Creator Q&A: comic book colourist Dave McCaig

Outside of letterers (or, let’s face it, editors), colourists may be the most underappreciated professionals in the comics industry today. It’s a real shame, too, considering these talented guys and gals don’t just add colour to the existing artwork – they transform it, enhancing the emotion of a scene and helping define the reality in which a story takes place. As colourist Jordie Bellaire once put it, “Colourists are the unknown amazing backup singer who makes every track awesome.”

One such individual is Dave McCaig, who – aside from being a gifted comic book penciller and inker (not to mention photographer!) – happens to be one of the best colourists in the business. Dave’s award-winning colours have graced several big name titles over the course of his career, including Batman, X-Men, Hulk, Star Wars and Superman: Birthright. He’s also active in the animation industry, and his credits include the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film TMNT, as well as animated TV series The Batman and George of the Jungle.

Those interested in keeping up to date with Dave’s latest projects should look him up on Twitter, while aspiring artists (particularly colourists) will want to check out his online forum, Gutter Zombie. I’d like to thank Dave for taking time out of his busy schedule to take part in this month’s Q&A, and encourage you to check out his work either at your local comic book store or on ComiXology!

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How did you first get into colouring? What advice would you give to those looking to follow in your footsteps?

I studied advertising illustration in college, graduating in the early ‘90s. Digital comic book colouring was brand new then, and one of the only studios that was doing it, Digital Chameleon, hired me along with half of my graduating class, hooking us up to workstations to do colour separations off of colour guides. That meant translating marker or coloured ink on paper to the screen, using a clunky, early version of Photoshop. It would take a good 16 hours in the early days to go through that paper-to-screen process, so one colourist would need an army of separators working 24 hours in three shifts to get a book out the door.

I worked my way up the ranks there until I was the style designer and head supervisor, and the price of professional-level computers dropped to an affordable level (pretty sure I paid $12,000; $3,000 of that just for 80MB of RAM) and off I went into the wilds of freelance. I’d already gained a reputation with publishers since I had been the go-to guy for special projects at Digital Chameleon, so finding work was pretty easy.

Obviously, that path would not work for anyone today, so what I’d suggest instead is: Only practice colouring good artwork. Use social media to show it off. If someone offers you a gig, only take it if the art is good, and they’re paying you. If they only offer you back end, walk away and keep posting stuff you want to work on instead. If you’re going to work for free, you might as well work on stuff that’s going to help you more in the end.

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Colouring is an art form that even some hardcore fans don’t really seem to understand. Could you describe your process when colouring a comic?

I think there’s a mistaken assumption in people (even some comics professionals) that a comic colourist basically does the same thing everyone used to do as kids. You grab a crayon, scribble away, and there you go. It seems that simple, and I guess technically it can be that simple, but that’s not my job, just like drawing stick people is not the job of a penciller.

I occasionally teach comic colouring/visual storytelling at universities. The first thing I tell students is that the choice of colour is pretty low on the priority list. What really matters primarily is the mix of the values used; the brightness or darkness of the colours. The actual hues can be used to show mood or time of day, or passage of time, or change of location, which is all important, but basically, if you colour a page and it does not work when converted to greyscale, it doesn’t work.

So really, my job is to draw/paint more than a penciller/inker drew. Add more drawing, but in colour. Flesh out volumes in a city. Add planes to a face, texture to grass, rain to the sky. Draw the eye to points of interest on a page. Let the reader know how long a scene lasts by the changing of sky colours from panel to panel in the background etc, etc. A colourist builds the volume on a page, makes a scene three-dimensional, and breaks up visual planes. They create a lot of the mood building and storytelling in a comic.

The only textbook I give out to students when I teach is a book called Painting With Light by John Alton, who was the king of cinematography in the era of film noir. That should tell you something. It’s a black and white book about black and white film.

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Colourists often talk in terms of “realistic” and “emotional” palettes. Could you explain what this means, and which you prefer?

An emotional palette is one where you help the reader understand the thoughts and moods of the characters in a comic by flavouring the colouring. Reds for anger, blues for sadness, bright yellow pops of colour in a background for a pleasant surprise, etc.

In film, the process of tweaking a scene’s realistic colour is known as “colour timing”. Nearly every movie has extensive colour timing added in post production to tweak emotion, mood, etc. So… yeah. Realistic colouring doesn’t really make sense to me as a finished product, except in very limited circumstances.

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Aside from comics, you’ve also worked on several high-profile cartoon series. What has your work in animation involved?

I was the colour supervisor on The Batman. I developed much of the look for the background and character colours on the show, and painted all the promo illustrations for it. I did a million random jobs on TMNT, mostly character colours, but also some prop colouring and some effects storyboarding, which was fun. I painted backgrounds for George of the Jungle.

I like working in animation a lot, but don’t like the down time between projects. Comics lets me overlap gigs, as I can work on more than one thing at a time. I make more money in comics, too, which surprises many people.

One of the great things about being an artist is you can have opportunities to play around in different sandboxes. I’ve done work in comics, video games, animation. I’ve done titles for film and television. I’m doing some advertising illustration work on the side today, actually. It keeps things fun when you mix things up a bit once in a while.

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Who has been the biggest influence on your career, and why?

My dad was a nationally syndicated political cartoonist in Canada. He also worked at one time or another in animation, TV set dressing, courtroom sketching. He had a cartoon strip for a while. His life seemed fun, and he had a million great stories, and made great friends. It seemed like the perfect life. He passed away some time ago, but his influence lives on. Make your own hours, have fun doing it, leave a legacy of your work. Hard to top that.


That’s a wrap for this Q&A with comic book colourist Dave McCaig; read more creator interviews here.

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