An Interview with Colorist K Michael Russell
Of my many fantasy careers – stunt woman, animal wrangler for film and television, demolition derby driver, rollerskating stripper, trick hoola-hooper – professional colorist is the least physically exhausting and most realistically achievable. As someone who has always enjoyed the therapeutic benefits of coloring for fun, I’ve often wondered (yet never researched) what it would be like to color cartoons, be they animated or in print, for a living. Thankfully colorist K Michael Russell and I crossed paths through Graphic Policy. I got to try out his online coloring course and get a glimpse of his insider knowledge, in essence scratching my long-festering itch of curiosity.
Kurt, as he’s known casually (you can imagine why not formally), always enjoyed drawing and doodling but only began pursuing work as a colorist in 2011. Since then he has gone on to color for publishers including IDW and Image, and has developed an in-depth 10-hour course on how to color with Photoshop, a YouTube channel where you can stream almost 100 free tutorials and Q&As, and a blog full of fun and useful tips and links.
GP: What compelled you to pursue a career as a colorist and how did you start?
KMR: I originally started learning coloring just to finish my own line art–just pieces for fun as a hobby, but I sort of fell in love with that part of the process. I started finding others that wanted to make comics on forums and job boards. I did a lot of free or very cheap work up front just building my portfolio. After about a year or two, I started getting semi-regular gigs doing anthologies and shorts and whatnot. I kept trying to improve and eventually got offers to work on books that were getting pretty good exposure.
GP: You have a really comprehensive, 10-hour course available on your website for $99, which is quite affordable for the amount of ground it covers. I’ve been working my way through it, and highly recommend it for anyone interested in learning to color with Photoshop! I’ve noticed you’re very open to being accessible to your students, frequently commenting that they can reach out to you with questions at any time. You also have a lot of free resources for honing one’s coloring skills available on your website, and I like that you’re so generous and encouraging of others to learn the trade – do other colorists share your “the more the merrier” philosophy, or is it typically a more competitive area?
KMR: I made the course and the YouTube channel, because I don’t want people to go through what I did when I first started–trying to navigate this sea of unrelated tutorials–trying to figure out how to make them work together. So I created a site where you can get it all in one place. Plus I enjoy teaching. I think it makes me better as an artist, because I have to be able to verbalize what I’m thinking–why something doesn’t “look right.” Knowing something doesn’t look right is one thing, but being able to articulate it is another. So I have a discussion section in the course, and I recently added an option for monthly live classes too, because I don’t think you can beat a one-on-one critique.
It’s a relatively small industry that’s making a lot of books right now. I see small press and indie creators looking for colorists all the time. I don’t think it’s necessarily a “the more, the merrier” situation, but I would hope that I can help improve the quality of the rookie colorists coming out of the gate. None of my colorist friends consider each other to be competition–at least I don’t think so. I’m always happy to see my friends get new gigs, and they are for me as well.
GP: For folks interested in pursuing coloring professionally, how long can it take to really get a foothold? In other words, is there an average amount of time you’ve noticed it takes before a new colorist can quit their day job?
KMR: There’s really not one right answer for this. It’s like anything else in a creative field I guess… you can be a prodigy and walk right into great gigs, but that is super-rare, or you can work for years trying to “break in.” You’re always breaking in though. Getting my first Image gig didn’t cause a line of publishers to form at my front door. You’ve still got to work to stay in and stay relevant.
For me personally, I worked for almost three years before working on a book that Joe Public had even heard of–Judge Dredd. I figure that’s probably pretty average. I’m still not a seasoned vet or anything myself though, so I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience getting started other than my own.
GP: I’m fairly blind to the behind-the-scenes of how comics get made, can you please explain where a colorist lands on the creative team? I know it sounds self-explanatory, but I’m wondering if you choose the color scheme independently, or is it informed by input from the writer(s) and illustrator(s)?
KMR: I get reference for characters colors… hair, eyes, costumes, etc. After that, it’s really up to me. I’ve been lucky enough to work with teams that just allow me to do what I think would be best. I’ll send pages up for approval from the team of course, and typically the feedback is just to tweak something here or there with a rare total overhaul on a page or panel or something.
GP: You talk a bit about color theory at the beginning of your online course – can you walk me through your general decision-making process when selecting your color palette for a project?
KMR: I choose the schemes based on the needs of the story, the amount of action, the emotion of the scene, that sort of thing. Sometimes, I’ll get a strong idea for a scene right from the beginning, and other times it’s just trial and error. I usually try to think in terms of cinematography. I’m a huge movie fan, and I’ve taken palettes from movies before. Or I’ll just imagine the scene as a movie and think about how it could look. The specific color palettes are less important than the values, contrast, and storytelling. Dave McCaig told me that once. “Color doesn’t matter–only value and contrast matter.” Write that one down, kids.
GP: My understanding after taking your course is that flatters can use whatever colors they want because it’s simple enough for you to change them – how often (if ever) do you find yourself in agreement with what the flatters choose?
KMR: My flatter’s colors have no bearing on the finished colors. My flatter uses very bright neon colors most of the time, so literally every color is changed. That’s how it is for most colorists, I believe. Flatting is a technical job–not a creative one.
GP: What are some of the most challenging parts of being a colorist and what are the most rewarding?
KMR: The most challenging thing is that when deadlines are missed earlier in the assembly line from pencillers and inkers it’s up to colorists to make up the time, since we go last along with letterers.
The most rewarding for me is meeting fans at shows or getting emails from happy students that have a first gig! I actually have more fans of my educational stuff than the actual comics right now, and I’m fine with that! One 15 year old kid wrote once from Namibia thanking me for my coloring tutorials. Just blew my mind.
GP: Is there a particular writer or illustrator that you aspire to work with?
GP: You have a project with Image that’s just been announced, can you tell us about it?
KMR: Sure! It’s called Glitterbomb. It’s a horror story set in Hollywood–very dark, and a really fun story. It’s written by Jim Zub of Wayward, Skullkickers, Figment fame, pencilled and inked by Djbril Morisette-Phan, colored by me, and lettered by Marshall Dillon. We’ve got several issues in the can already.
GP: What has been your favorite project to-date and why?
KMR: I have to say that I think Glitterbomb is some of my strongest work, and it’s just a lot of fun to work on. The line art is strong, and that makes my job much more satisfying.
Check out Kurt’s latest YouTube video for more info on Glitterbomb, set to release on August 31st, and his new live coloring course that’s being offered as a supplement to his pre-recorded 10-hour class.