Laura Martin talks to Mania (Mania.com)

By:JENNIFER M. CONTINO
Date: Sunday, January 14, 2007

When I first started writing about the comic book industry, one of the first people in the industry that I became fast friends with was colorist Laura Martin.  She was working with the online magazine, Sequential Tart and coloring a multitude of projects, including one of my favorite series, Planetary. After just taking a quick glance at her work, it's easy to see why she has been nominated and won several awards for her work in the industry, including the coveted Eisner Award.  She's currently working on a handful of projects including Astonishing X-Men, Ultimates and Adam in Chromaland.   

In this introspective interview, we talk to her about her earliest days in the industry on staff at WildStorm, her present coloring techniques and find out where comic fans might get a chance to meet her this convention season.  
 

MANIA: Most little girls don't dream of growing up to color comic books, when you were younger and thinking about what you'd "be" when you grew up, what were some of the careers that crossed your mind? 

LAURA MARTIN: You’d be surprised at some of the things that interested me. One of the most memorable was a truck driver. Okay, I was eight at the time and had just seen "Smokey & the Bandit," but boy, I just thought that was the coolest life. Other popular choices were veterinarian/animal trainer (training parrots for theme park shows??) and, of course, artist. That was my default answer whenever some grownup asked me what I wanted to be. Even in college I couldn't settle on a major, but I finally went back to my first love, and figured the only way I could make a living was in the graphic arts. It never occurred to me that people got paid to make comic books until late in my college career.

 

MANIA: So, if the thought of coloring comics for a living never crossed your mind, how did you get into the industry as a colorist? 

MARTIN: My friend and fellow colorist Ian Hannin is to thank for that. He and I were working at a Kinko’s in Orlando way back in 1994. He was a raving fan of Jim Lee’s “WildCATs,” and his enthusiasm was totally infectious -- he would talk about comics to just about anyone who would stand still. I was starting my senior year in college at the time, in the graphic arts program at the University of Central Florida. Ian looked over some of my artwork and asked me what I wanted to do after graduating. I had some nebulous idea of joining a local advertising agency or a theme park design department (this was Orlando, after all), but had no solid plans. He wryly suggested that I could probably get a job in comics. It was like the proverbial lotus flower opening in my brain. I immediately started to look at comics in a totally different light, and use comics as my inspiration for several senior projects.  

Meanwhile, at the end of 1994, Ian responded to a talent search at Wildstorm. WS mailed him a scan of a page on a SyQuest, and I remember seeing him hunched over one of the Kinko's self-serve Quadras, slaving over that page for the required eight hours. He got the job and moved to California in early '95. As soon as I graduated in June, I went out to visit him, and I took along my various school projects as a portfolio. (Actually, there were two portfolios: one for graphic design and one for coloring. I was going to work for WS one way or another.) Homer Reyes administered the same coloring test to me as had been sent to Ian. What Homer didn't know was that during that spring, Ian had spent hours on the phone with me, talking about the coloring process, so I had a clue of WildStorm FX's process before setting foot in the studio. A couple of months later I got the call, and in September, I moved across country. Homer later admitted that my test results were so good that he thought I had cheated somehow, or had gotten Ian to help me. Ian had helped me immensely, but not in the way Homer suspected.

 

MANIA: You were lucky to have a friend like that.  When you broke in, what was the comic industry - or at least your little corner of it - like at that point in time?  

MARTIN: I have to admit something, when I started at WS, all I recognized or knew on the stands was Image books, largely due to Ian’s influence. Well, I did know the major Marvel and DC characters; who doesn't? But as far as the industry itself goes, I had a vague understanding about the development of Image Comics and its various studios, and that apparently there was some sort of sales bubble (later explained to me as the speculator boom) that took place in the early 1990’s that was starting to quiet down by this point.  

I do remember that competition between the Image studios was fierce, but there was also a very high level of respect among the colorists of WSFX, Top Cow, and Extreme. We all watched each other's work very carefully, absorbing all we could about each other's styles and color choices. 

The book that all the WS colorists wanted to work on was WildCATs, which was being drawn at the time by Travis Charest. Gen13 was very popular among the colorists as well. But the book I started on was Backlash – specifically, Backlash #12 (I can’t remember the page number now). That was the book that Jess Ruffner handled, so she used it as a training grounds for me. And the first cover I colored was an issue of Grifter. So you can see just how far back we’re going here. I can't even find it on Google Search. How sad is that?

 

MANIA: When you first began coloring comic books, what were the tools you used? Were you in on the digital coloring from day one or did you use the "old school" technique? 

MARTIN: I started directly on the computer as a "computer color separator" -- the separators worked from colored paper guides and translated those colors onto Photoshop files. So, the tools weren't all that different from what I use now; they were just earlier, slower versions. WS had just installed PowerPCs when I came on board.128 MB of RAM was a dream at the time. There was very little hard drive space; we had networked servers located in various places in the building. About half the machines had Wacom tablets, so there was a constant teasing battle between the wacomers and the mousers. Each group swore up and down that their method was better, but really, we all had to be able to switch back and forth because we switched workstations so often. 

We had several guide artists on staff: Joe Chiodo (a founding member of Wildstorm) and Martin Jimenez worked in the building, and Wendy Fouts was another regular guidist who worked remotely. I know I'm forgetting some folks. Sometimes we worked without guides. Joe and Martin remained the color guidists on the bigger books like Jim Lee's and J. Scott Campbell's work, while the smaller books went without guides (and usually were farmed out to other color houses). Eventually, though, guides were completely phased out.  

Joe Chiodo was a genius at color theory, and having 15+ color separators working from one artist's guides meant that we had a unified Wildstorm "house style". I learned more about color theory from working from Joe's guides than I ever knew before. Even today I can see elements of Joe's signature color combinations filtered down through several generations of colorists, even those who started at WS long after guides were no longer used. 

MANIA: What was it like for you working at WildStorm when so many exciting projects were coming out and it seemed to be such a high energy environment? 

MARTIN: It was just that -- high energy. We worked hard and we played harder. Okay, maybe not me; I was trying to get as many overtime hours as possible. :) But we watched out for each other and kept each other creatively stimulated. We created our own systems of rewards, played practical jokes constantly, and even had our own methods of communication that made the other folks in the office look at us funny. It was a clique, a gang; in some respects it still is. 

We developed a system of creating small teams of colorists to handle certain high-end projects; being assigned to one of these projects meant that you had Arrived as a colorist. For instance, Jim Lee's Fantastic Four: Heroes Reborn was handled by a crew of four colorists, while some books had solo colorists on them, such as The Authority and Planetary (me!). This especially became necessary as Wildstorm added on their Homage Studios, ABC, and Cliffhanger imprints. But when the chips were down, when deadlines were threatened and pages were coming in late, it didn't matter which book it was; we all had to drop whatever we were doing and hammer a book out in a day or two. That's when things got nutty. All-nighters, 3 am runs to Denny's, catnaps on the uncomfortable bench in the reception area...Looking back on it now, it seemed so chaotic, but we were young and full of energy (and caffeine). 

MANIA: How do you think, since you broke into the industry, the coloring tools and techniques have advanced? What are some of the things you can do now, that you couldn't really do when you began because the technology was in its infancy stages? 

MARTIN: One of the most important changes was within Photoshop itself. I started in version 3, which was the first version with layers, but we couldn't really use layers because our machines were so slow. We had to do everything with channels (which in some respects is why many of us still color in RGB -- it was one less channel than CMYK). As machines sped up, we could finally experiment with layers, and suddenly a whole new set of options opened up for special effects and, more importantly, the editability of the colors. 

A huge jump in editability also came when someone (I want to credit Brian Haberlin, but I'm not sure who it was) figured out that flats could be saved as a channel for later use. Flats are the basic flat colors that separate each item from another. Before flats, we would have to use the lasso tool to select areas over and over again if something needed to be changed. With the flats channel, we could simply click on the area and it would automatically be selected and ready for editing. That was such a small thing, but such a huge leap in productivity. 

The technology has not only gotten smarter and faster, it's gotten a whole lot more affordable. Back when I started out, PCs were inferior to Macs for graphics applications, but Macs were hugely expensive, and RAM for them was astronomical. Some colorists I know took out small business loans or opened credit accounts with Apple to purchase their machines. Nowadays, PCs are pretty evenly matched to Macs in terms of Photoshop performance, so a PC could be an affordable option. Wacom also came out with a basic model called the Graphire, which was much cheaper than the professional Intuos models. So, a full graphics setup is much easier to come by these days. 

Some would argue that the easy availability of the equipment might suddenly make every kid with a PC a colorist, but that's about as true as saying that handing a cheap pencil to a kid makes him Adam Kubert. It just doesn't work that way.

 

MANIA: What do you see as being the next step in digital coloring? Where does it go from here? 

MARTIN: Jeez, I hope nowhere! I have a hard enough time keeping up with the hardware and software as it is! :) I guess the obstacles only remain in the software. Photoshop's paint emulation has improved by leaps and bounds, but it's still limited when compared to, say, Corel Painter, whereas Painter is limited by its print output, which is superior in Photoshop. An amalgam of the two programs would provide everything a colorist could want. The new Wacom Cintiqs provide a far more natural working surface than Wacoms or mice (you 'paint' directly on the screen, like a canvas), but the price point isn't conducive for the casual user, or for someone like me who fears change. :) Really, a huge improvement would be for Wacom to develop a stylus brush, something with a more natural handfeel than a hard pen tip for painting. Other than that, easier color management and the inclusion of 3-D mapping could prove to be beneficial. 

Or, Apple could fit the iPhone with a fully pressure-sensitive screen and a tiny stylus, and Adobe could create a phone-ready version of Photoshop (Phonetoshop?) and we could work ANYWHERE!! ...Cue the screaming of colorists all over the world.

 

Astonishing X-Men #19 Cover: Color Step 1

MANIA: As someone who has won several awards and been involved in some of the highest profile comic books to hit shelves in the past few years, what are you looking for when you're approached by a company to take on a new project?  What elements have to be present to interest you in lending your hues to the story? 

MARTIN: I have to be interested in the art. I’ve got a secret list of artists I’d love to work with, people I’ve either worked with in the past but haven’t collaborated on anything recently, or people I’ve never had a chance to color. The art styles are quite different from one another, and each would provide its own challenge, forcing me to concentrate on a different area of coloring; for instance, with simple, animation-style art, I would need to focus much more on color theory, whereas with a painted style, it's the rendering technique that I would need to explore.  

No, I'm not telling you who's on my list. :)  

In some cases, like for Adam in Chromaland, the story initially attracted my attention, and I knew the colorist would have to play a major role, so I was very much intrigued, even before I saw any of the penciler's work. 

Unfortunately, I do have to consider the business end of the prospect, as well; whether it will even fit in my schedule, the cost-to-time ratio, etc. But I am as impulsive as I am careful, and sometimes my "oo shiny!" reaction can get me into trouble.

 

MANIA: How does your palette change with each project you work on during any given month? Do you make a conscious effort to make each one distinctive?  

MARTIN: It has to change. Applying the exact same rendering technique and color choices to every piece of art just ends up looking homogenous, and could actually fight the penciler's and inker's work. That being said, though, a reader with a sharp eye can pick out colorists' styles just as easily as he or she could discern a penciler's style. The changes are subtle but are always approached with the idea of complementing both the story and the artwork. 

Let's use the teams of Carlos Pacheco/Jesús Merino (Superman-Batman), and Bryan Hitch/Paul Neary (Ultimates) as examples of two superhero art teams.  When I work on a superhero book, I usually go for the stronger, more saturated colors, and save the neutral tones for when I really need them. That's sort of the beginning of the thought process. Then I start really looking at the artwork. The Superman-Batman artwork is clean, open, almost slick, and could really benefit from a similar rendering style: hard-edged, almost animation-style rendering. Overworking the page with lots of airbrushing and painting would be like serving a full-bodied merlot with grouper; it overpowers the main course. A white wine is simpler and much more appropriate, but can still be very flavorful, like the color choices I use on Pacheco and Merino's art.  

Hitch and Neary's artwork, however, is more organic, grittier, with a lot more shading and spot blacks. It's meatier, if you will. It can withstand a more painterly approach because the inks are painterly in themselves -- Neary uses a lot of brushwork; ergo, so can I.  I can pour that rich gravy and serve that merlot on Hitch's work. (And I usually need an antacid afterward, but never mind that.) 

Now, compare a superhero to a non-superhero book: classic examples would be Astonishing X-Men vs. I Am Legion. Same artist, two entirely different approaches. I don't change the actual rendering style much; this time, the change is apparent in the palette itself. Once again, I'll approach Astonishing with a bright, saturated palette -- but I Am Legion, a shrewd supernatural thriller set during World War II, would be way too 'cartoony' if I treated it the same way. So it gets a lot of neutrals, thanks to the dusty war setting. The advantage to this is that when I do use rich color, such as on the blood or the Nazi flags, it really pops off the page. 

Of course, all of this assumes that I have time to think these things through on each page. When deadlines are really tight, I tend to go for whatever approach is fastest. Rendering takes up the most time. Besides, readers tend to respond to the actual colors on the page, so as long as I get those right, I can cheat on the rendering and get the pages done faster. 

And then there's Adam in Chromaland. Even though it's the same artist and the same approach all the way through the book, there isn't one coloring style -- there are hundreds. Part of the story occurs quite literally in the world behind the frames of fine art, and it falls to me to emulate the styles of everything from ancient Greek sculpture to modern art, from Leonardo to Klimt. I have never done anything like this before.

 

MANIA: With coloring you can really help make the mood or feelings of certain characters come through on the page as powerfully as the penciled and inked artwork.  What's your favorite emotion to get to color in a given scene? Why? 

MARTIN: Maybe a better way to describe what I like is this: Regardless of the emotion or the scene, if I feel like I've come up with a successful color scheme, one that works in the scene, produces a reaction that is appropriate for the artwork, and incorporates the given light source convincingly, then I'm happy. It could be a sterile hospital or a forest filled with dark magic; it could be a war room bathed in battle-ready red, or a daytime dust storm. Sure, I'll lean toward particular hues for emotional effect; a kitchen can be comforting, with warm woodtones and stainless steel, or it can be disturbing, with dirty cabinets and gray-green walls. Surreal blue underlight can be just as fun as warm sunshine. As long as I'm accentuating the mood in the story, I'm a happy camper. 

I will play the occasional visual trick. For instance, in the last issue of Astonishing X-Men, much of it occurs on the SWORD spaceship, which has a mostly teal-colored interior. When Brand is discussing the Breakworld situation with the X-Men, their skin tones are pretty warm and bright; their adrenaline is up, they're discussing Important Superhero Things. Their skintones bounce against the blue-green background. But when Kitty and Peter are alone in an awkward scene, when Kitty is withdrawn and Peter is confused, their skin tones are actually a bit desaturated, more pale and grayish. It's usually the quiet, one-on-one scenes where I can pull these little tricks -- and if I'm doing my job right, no one will notice; they'll just read, interpret, and accept the scene as sad and awkward, and move on.

 

MANIA: You've helped many colorists improve their skills and techniques, what's it like for you when you have the chance to mentor someone or work with a budding colorist and lend your experience to his/hers? 

MARTIN: It's a bit unnerving, and makes me wonder if I know what the heck I'm doing. Why would this person actually want to listen to me?? I'm not a great teacher when it comes to standing up in front of a class and telling people what to do, or critiquing another person's coloring in front of them. That's why I think I fell down on the job a bit at CrossGen, but I was also dealing with a lot of veteran colorists who really didn't need training. I did what I could with some of the newer folks like Laura Villari and Christina Strain, but I really don't think I gave them the time and effort that I could have -- I just sorta let them find their own way. 

As far as teaching technique goes...Being told what to do never helped me -- I need to be shown how something works to really comprehend it. So, that's a more comfortable approach for me; I'll just sit the person down behind me (or wherever the monitor can be seen clearly) and I'll talk while I work. 

This obviously isn't much help when advice is sought from a distance. Much of the assistance I lend is over the internet, either in email or on message boards. In that case, I'm looking at a colorist's finished work; I'm seeing what they have done, instead of showing them what I do. In those cases, I try very hard to be constructive in my critiques, no matter the colorist's level of expertise or commitment; if someone has put his or her work out there for critique, then that's what I'm going to do. It's not easy; some people take critique better than others. But in a public messageboard like <a href=http://www.gutterzombie.com target=_blank>Gutterzombie.com</a>, every reader can gain something from a critique on someone's work. And, since it's all online, I don't have to watch the new people break down crying when the elder statesmen tear 'em a new one. :)

 

MANIA: Who do you think are some of the really innovative up and coming colorists that are flying a little under the radar right now?  

MARTIN: You're asking someone who very rarely buys comics anymore. There are tons of things going on in small-press comics, particularly manga (covers, mostly) that's just gorgeous, but I can't really name names off the top of my head - except for Christina Strain (Runaways). Watch her. Her talent is going to outgrow comics, and fast. And her illustration is worlds beyond mine. Heck, it rivals some of the professional work out there! Someone else who's caught my eye is Kelsey Shannon, a guy who sorta popped into Gutterzombie and started showing his stuff around. He's got a background in animation, and both his penciling and his color style reflect that. It's fun, poppy, kinetic, bright -- gleeful. He penciled and inked Bastard Samurai, colored the covers for the Invincible guide books (over Dusty Abell), and is currently working on some cards for Upper Deck. I honestly don't know why this guy hasn't been snatched up and locked into an exclusive contract. You can check out his stuff at <a href=dagriz.blogspot.com target=_blank>dagriz.blogspot.com</a> if you're interested (and you should be).

Astonishing X-Men #19 Cover: Color Step 2

MANIA: What's your work environment like?  Do you have a soundtrack that you listen to when you're creating? 

MARTIN: My general area is probably pretty similar to any work-at-home artist's hovel -- messy, filled to capacity with CDs and DVDs and action figures, and smelling faintly of stale coffee. :) Nah, it's not that bad. As for the soundtrack, it really depends on how much time I have to spend at the computer. When I’m not on deadline, I tend to listen to television – the TV is actually behind me, which deters me from watching it – and that is almost always tuned to some crime show. Law & Order (any of the versions), Homicide: Life on the Street, Unsolved Mysteries, 48 Hours, Forensic Files, The Investigators… They’re usually just background noise, but I’m a sucker for forensic investigation. I used to put on home-improvement shows, but I had to watch those and then I'd be distracted with ideas for the house... 

When I’m on a deadline, though, I’ll put on something that requires a little more concentration, such as an audiobook (pretty much anything by Daniel Hecht, Robert Ludlum, Sue Grafton, or John Sandford; serialized novels are awesome for this sort of thing), a TV series on DVD (Star Trek: Deep Space 9; Firefly; The Shield; Scrubs; Dead Like Me, among others) or a really long movie (Lord of the Rings) – something without commercial breaks, so I’m not tempted to get up and wander around every fifteen minutes. Audiobooks in particular are very good for keeping my mind focused while I sit and work for hours. If I choose a TV show or a movie, it has to be something I’ve seen numerous times so I’m not tempted to turn around and watch. 

In between all of this, or if there’s nothing good on TV, I’ll play music. I can actually play my music pretty loudly without disturbing the neighbors or my husband (who works in his own home office downstairs). Hooray for sound insulation!

 

MANIA: We talk to a lot of artists and writers who experience creative blocks sometimes, are you ever burdened by something like that? If so, how do you overcome the feelings and continue working? 

MARTIN: Sometimes it feels like I’ve been jumping from block to block for years. If it’s a creative block, like I can’t think of what color scheme to use for a certain scene, I’ll look high and low for ideas -- my previous work, other colorists' work, fine art, illustration, photography, Google Image Search...anything to give me a jump-start on a color scheme. Failing that, I'll just start throwing colors down on the page and move forward. The nice thing about working in Photoshop is that nothing is permanent; I can fiddle with the colors all day long and get completely different results. 

There are different kinds of creative blocks, though. Sometimes I just don’t want to work. That chair is the last place I want to be. So I’ll go out for some retail therapy or I’ll find something else around the house to do for a while. The nice thing about having just moved into a new house is that there’s plenty to do. I may not be able to jump up from my desk and go paint a wall, but I can look around online for ideas for fixtures or furnishings, or spend half an hour at Lowe's. Basically, I’ll take a brain (and a butt) break and get out for a bit, watch TV, go for a walk, or get something else accomplished that’s been languishing while I’ve been working.

 

MANIA: If any of our readers were thinking about trying to be a comic book colorist, what are the basics in terms of equipment that anyone would need to get started?  

MARTIN: You need a pretty fast computer, first off. Tower, laptop, whatever. Throw as much RAM into that computer as you can. Get yourself a huge hard drive and/or a DVD burner so you can back up your work. Very important. Your hard drive will fill up FAST with your working files, and you want your scratch disk to be as wide open as possible. 

I know of some colorists who work in Painter or other paint programs, but the va-a-a-a-a-a-st majority of colorists work in Photoshop. I’d suggest version 7 or higher simply for the customizable brush engine. Anything earlier than that is a detriment (except to Justin Ponsor, who’s still working in 5.5, but he’s a freak. He could color a page with mustard and ketchup and make it look sweet). 

I’ll also highly recommend a Wacom tablet. I like the 6”x9” format, but that’s a matter of personal preference (and desk dimensions). Again, there are freaks who work with the mouse and make it look good, but I much prefer the natural sensation of the pen in my hand as opposed to the puck. Plus, there’s the massive advantage of pressure sensitivity. Once you’ve gotten used to the Wacom, you won’t go back. 

And finally, get high-speed internet. You’ll be using FTP or other file transfer systems to send and receive large files, so a fast, reliable connection is extremely important. It'll come in handy when you're desperately trying to find reference at 3 am and your book's due in the morning. 

MANIA: You've really done so much for the coloring industry, have you ever thought about writing a book about coloring and lending your expertise to the masses in that manner?  

MARTIN: The idea has come up on several occasions, even to the point of exchanging a few emails with someone at HarperCollins. As time passed, however, other colorists more skilled than I have beat me to the punch -- Mark Chiarello co-wrote The DC Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics, and Brian Haberlin has his own line of tutorials. There's really not much else I can add that hasn't already been covered and covered well. So at this point, there aren't really any plans...but I've held onto my notes, just in case.

 

MANIA: You're not just a talented colorist, I've seen a lot of your other artwork.  Have you ever thought about creating your own comic book where you're doing more than just coloring?  Would you like to do something like that eventually? 

MARTIN: No, definitely no. Well, maybe. But probably no. I may know how to enhance or complement a story, but I don't know how to create one. I don't know the first thing about laying out a page or pacing a story. My lack of creativity with dialogue would be a severe hindrance (or pathetically hilarious). Not to mention that  I'm slower than dirt's grandmother with my drawing, so I'd be starving in the streets before I could ever earn a paycheck!

 

MANIA: What would your dream assignment be - aside from some of the assignments you've already had in the industry so far? 

MARTIN: That's a tough one. I've already done a lot. I'd like to take another crack at painted covers, or possibly doing some of my own digital painting. Maybe expand into the European market more, or try something manga-inspired, like Jo Chen's or Hyung Tae Kim's work. But if I were to be completely honest, I'd say that the most exciting assignment would be whatever I get assigned in school. I attended the Art Institute of Tampa for a couple of semesters, but had to take time off to move to Atlanta. It was so inspiring to be back in the classroom again, using braincells that had atrophied over the last dozen years. There are two great art schools in Atlanta, so it's just a matter of time before I go back. I can't wait.

 

MANIA: What conventions do you plan on attending this year? 

MARTIN: As always, convention plans are nebulous because my deadlines pretty much dictate whatever I do. But we're thinking hard about HeroesCon, SDCC, and hopefully the Pittsburgh Comic-Con, and of course Dragon*Con because it's local. My husband will probably be at MegaCon but I'm not so sure if I will or not. I guess we'll figure it out as we close in on the dates and get a better view of my work schedule. 

***** 

Jennifer M. Contino is a lifelong comic book fan.  You can read her work every weekday at http://www.comicon.com/pulse.