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Learning to Color Like Jean GiraudComments about this page

By David Marshall November 22nd, 2011 Categories: Post |

I’m coloring the new version of “Six-Year-Old Horse Thief“. Out of all the elements of comics, coloring’s been my weakest (those who’ve read my dialog might have a different opinion). This is my first attempt of addressing this issue with history and objective analysis. In order to move forward in any mission, you have to (a) be completely sick of the status quo and (b) have some ideal to compare your current output.

The comics I read are very sophisticated. The best use color to enhance the storytelling, without overpowering the line art. Looking at what I consider to be the best of old and new reveals the following methods (borrowing terms from The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics):

Six-Year-Old Horse Thief, page 1 in color
Local Color
On object’s literal color: blue sky, green grass, etc.
Altering local color for editorial enhancement.
Simplifying complex panels into two colors for emphasis.
Using color to make horizontal or aerial distance.
Selective Realism
Reflecting a character’s state of mind.
Basing color decsions on mood or visual design, as opposed to literally interpreting the plot.
Coloring panel zones with a single color.
Coverage of the single color can be flat or varied with tints, hue and/or saturation.

Using this context, my natural coloring instincts lean heavily on predictable local color. However, I don’t want to use most mainstream comics as a goal. Most are too slick, catering to a younger fanbase of superhero “enhanced realism”. If I were a 14-year-old fanboy now, this approach would be right up my alley. At damn-near-50, this style has the exact opposite reaction.

Earlier this year, I experimented by coloring “GrubHub Delivery” with Chemical Color Plate 1970s pallet. Combining this with Photoshop’s color halftone and scanned newsprint paper produced the desired retro feeling, but didn’t solve the larger problem. I still didn’t understand color the way I wanted. Since it’s taking me forever to produce the 8-page story, color wasn’t a top priority this year.

Then I stumbled on the Blueberry comics, drawn lettered & colored by Jean Giraud. Under the Epic imprint, Marvel Comics reprinted a ton of these in the ’80s. For weeks I’ve been studying Book One: Chihuahua Pearl (1973) through Book Ten: End of the Trail (1983) and still don’t understand how Giraud’s doing it.

infographic comparing my two-week old coloring technique to the 20-year-old coloring technique of Jean Giraud

Left: page 2 of “Six-Year-Old Horse Thief”. Right: page 64 of Blueberry Book Ten: End of the Trail

Compared to today’s colorists, Giraud’s palette is quaintly limited. Yet he’s hitting every one of The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics guidelines: focus, depth, decorative and selective realism. On top of this, he’s adding another element: specific time of day. A lot of Blueberry scenes take place at dawn, dusk, high noon and candle/firelight. Accomplishing this with a limited pallet is like winning a fight with one arm.

Giraud started on Blueberry in 1965. That first book Fort Navajo wasn’t nearly this sophisticated. Not having to duplicate 20 years of growth in two weeks takes a lot of pressure off. Where does this leave me? Somewhere between work, teaching, family and other comics projects, revising my “Six-Year-Old Horse Thief” colors a million times before showing you. This is one instance where a paycheck, editor and deadline would come in handy.

— Your Pal Dave, somehow bearing tonight’s ’90s boy-band music at Inman Square’s 1369. Barista nostalgia is so darn cute.

Talk Back! Most recent of (8)

European colors have been better than American comics for a long time

Roho | Posted on November 23rd, 2011 at 10:01 am   

Hey David this a really big improvement on your colors, I wish I could see your page in more detail. European colors have been leaps and bounds ahead of american comics for a long time, i think it will be great to see you do this in an analog way. Researching the materials and paper origianlly used by Moebius should be pretty fun. I think a good way to start will be with the fact that this book was created for the French market to be reproduced as an album, if have ever seen one of those they have very high quality paper and they are perfectly reproduced. If I had to guess I will say that he was using some kind of transparent ink, like Dr PH Martin’s concentrated watercolor. Keep up the good work.

It’s always a pleasure when Roho chimes in. Having grown up in Uruguay, his expertise on European comics is solid. In the USA, he’s spent the last two years publishing anthologies Hellbound and Outbound. More recently, he’s returned to his true love of making comics. Check out his latest works at Riverbird Comics today!

I’m coloring in Adobe Photoshop, having abandoned my beloved Corel Painter. Medicine-dropping colors is easy enough, but the intelligence behind Jean’s color decisions still elude me. Nice knowing I’m on the right path.

Hey Dave,

We just discussed this a little bit this afternoon, where, in addition to the points you’ve already made, I mentioned painterly variations in Giraurd’s use of otherwise-solid blocks of color (I bet Roho’s correct and Gir was using PH Martin watercolor dyes). This is tricky to replicate in Photoshop, and also kind of inauthentic; like your experiments using the Color Halftone filter to replicate ben day dots, probably ultimately not very stylistically fulfilling.

But seeing your page side-by-side with Giraurd’s at thumbnail-size really demonstrates how much more linework there is in this Blueberry story as opposed to your more spare use of line in Horse Thief. The result is that I think his traditional ink shading is influencing our view of the color. A lot of what we’re seeing as virtuoso coloring- and it is fantastic, simple work- however, is being influenced by the light and shade of his black lines.

I’d suggest looking at some more of Giraurd’s Moebius work like “Upon a Star” which, while more fanciful, is probably closer stylistically to the open-line stuff you’re doing here.

Jesse's right and 16-color computer palettes rocked!

Carl Tsui | Posted on November 25th, 2011 at 10:36 pm   

Agree with Jesse. Panel 3 is the closest emulation of the target coloring style because it has the most contrast brought about by the prescense of interior spots of black. The play between dark and light values is what makes things visually interesting and changes your perception.

It’s like the old computer trick of throwing single pixel checkerboard pattern of black on top of a flat color to get a third intermediate color where one does not exist. Your eye does the work. Back in the day when computers had limited 16 color palettes this was how we got more colors! 🙂

Having two comics superbeings comment on my site’s like getting a visit from the Wonder Twins (or Starsky & Hutch). Glad they’re saying the same things, or else it’d be more like Marvel Two-In-One (Marvel’s team-up book starring The Thing, where he and another Marvel hero would spend 15 of 17 pages pounding the crap out of each other and trashing Manhattan before realizing they were tricked). Please do yourselves a favor and visit Jesse’s sculpture portfolio ( and Carl’s blog-of-all-trades ( today. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to color comics like a 40-year pro.

More Focus, Less Intimidation

David Marshall | Posted on December 12th, 2011 at 1:56 pm   

Looking at the Blueberry run more closely makes this task more focused and less intimidating. Each issue of the Marvel/Epic reprints Book One: Chihuahua Pearl through Book Ten: End of the Trail is colored differently. Giraurd said Book Four: The Outlaw was the first book he liked his color. Even with that didn’t stop him from developing. Book Seven: The Long March is more pastel/tinted, and Book Nine: The Last Card is high-saturation, flat and mostly local color.
Limiting my coloring ideal to The Outlaw is a lot easier than keeping up with Giraurd’s constantly evolving color theories.

A Rose by Any Other Name ...

Adriana | Posted on February 23rd, 2012 at 6:36 pm   

Gostei muito desse site!

Moebius Didn't Do It!

Shino1 | Posted on June 26th, 2016 at 11:37 pm   

I’m no Moebius expert, but I think I know how Moebius did it.
He didn’t.
By which I mean – in American school of doing comics, we are taught pipeline/factory approach. One man writes, one man pencils, one man inks, one man letters, etc.
But Moebius can do this stuff because he works alone.

He KNOWS what colors things will have, so he plans panel layouts to include colors that will meet all criteria you listed – e.g “a man has red hat, so if I make a headshot panel, it will be partially red – so I should use it when he’s angry, and perhaps as an extra use a red rock as a background. If I want him to be sad instead, let’s use a panel that stops right above his forehead, omitting the hat, make his face slightly paler than usual, and make the panel wide to show blue sky on the sides of his face, so panel will have a colder look.”

Compare how similar actually Dave Gibbons colors for Watchmen are in approach to Moebius colors (Gibbons explicitly said colors were inspired by “European comics” so I can bet you Moebius was part of inspiration) – because he was a single artist on all duties, he could pull the same trick, frame panels to include certain colors.

I think something like this COULD be possible in mainstream comics, but it would require better communication – i.e. script shouldn’t be a rigid document made by the writer, but a collaborative effort appended by every person in order, brainstorming on what to do next (think how Google Docs collab editing works).

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