Artist's Alley 6: FELIX SERRANO on DARKNESS and Light

If you're reading a book from Top Cow and you notice an image that pops off the page, you may be looking at the work of Felix Serrano.

A comic book colorist since 1998, Serrano has honed his craft on books ranging from Generation X to recent releases like Pilot Season: Stellar and The Darkness: Four Horsemen. But don't think that colorwork is just a matter of filling in the lines — there's a mood, a skill, a temperment you need to succeed in this often overlooked side of comics art.

We caught up with Serrano for the sixth edition of Artist's Alley to talk about how he fell into the industry as a colorist, how digital art changed his career, and how colors can make or break your reading experience.

Step 1.

Newsarama: Felix, just to start off with — how did you end up working as a professional colorist? I imagine that's not something you wake up and decide to do when you're 7 or 8 ...  

Felix Serrano: I’ve always had a love for comics and animation. I guess I started by copying drawings from comics like Walt Simonson’s Thor and Eastman and Laird's TMNT. I attended LaGuardia High School for Music and Art here in New York City then the School of Visual arts where I studied Illustration. At SVA I took Walt Simonson’s sequential arts class, which was one of the best classes I have ever taken. While at SVA I developed my portfolio and hit the convention and editorial circuits. After several conventions and portfolio reviews with editors it was the same story, “great looking work but we don’t have a place for painted work” and they were right (this was at the dawn of the Image age during the mid to late 90’s). During a conversation with an editor at Marvel (Ruben Diaz) I was asked if I ever thought of applying my painting skills as a colorist. That day I got my hands on a set of Prismacolor markers and whipped up some color samples. Later that month I was brought on board as the regular colorist on Generation X over Terry Dodson. The rest is history.

Step 2.

Nrama: Were there any big epiphanies you had that really opened the creative floodgates for you? Any moments that really helped you get to your level of skill?

Serrano: Photoshop was a game changer for me. It allowed me to bring my skills as a painter to the art team. That’s when I understood that coloring was an important part of the creative process and no longer part of the production process. Since then I have always tried to bring something to the art table.

Nrama: I imagine there are a lot of people who don't understand the importance of color — but for someone who works with it on a regular basis, what makes color so critical for books? And perhaps to add on that a bit — what makes for "good color" to you?

Serrano: I’ve heard this said several times from several people “a colorist can make or break a book”. I think the reason for that is because we tend to bring intangible, psychological and emotional elements into storytelling that aren’t there with words or line. Color can add depth, atmosphere and mood through lighting and (color) temperatures. Color can also bring focus and clarity to better convey action.

Good color will always harmonize and help move a story along. It will make a panel pop when it needs to pop and help the reader recognize scene transitions through the use of different palettes.

Step 3.

Nrama: Stemming off that question a bit: What are your influences as a colorist? What colorists do you think are just A-list, top of their game, and why?

Serrano: As a colorist I’m influenced by Impressionist art. One of the aspects of that movement was to achieve form through light and color - which lends itself well when working on comics.

As far as A-list colorists, there are so many nowadays it’s hard to pick a few. Richard Isanove and Steve Firchow have both been huge influences on my work. They both have a mastery of technique and color that is hard to top. Chris Sotomayor is the hardest working colorist in comics these days; his speed and sense of storytelling with color are amazing. Laura Martin is just plain ol’ awesome, her palettes are gorgeous and she knows how to lay it on thick or pull back when needed. Dave McCaig is a master at design and color theory, he’s one of the few colorists who can use the color brown and make it look cool! 

Step 4.

Nrama: As far as your process goes, can you walk us through just how you attack a page, moving from the original black-and-whites to the finished product?

Serrano: I’m always sent digital black and white files, which I open and work with in Photoshop.

After all the technical stuff is done to the line art to make it workable I start with my darkest flat colors. Once the entire page is where I want it as far as color palette is concerned I start to render in colored light sources to build up the form, keeping in mind the highlights are just as important as the shadows.

I render by drawing in my selections with the magic lasso tool and either filling with a desired color or hitting those areas with the gradient tool at different opacity levels and modes for effect. When I start to feel that a piece is looking too “slick” I’ll go in with a custom brush to add variety with texture. If the line art feels a little heavy in places I’ll try to color hold it (turn the black line into another color) to achieve balance. Once I’m happy with the rendering I’ll move onto fine tuning color and value; then adding effects.

Command-S and it’s done.

Nrama: What sorts of tools do you use with your colorwork, and what do these tools in particular give you for art opportunities?

Serrano: I work on a 27” I5 iMac with a Wacom tablet and Adobe Photoshop 4. I wouldn’t be able to do many of the things I do in Photoshop without the Wacom tablet. It is an essential tool for any digital artist.

Interior art from Stellar.

Nrama: Let's talk about mood and lighting a bit here, particularly when you're dealing with a penciller and inker. For you, what do you feel the colorist's role is here, and how do you approach either highlighting or minimizing parts of the image?

Serrano: The first thing I do is take a look at the script and read through what’s going on in the scene. Once I have the situation in my head I take a look at the art and try to get a sense of what the penciller was going for. Once I pinpoint the focus of action and source of dialog I make a note in my head to give more detail in color to these areas so they can stand out. As far as lighting is concerned I usually look to what the inker has established. Heavier bolder lines on one side of the form indicate the side should be in shadow so I render accordingly. The colorist’s role here is to make sure that objects are separated and the light source is clarified so the art feels like it’s own thing and not something generated by 2 or 3 different people.

Nrama: And to look at the other side of the equation — what are the sorts of artists you dig working with the most? Are there any particular styles that you think are most conducive to electrifying everything with some rocking color work?

Serrano: I really love working over artists who know their craft and have a good sense of art in general. I usually try to find aspects in an artist’s work to play off of and push it to the next level. Stylistically open lined artist make me happy since there is plenty of room to play with.

Interior art from Stellar.

Nrama: Working with some of the books that you have, have there been any color choices that you thought were so crazy, and then they ended up working? Or, maybe to take another tack on this, have there been any color schemes that you thought would soar and ended up being a mistake?

Serrano: The pages that come to mind were the last few from Pilot Season: Stellar. The scene was the main character Stellar at home (which was on an alien world). Somehow my palette for this turned into reds, browns, greens, blues and grey. It sounds like vomit, but when I finished the spread I was pleasantly surprised with the results.

Nrama: Lastly, for those who are looking to get into color art, what surprised you the most about this job? What should these aspiring artists know that they really don't?

Serrano: Learn how to draw and paint first. With pencils, brushes, canvas and board. Once you’ve gotten those skills under your belt you will be exponentially better at making things feel right when you work in Photoshop. Also, cover your bases when dealing with any client. Make sure you have a paper trail of your correspondences and never work without some sort of contract. Lastly, above all, you have to love it.


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