people, the editors are pretty good,

they'll give you a week or so, you know,

to do things and so on like that,

and you just get it done at night.

You know, you do a couple of hours every night,

that sort of thing, so.

I've had to turn down a lot of work though

when they say, "We need this by tomorrow,"

and I'm like, "No, it's not gonna happen,

"because it's already tomorrow for me,

"and it's not gonna happen."

You just have to suck it up.

That's all.

- Now another thing about the way that you color comics is

that it's completely different from, let's say,

50, 60 years of traditional coloring

where it might have been somebody doing a coloring guide

or taking some color inks and working on a photostat

of some line art.

Your work is a lot more complicated,

so I'm wondering how you are able to create the textures

and the gradations and I guess the shading

and the little light spots that make today's comics

seem almost like a classic painting or a film?

- It's been a steep learning curve to say the least.

I'm not trained in art at all.

I did nine months of a jewelry course originally

and then dropped out to become a social studies teacher.

I'm literally self-taught.

I just worked at doing it,

you know, just learnt by doing.

There's a lot of very horrible early pieces that I've done,

you know, the lighting's horrible

and it's all out of whack.

But you just learn by trial and error more than anything.

Now, the textures I use, I use photo overlays,

I use, you know, texture files, whatever,

I use a lot of gradients, a lot of smudge tool,

a lot of paint brush and so on like that.

This'll shock everyone out there.

I actually still color with a mouse.

I don't use a tablet

And you know, that makes people go like that.

Just [laughs] your expression exactly.

Everyone says, "Get a Wacom."

But they're expensive, and I just haven't really had a need.

I've got a little Wacom Graphire,

a little five by four inch one, given that a go.

It cost me $100 bucks, so I bought that,

but I just, I was clunky and slow with it,

and it just wasn't comfortable,

and I just went, "Nah, I've got my techniques,

"I've got my methods that I use with the mouse

"and a way I go."

And that's what we do.

So, that's how I color things.

I've had the Aspen guys, the president of Aspen,

I've talked to him, he came to Perth one time,

and he's looking at my portfolio and so on,

and he goes, "Very good, what sort of tablet do you use?"

And I said, "A mouse."

Again, his eyebrows went up very, very high.

So he was impressed, so there we go.

But again, I've had a crash course

in learning art theory, you know, color theory and so on.

Some of the art classes from high school must've stuck,

'cause I'm generally good at it. [laughs]

- [Terence] It's interesting, because I know for me,

if there's a way that I do a particular, let's say,

video editing technique,

if I do it a certain way,

I might be reluctant to try it a different way

because, well, I've been doing it for so long,

and after a while, for me,

learning the new technology isn't as exciting

as telling that story.

And it seems that's kind of the same with you

where you prefer to use that tried

and true mouse method that you've mastered rather

than some other gadget

that might not get any better results.

- I am changing my style at the moment.

I used to over-detail everything, you know,

something's gonna be, like, one or two pixels,

and I'll have it zoomed right in

and doing all the absolute tiny little detail,

and of course you'll never see it.

Now I'm getting a lot quicker,

a lot, in a sense, more slack at it.

But I know that it's going to look right when it's in print.

I know how it's gonna look, what it's gonna come out like.

So I know I don't have to put that much effort into it,

you know, that much finesse or fiddliness into it.

Yeah, I am changing my techniques.

It is changing over time, certainly.

I can see it, I can see my older stuff and go,

"Yeah, I wouldn't do it like that anymore."

- Now, when you're getting line art from, I guess,

these days it could be a penciler

who just scans his pencils

and then darkens it in Photoshop

so that way you gotta --

- [Sean] I hate that.

- Or it could be finished inks.

- [Sean] I like the traditional ink.

I'm definitely a guy who

every now and then I find some line art that's in pencils,

and I'll, you know, if I can get onto the hold

of the guy who drew them and say,

"Look, I want to put this up

"for a competition."

Now I've got comp copies of comics or art books

or whatever that I worked on here,

and I usually use those as the prize.

That gets some people in there.

But I always say to people for this competition,

"This is not just darkening the line out of the slide.

"This is not just using the burn tool.

"I want this done properly."

And so I'm fussy.

I'll take a properly crow quill pen-inked piece

of line art over someone who's just done it,

you know, darkened it, any day. [laughs]

I'm just more the traditional sort of guy.

- And that's I guess what I was kind of getting to is,

I've watched a few colorists work,

and it seems they spend a lot

of their time modifying the art

so that the blacks are as even as possible,

and they gotta go in there

and try and get some of those,

it could be a sketchy line with a pencil

or it could be where the ink's just not

as solid all the way through.

I'm imagining that's time-consuming,

keeping you from doing the creative part of coloring.

- It's pretty quick to do it,

you just adjust the levels and so on in Photoshop.

It's not hard to get the blacks black,

and such like that.

Yeah, occasionally, when you do darken things

and so on, some hairy lines

that you don't see normally will pop up

and you gotta go and erase those.

And if it's a paid gig, I'll often go back

to the person who's paying the money

and say, "Look, you gotta go back to your inker

"and tell him this is not good enough."

And I've done that,

and I just said, "Look, I'm not gonna color this

"as it stands now, 'cause it's gonna look horrible.

"It might look good for me and it might look good

"for you, but it just needs to be cleaned up."

And, you know, it just depends on the line art.

In my case, I was working on a paid piece,

and actually, the guy had drawn a chair,

a big sort of throne type chair,

and it was different from one side

of the chair to the other.

The two halves didn't match.

Now I literally had to erase half the chair,

copy the one side and then flip it

and paste it on the other.

And that took a while,

that took a couple of hours of mucking around,

and adjusting and so on, and I'm thinking,

"I don't think I'm getting paid enough for this."

But it had to be done,

because it just would not have looked right.

Anyway, it came out, and no one noticed a difference,

that was the thing, no one saw that I'd done it

until well after it was in print.

You know, I sort of told them, and they went,

"Oh, did you?"

And I went, "Yes!" [laughs]

But anyway, generally you try to keep the fiddling to them.

I'll adjust a line art if it's blatantly wrong.

I've had legs that are drawn too thin,

I've had faces that are wonky,

eyes that are out of place and so on,

I'll just quietly just move them all,

adjust them all, make it look a bit better.

So, I think it's more for my own sanity

than anyone else's.

- You mentioned something about not getting paid enough,

and I'm not asking for any sort of dollar amount,

but I believe the hierarchy is

that the pencil artist makes the most money,

the inker, a little bit less,

then the color artist and the letterer,

and so on down the line,

they get the, I guess the scraps.

So when you're given an assignment

where you've gotta correct somebody's art,

that's keeping time from you doing

what you were hired to contribute,

which is making that art move to the next level.

- [Sean] Yeah, it does, but you just have to,

you just have to bite the bullet and do it anyway.

You try to keep it to a minimum,

Like I said, if it's too onerous,

I'll say, "No, this needs to be done.

"Yeah, this needs to be fixed

"by someone else, not me.

"I'm not getting paid to do this,

"you know, to fix half the line art

"or make major adjustments to it."

And so on like that.

I mean, I've had one publisher,

they asked me, they had a character there,

and the face was just wrong.

And so they said, "Could you try to adjust it?"

and so on, so I tried to fiddle with it,

and it made it look even worse,

which is why I'm not a pencil and inker.

And eventually, they went back to the original artist,

got him to redraw the face entirely.

I then had to literally cut the head

off this character and paste a new one on.

But, he just, he just went with it.

He just, okay.

That's what has to be done.

And it came out pretty good.

So, it's for the better for everyone.

I will say that there are some artists working today

whether they're working in a digital environment

or whether they're working

the traditional pen and ink and bristol board method,

where they are creating line art

that would be, growing up, I would remember this

as being what would be in a coloring book,

where it would just be an outline

and there wouldn't be any sort of weight given

to the line or shadowing.

And they seemed to be leaving that for the colorists.

And then there are other artists

who are doing the traditional,

"I'm going to go in there

"and do it the way I would

"in black and white, and the color will compliment it,

"rather than making the adjustment

"before I start to do that."

So, when you're getting your art,

where does it sort of go, and which do you prefer.

- [Sean] Well, that's the thing,

I've always tried to do all sorts of artwork.

You know, the line art is from all different styles.

I mean, I've done Artgerm, Stanley Lau,

from Singapore, Artgerm,

I've done his line art,

which I actually really enjoy.

Of course, I'm nowhere near as good as him.

But he just has simple, thin lines,

and it's up to the colorist to give it the weight

and the depth and everything like that,

and that's really fun.

Then you have your David Finches at the other end

of the scale with the heavy blocks of black

and the heavy lines and all that crosshatching and so on.

And you have people in the middle,

such as Romano Molenaar, Randy Green,

people in the middle that are, you know,

some crosshatching, some heavy lines,

it's sort of halfway.

And you just learn to adjust your technique to everything.

At the moment I'm doing picture which has,

it's very sketchy.

It's got a lot of scrappy, hairy sort of lines,

and stuff like that.

But again, it's just a matter of adapting,

and a lot of crosshatching art and so on.

And you just adapt, you just say,

"Okay, this is what I've got here,"

And deal with it, you know.

Move on, find a way to make it work.

- When you get something that is hatchy,

or has these little hairy lines, as you call it,

do you try and match that aesthetic

with your colors, or are you just saying,

"Well, the light is coming from this direction,

"therefore the shadow should be here,

"and I'll just go and do something like that."

- [Sean] Well I have done, yeah.

If you've got the big, heavy blacks and so on,

that gives you a lot of direction,

that makes it really easy.

So David Finch is really simple to know

where the light's coming from.

With an Artgerm, one with a standard outline,

you have to decide, you just have

to make that decision and keep it consistent.

Learning that, that took me a couple of years

to learn to keep it consistent.

That took me at least two years to get used to

and to get right.

And they say with a colorist,

that if you're starting out, it takes you two years

to get good, five years to get paid.

And after that, you're on.

And the thing is with me, it took exactly that.

It took two years to get good enough

for people to start saying, "This is good,"

instead of, you know, criticizing the hell out of it

or saying how wrong it is.

And then I was about five years in,

and I started getting paid.

So I was bang on schedule.

- I do know that there are some artists,

I'm thinking of Lee Weeks in particular,

where he will do pen and ink

and then he will scan his artwork

and he'll actually add in some gray tones

in digital work flow, to help the colorists

understand some of the subtleties of the lighting.

So I'm wondering if you've encountered anything like that

and whether or not that's good for you or annoying for you?

- It depends, it depends.

I've just done a cover for Zenescope,

it was a Robin Hood cover,

And it had some gray tone,

half tone laid over it.

I left it in.

I was very tempted to just take it out,

because I didn't really need it,

but I thought, "No, this guy's put this in

"for a purpose, and this is his line art

"and his picture and how he wanted it."

So, I see a colorist who's complementing

the actual original.

We're sort of finishing it off.

You've got the penciler, you've got the inker,

they've both interpreted the picture to their own way,

and you're finishing that off, you're part of that process.

So I left it in, but I could've just as easily taken it out,

and it wouldn't have looked any worse I don't think.

I've done some with graywash tones inside,

and it makes life easier, because you know

that's basically your shadowing done for you.

So it's really quick and easy,

you don't have to put as much effort into it.

I did a Jason Metcalfe X23 once,

and I banged the whole thing out in about two hours flat,

which was because he had the greywash over it,

and it just made my life so much easier.

He now uses that as a print,

and I actually use it as the main header image

on my homework page.

So that worked out really well.

Then you have Jay Anacleto, whew.

And his is all toned, all pencil toned

and everything like that.

And they're in some respects easy to color under

but then you've got all that gray that you have to deal with

and you spend about as much time coloring

over the line art as you do under the line art in Photoshop.

And his looks easy, but it's not.

You think, "Oh yeah, this'll be simple."

But no, it's wow.

It's like pulling your hair out sometimes

when they get you to deal with this.

But anyway, it's his style, and I've done

a couple of his for commissions and sort like that,

and they are tricky, but I managed to succeed,

so I'm actually quite proud.

I feel quite good about it.

I did it, yes! [laughs]

- Now when you get an assignment,

whether it's maybe science fiction,

or it's super-heroic, or it's horror,

they're going to have a different look color-wise.

I'm wondering how you sort of develop

that color pallette for the assignment

that you're working on.

Is it something where the editor might be

giving you a pointer, or is it something

where you just kind of see it and know it?

- Well, usually they're established characters,

and the editors will give you their color guide,

so this is what, you know, the character's gotta look like.

You adjust that for the environment, you know,

so push it towards the blue, or the green,

or the reds or whatever it has to be.

But you've got your basic color guide,

of this bit has to be gold, this bit has to be leather,

this bit has to be, you know.

You can't have Superman with a pink cape,

or something like that [laughs] or green or something.

So you've got your established character.

Then it's up to you.

With Zenescope, I've done a lot of horror,

because that's their thing,

I've done a lot of horror covers.

And I seem to have developed a reputation

as being a horror cover artist.

But that's only by the nature of the beast.

That's the people who are paying me the money, so.

Personally, I don't read horror at all.

I have no interest in it at all.

But I find they're fun.

You sort of channel your inner dark side,

and you start getting into it.

And I find myself like, "Rawr, yeah, slash!"

You know, doing sound effects to myself

as I'm coloring a bit just to get into the mood.

That's gonna sound really stupid

when this goes to air, but that's what I'm doing

you know, in my head and so on.

I'm just sort of getting into the swing of it.

I mean, Todd McFarlane does the same thing

when he's drawing.

In a video about him he's doing all these sound effects

and so on, 'cause it helps him do it.

I'm like, yeah, good on you Todd, me too. [laughs]

So yeah, it's just a matter of taking the line art

and getting a feel for it.

I find when I'm flatting away,

when I'm doing the flats to it,

I find that's quite cathartic,

But it also gets you connected to that image.

You get to know where the bits are,

and you're planning out in your head

what you're gonna do with this

and what you're gonna do with that.

I mean, some people say,

"Well, I don't know if the flat's out"

You know, the flat is out there,

they'll do it for like $10.

And I'm like, "Well, no, I'm happy to do my own."

And it helps me get connected to that picture.

There's always that big, scary moment

you know, you've got it flatted, you're looking at it.

You go, "Now I've gotta start shading." [laughs]

And you think, you know, "What am I gonna do first?"

I've literally started some pictures,

spent hours flatting them,

and done that first time shade, gradient, whatever,

and completely naffed it up.

And you'll just know that's horrible.

I've even abandoned the picture.

I've got a whole folder full of on-hold pictures

that I've never got back to,

which just aren't quite working the way they're meant to be.

Not for any particular reason,

but just I haven't got that click with it.

But I find when you do start to work with it,

every picture gets that tipping point

where it just comes together,

you just go, "Yeah, I know what I'm doing now!"

You're about halfway or 3/4 of the way through,

sometimes it happens almost straightaway.

But there's always that tipping point,

where you look at it and just go,

"I know what the rest of this bit's gonna look like now."

And your workflow just picks up massively.

Something that was taking you an hour,

you're done in 10 minutes,

because you know what you're doing now,

you know what it's gonna look like.

There's just a click at that point.

I call it the click.

It's just gotta click, and then you're off.

That's it, you've got it in your head.

- [Terence] And that is something special--

- If that makes any sense to anyone out there.

- I think it makes a lot of sense,

because there is that moment

when you're doing something creative,

where all that doubt disappears

and you kind of just get that laser focus

and you see that piece,

and then time just parts.

- [Sean] You can see it in your head,

what it's now going to look like.

So flatting it, it just comes out,

and you're just like, "Okay, whatever."

You know, you've got your basic colors,

but then you start shading.

I always start from the background first,

I go from, you know, it's all flatted,

and each character usually has their own layer

and components, so I've broken it down into different layers

and then I start from the background and then go forward.

So, there we go.

- [Terence] Well, Sean, we are just about out of time,

I wanted to thank you so much for taking a few moments

to talk with us today.

If people wanted to find out more about you,

is there a website they can go to?

- [Sean] Yeah, I've got an ArtStation account,

I've got my DeviantArt account.

I'm SeanE, S-E-A-N-E on those.


and same with DeviantArt,

- Well, Sean, I wanna thank you so much

for taking time out of your schedule to talk with us.

I'd like to thank you at home for watching Comic Culture.

We will see you again soon.

[upbeat cinematic music]

Comic Culture is a production

of the Department of Mass Communication

at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

[upbeat cinematic music]


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