I’m still working on coloring 50 copies of my Lettering Sampler print to sell on my website. I’m about three-quarters finished. The yellows, oranges, greens and blues are done, I’m working on the purples, still have to do pinks, reds and browns. I’m using mostly Hydrus liquid watercolors by Dr. Ph. Martin, though for the blues I went back to my old supply of Turquoise Blue from my DC Comics color set, as none of the Hydrus colors were quite right. I’ve had that bottle of color since at least 1987, and while many of the other colors were used up or dried up long ago, that one is still fine. In the picture above is my coloring brush, a #3 Winsor-Newton Series 7 Finest Sable, and as I’m only using one color at a time, the end cap from a mailing tube makes a dandy color holder. The one in there now is the pale purple seen in the word “plip”.
Pulling out my old color set brought back a lot of memories of early days on staff at DC in the production department. I never did very much coloring, but to do any any all, you had to have a color set. This was a cigar-box with cardboard dividers that holds 40 small bottles of color. One is out to show, and next to it is a larger bottle for refilling and mixing colors at home. My color chart taped to the inside of the lid is of the colors I used most, and those bottles have pink labels.
Colors were defined by a code system. Y stood for Yellow, B for Blue and R for Magenta, matching the three colors of printing ink other than black. The bottle labeled B represented solid or 100% blue ink, B3 was 50% blue ink, B2 was 25% blue ink. When I started at DC in the late 70s, these were the only tone choices. There were no black tones allowed on inside pages (and rarely used on covers either), so all the colors were combinations of 25%, 50% and 100% of Y, B, and R. A quite limited palette. And even then, many of the combinations were so similar when printed, particularly many of the browns, that they were rather pointless to use. Here’s a color chart I made up for DC under the direction of Production Manager Jack Adler:
This represents only about half the possibilities, but covers the most useful colors. (Some spaces I never filled in probably because I didn’t have those colors mixed up.) Mixing the colors was another chore that took time to learn and was a very inexact science. DC bought what I think were quart-sized bottles of Dr. Martin’s watercolor dyes from their regular stock, and also had a few special ones made up for them by the manufacturer. Each colorist would draw from the large bottles when they needed to restock, filling their large glass bottles, then mixing into the small bottles for coloring. Here are some notes I made at the time for myself:
A little hard to read now, but I think you can get the idea. Some colors in the color set were right from stock, such as YRB2 = Burnt Sienna, but most were mixed from one or more original dyes. Red, as in Superman’s cape was YR, and used the dye Ruby Special, one made up for DC. As you can see, creating and maintaining a color set was a lot of work! And even if you did it well, the colors were only guides. None of your actual colors ever saw print. They were merely used as guides for the color separators, who followed them more or less closely (depending on the ability of the separator) to create the actual color masks using opaque paint on acetate, or rubylith film. One mask was created for each value of each color, so a single comics page in this system needed three blue masks, one each for 25%, 50% and 100%, and so on. The blue masks were combined photographically into one piece of film negative for the blue ink on that page. A very complex system, and one with lots of room for errors, of which there were many. And even when everything went perfectly, the poor quality of paper used at the time resulted in pretty poor results, as shown below.
Here’s the same color chart as above, printed on newsprint. The paper has tanned with age, but even so I think you can see how badly the colors reproduced. I think the 1970s were probably the nadir of paper quality at DC. Comics from the 1940s and 50s had much better paper, and still look it today if well kept, but the company began cutting paper quality to save money some time after that, and when I started it was pretty awful. So, as you can see, any colors other than the primary ones were likely to come out mud.
In the 1980s things began to improve, as DC moved into the direct market, where fans demanded, and were willing to pay for, better quality. DC moved much of it’s printing from World Color Press to Quebecor in Montreal, Canada, and at that time were able to expand their color set with the addition of 75% colors. This didn’t add a great deal on the usual paper. Here’s a new color chart I did at that time printed on newsprint:
The new 75% tones were coded with a 4, so B4 was 75% blue ink. Still lots of mud on this color chart. Ah, but printed on bright white coated cover stock, it was a whole new ball game:
Now colorists working on better-quality paper, some of which came close to this example on inside pages for books like CAMELOT 3000, really had colors to play with! Still a limited palette, but much better than what they’d had before.
Color would change again, and drastically, with the advent of computer coloring in the late 1980s, opening up a vast rainbow of choices, thousands and millions of shades available. Many of them are indistinguishable, but for computer colorists today there’s one great advantage: the colors they put onto their computer files are the ones actually used to print the comics. The labor-intensive process of hand-made separations is gone, and good riddance, I say!