An interview with colorist Dave Stewart

Today, Dark Horse Comics releases Mike Mignola’s latest endeavor, “The Amazing Screw-On Head,” brought to vivid life by virtuoso colorist, Dave Stewart.

Dave has been the colorist for the Hellboy series from Dark Horse for over a decade, and I’ve been a fan of his work from day one. His use of broad flat color laid into Mike Mignola’s simplified shapes and volumes adds just the right amount of graphic power to the pages to keep any lover of the comic form turning those pages late into the night.

When most colorers in the business work to give three dimensional effect to thousands of pages each week with complicated rendering, Stewart has the audacity to create depth from flat color.

Dave has to take a virtual sea of black and white ink and make volumetric sense of it. He has to give it the depth that Mike is seeing and then add his own touch to it all. The result is strikingly subtle, yet visually powerful. When looking at the structure behind it, you won’t find a formula or a secret cryptic method. You’ll find a singular strong vision developed from years of experience. Dave keeps the skills honed and sharp.

I caught up with him to ask a few questions about his latest work for The Amazing Screw-on Head.

Greg Manchess: So Dave, I’ve followed your work over the years and appreciate your direct application. How would you describe the work of the colorist?

Dave Stewart: Being the colorist requires getting in sync visually with an artist and not overpowering their work; hopefully, just supporting it. My work is probably at it’s best when the finished piece is considered in it’s entirety and not easily separated into coloring and line work. As the colorist, I’m working with the artist’s black and white illustration, adding the color and a certain amount of rendering and texture. I work exclusively on the computer, but I try not to rely too much on its capacity to add texture or effect in an attempt to give my work a hand-painted feel. It’s easy to let too much of the computer seep into the work, and steal the warmth and creativity that a human hand can add.

GM: I love that human touch, even with computer work. Very important. Do you have a particular method for starting a page?

DS: I lay in the base colors first. Planning your composition is important. How do the colors help lead the eye with variation in value and hue? You don’t want the page to lay flat, but have a certain depth and rhythm. There’s always something to work off of, costume colors, time of day, etc. Sometimes it’s just deciding how to play off those elements.

GM: Do you keep an overall color scheme in mind?

DS: I like to break scenes into different color schemes to give the reader a visual cue of a change. The book’s overall color scheme might require me to globally adjust saturation or hue to support an overall visual theme. Depends a lot on the tone or mood of the story and the style of the art. I really try to keep an open mind about what the story and art  needs and not impose a style or palette that I call my own.

GM: It feels like a natural progression. Do you like to have an overall arc of color from beginning to end?

DS: That’s pretty instinctual. If I get the entire book at once I’ll try to layout the scene changes or transitions by dropping in flat colors first. Mignola tends to create that progression in his story, but on other jobs that has to be inserted. It can be visually dull to have one look for a long scene so adding stuff like changing light (a sunset/sunrise) can give you enough variation to keep the visual (usually non action in this case) interesting.

Joe the Barbarian, Dave Stewart coloristGM: Do you let the artist’s images dictate your color approach for the page?

DS: It’s a balance between story and art. I’m working on a book called Joe the Barbarian for Vertigo, where I’m taking a different color and rendering approach for two separate parts of the story, a fantasy world contrasting the real world. Although the artist has one drawing style for both, the color approach gives it the instant visual cue that things have changed. The story dictated my approach on that.

GM: How much did you and Mike collaborate on The Amazing Screw-On Head? Did he have colors in mind already?

DS: We collaborate a lot. Sometimes Mike has a specific color idea when he’s drawing, and other times he has more general ideas that support the story. Sad, gloomy, spooky, violent are the type of general terms that he might use to describe a scene. We’ve been working together long enough that I know pretty well what he is talking about. It all supports the story with a certain aesthetic in mind. We also reference previous palettes, and ideas. Seems to be a pretty smooth operation these days.

GM: Do you guys ever disagree at times, and if so, how do you handle that?

Zero Killer, Dave Stewart coloristDS: Not really. Just suggestions back and forth. It’s pretty easy for me to figure out where Mike is going, even if I don’t get it the first time around. In general I try not to be the one that says the artist is wrong. I just try to make it work or find a good compromise.

GM: Any particular color ideas you are experimenting with or wanting to see more of?

DS: I’m interested in finding a project where I can insert a bit of a surreal/psychedelic feel to the colors. I had a little of that going in Zero Killer, but I’d like to pursue that further. I think some of that is creeping into some of my work as it is. I’d like to push it.

Greg Manchess is an artist and writer working in New York and Portland. He and Dave Stewart will be collaborating on a series of Solomon Kane covers.


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