Pipeline: The Art of Modern Comic Book Coloring

Tue, February 9th, 2016 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist


A "color hold" -- or sometimes "knocking out" the line -- is when the black ink lines in comic art get colored in.

Here's a quick and easy way to color hold lines in your artwork in Clip Studio Paint/Manga Studio:

msp step1
Step 1: Add a new layer.
msp step2
Step 2: Click that button just above the layer. When you hover over it, the tool tip says, "Clip at Layer Below." I call it "The Color Hold" button. Forgive me, professional Clip Studio Paint instructors.

msp step3
You'll know you've hit the right button when that red line appears to the left of your new layer. If you don't see that, hit the button again.

msp step4
Step 3: Grab your pen or brush and draw away. I just did a quick up and down with the yellow pen a few times to get this result.

That clipped layer you just created will only color where you have lines from the layer below it. Super simple. If you don't like them, it's easy to erase just the lines you don't like, or to delete the layer altogether.

The question then becomes, where do you color hold those lines? It's a question I've been asking myself lately for the stuff I've been drawing. It's caused me to look at comic books where the colors are being held for why and when they do it.

I've seen five basic patterns:

  • Just the hair. It's a weird effect when the rest of the person is outlined in black, but the hair is outlined in a slightly darker version of the main hair color. I see it used a lot, so people must like it.

  • Depth Indicator. You know how things away from you can look a little fuzzier and less well defined? Those would be the areas you'd color hold. Black lined areas pop out, colored lines recede.

  • Highlights. In the case of a strong light source, a line might be color held to make it look brighter from a directional light source. This is particularly true in rim lighting.

  • Outline Only In Black. Characters, in particular, retain the black lines around their perimeters, defining their basic shape and separating them from the background. All of the details inside those black lines are color held. I've seen this a lot of time with faces, and it's usually in approaches colorists take when they're going for a more painterly look. The nose is no longer drawn in, per se. It's colored onto the face. Adam Hughes does some of this. (For more on Hughes' coloring techniques, check out this article.)

  • The full-on Disney look. These are the people who believe there are no black lines in real life, and there shouldn't be any in art, either. Every line gets a color. No black is allowed to exist, save pure black. I bet most people saw this first in a Disney movie like "The Little Mermaid" or "Beauty and the Beast." Go back and look at those movies now and see how few black lines there are anywhere. It may surprise you. (Look carefully and you'll also see the actual pencil marks in the finished product, quite often.)

For an example of someone who uses color holds a lot, take a look at Nei Ruffino's coloring work over J. Scott Campbell's art:

jcs xmen left

Ruffino can mix most of the techniques I just mentioned together. It's fascinating to explore. I'm not sure there are hard and fast rules she follows, but you can see all sorts of techniques at play here.

Mostly, though, she follows the light.

With a light source behind the characters and off to the right, you'll notice the color holds better on the right sides of the characters. On their left sides, some black lines remain, or the color holds are a much darker color. Ororo's hair is color held, save for the black line that sticks straight up off the top of her forehead. That's the furthest from the light source.

Wolverine's gray hair is nearly completely held, save for a little black line under the chin. If you want to color someone's hair gray, using black lines would seem to detract from that.

Check out the linework on the women's abdomens and you'll see they're all color held, helping them be a little more subtle and natural looking. It gives a much more painterly look to the image.

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The black areas of both Storm's and Magik's costumes are solid black on the inside, though the edge lines facing the light source are held, in large part in conjunction with the glowing light that wraps around their bodies there.

papergirl held

Sometimes, the color holds are just part of the look of the art. Look at what Matt Wilson does with Cliff Chiang's art on "Paper Girls." The noses, outer edges of the mouths, and jaw lines (when drawn in) are always color held. The eyes, eyebrows, and inner part of the mouths remain pure black.

To be honest, it's a look I'm still getting used to. It fits in with the overall color scheme of the series, but I'm generally more a fan of black line art. Still, it's a technique that today's technology makes possible and that has its uses. I'm interested in discovering what those are and how best to use them.

I've been playing with some of the techniques. My cast drawing of "Injection" stuck with the hair. My Rey drawings have been full-on Disney.

I've noodled with the light source colors, though haven't gone far enough with strong light sources to justify it. I've played with Depth Indication, but have nothing to show for it just yet. And the Outline method just looks weird in the tests I've tried it with. I might be missing something more subtle.

The thing is, this is mostly stuff I bet nobody notices, yet takes up an awful lot of the colorist's time making relatively small changes in ways that will effect the overall look of the art in a major way.

With the right art and the right colorist, though, it can work well as a style. Used judiciously, it can be a great help in storytelling to place figures on a page in relation to each other or the light source. Computer comics coloring isn't new anymore, and neither are color holds. It's an on-going evolution in styles that's interesting to me. It's something worth keeping an eye out for.


  • Paolo Rivera has a great article on how he colors his own work. It's Photoshop-centeric, but a lot of it is easily translated to Clip Art Studio. There's even a second and third part, the latter of which is where he mentions using color holds for special effects and pushing things into the background.

  • It's official: Manga Studio is being renamed to Clip Studio Paint. It will take years before artists will get used to this one. Yes, ultimately, it's a meaningless name change to help simplify things and erase any confusion people might have over a company selling the same product under two different names. But, still, "Manga Studio" has ridiculously amazing brand recognition. "Clip Studio Paint" has its work cut out for itself.

  • For the extremely technically minded, here's a podcast interview with the CTO of the company that made the "Walking Dead" mobile game talking about how he scales his infrastructure to deal with a hit app.

  • Not everything at Angoulême was a controversy. Here's a celebration of the unboxing of a duck painting.

  • The second part of Orbital In Conversation's interview with Brian K. Vaughan is now live, covering a lot of his TV work and his return to comics thereafter. It was recorded earlier last year, so some references might be dated, but not many. It's another great hour with the writer.

  • Lesson learned the hard way: When you combine your comiXology and Amazon accounts, you can no longer pay through PayPal. Wish I had realized that before I pulled the trigger. It is inevitable that they'll force everyone to convert someday, but I would have held out longer if I had known. (It's also the reason I don't participate in Kickstarters with their Amazon-only funding means.)

  • One crazy thought: If "Deadpool" proves there's room for more than one type of X-Men movie, can we please get someone on a lower-budget coming of age "Dawson's Creek" type X-Men? I guess that would be "X-Men: First Class: The Movie," but how cool would it be to see teenaged X-Men doing teenaged things first, and fighting bad guys second? Cheaper movie, lower box office expectations, and less CGI. Greater profit potential. Just a thought.
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