The Comic Company:
True Colors – Part 3

Lou Brooks Drug Store

Color in comic books had a specific look for fifty years prior to the 1980’s. Flat color was the norm and part of the charm of the comic books that I grew up reading. There was just something about that limited palette and those pronounced dots that seemed to define the medium as much as the words and pictures that they illuminated. Others agreed and focused on this idiom when referencing comic art in pop culture.

Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein and Lou Brooks are two artists that took full advantage of exploring the idiosyncrasies of comic book color establishing themselves as masters of Pop Art.

Lou Brooks Disgrace Me

The production process that produced the color in comics was intended to print color on highly absorbent newsprint with rubber plates on web offset presses at the World Color Press plant in Sparta, IL. Color separations were done by Chemical Color Plate in Bridgeport, CT. The colors were made by combinations of three percentages, 25%, 50% and 100% of each of the primary colors; blue (cyan), red (magenta) and yellow to be printed with the black line art. CMYK refers to these four colors used in printing.

A layer would be produced for each percentage of each color making nine layers of film that would be compressed to form three negatives, each containing the three percentages for its corresponding color. There was one more film for the black plate which would print the line art. The printing plates would be burned from these final four films.

Colorists used a guide provided by Chemical Color Plate to assist them in making their own color guides for each page that the separators would interpret into films.

Chemical Color Chart

By the 1980’s the alternative independent publishers that began peppering the comic market were using better, whiter paper and were able to produce better color. Many comics were printing with processed or full-color using the coloring techniques that I’ve described in my earlier blogs on this subject. Some publishers were still attracted to the notion of flat color but realized that they were being limited by the old color guide.

The 64 colors with the course dot grid intended for newsprint produced harsh, garish colors on the brighter paper stock. A new color percentage of 70% was added for each color producing 124 different colors as shown by this color guide produced by Eclipse Comics in 1983 and again engraved by Chemical Color Plate. The line screen also changed from 60 to 120 lines per inch making the dots less noticeable on the printed page.

Eclipse Color Chart side 1

Eclipse Color Chart side 2

Murphy Anderson

By the time Comico was ready to make our transition to color there was a new color separator in town. Renowned comic illustrator Murphy Anderson had entered the field with his own company, Murphy Anderson Visual Concepts Inc. that he operated with his son, Murphy Jr.

Murphy had a different scheme for producing colors. By making a minor shift in the color percentages and adding two shades of black Murphy could stretch the color palette to 372 colors! The new formula was 20%, 50%, 70% and 100% of each of the primary colors plus an addition of 10% and 20% of black to every color on the palette.

Elementals 2

Our first color books had been produced using processed color techniques and we were very happy with the results but our next project, Bill Willingham’s Elementals was a clear superhero comic and we wanted it to look like one. We all felt flat color was the way to go and we only had one choice when it came to choosing a separator. Murphy Anderson’s company was already doing most of DC’s prestige work and had proven his incredible quality. Murphy is also one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and proved it with his patience bringing us up to speed on his technique.

In 1987 I designed a color chart that had long been missing from the process. It soon became a staple in every production department in the industry. I would imagine that it would have been the last of the color charts for comics since not long after the computer took over most of the color chores as we know them today.

Comico Color Chart - Click for larger view

I might like to mention that this complex looking piece was not done on a computer. It was done the old fashion way by creating a mechanical with typesetting, tech pens, x-acto knives, photostats and a good old waxer. Of course the color separations were done by hand as well.

To be continued…

Gerry Giovinco

Making comics because I want to!

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55 Responses to “The Comic Company:
True Colors – Part 3”

  1. Mark Seifert says:

    Great little bit of pre-digital comics production history. As someone who does current comics production, it’s fun to see this — love the color charts!

  2. […] a ’90s flashback to an ’80s one: a little bit about comics coloring from Comico […]

  3. Rick Todd says:

    The Comic Company:True Colors – Part 3 « CO2 COMICS BLOG: By making a minor shift in the color percentages and add…

  4. Joe Williams says:

    I often wondered how this was done traditionally. Will you cover how it went from the colorist to production.? How were those mechanicals created?

  5. Avatar Press says:

    comic colorists and production people, you will probably find this bit of pre-digital comic prod. history fascinating:

  6. Spiraltwist says:

    RT @Avatarpress: comic colorists and production people, you will probably find this bit of pre-digital comic prod. history fascinating:

  7. Jenn Dolari says:

    Wow, the brngs back some memories. In the mid 90s, I worked on graphics for a video game. 256 colors, which is what most video games ran at the time, but this one had a hard coded pallette of 256 of the most appalling colors out there.

    It was rough trying to figure out how the heck to choose specific colors for sprites from that pallette that didn’t look horrible or garish on the screen.

    This post and the 64 color pallette reminded me of that so so so much of those days. 🙂

  8. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Avatar Press, Spiraltwist, Kamel Al-Asmar, Fadia Hamdi, CO2 Comics and others. CO2 Comics said: The Comic Company: True Colors – Part 3 […]

  9. Joe, the colorist would color in a photocopy of the BW art then identify each color with its specific code. Flesh color, for instance would usually be marked Y2R2 which is 20% yellow and 20% magenta.

    I have a couple of color guides from a few pages that I worked on, I will work on posting them next week or put them on facebook if I can’t fill a decent blog with them.

  10. Fadia Hamdi says:

    RT @aranim: RT @Avatarpress: you will probably find this bit of pre-digital comic prod. history fascinating:

  11. RT @aranim: RT @Avatarpress: you will probably find this bit of pre-digital comic prod. history fascinating:

  12. Fadia Hamdi says:

    Great pre-digital comics production history (via @aranim)

  13. Jim Cripps says:

    Nice! Thanks for sharing. Love the time of the flat colors!

  14. Wow! Joe, that was amazing! It reminded me of the day one of our teachers at PCA pooh-poohed Barry Smith’s work by showing me how certain pieces were “Inspired” by pre-raphaelite paintings.

  15. John Mulder says:

    Cool News Friends, You Are Amazing, and the Art is Osone, Gerry, Bill, Whem Send Me One Interview to The Spanish Speakers, Notified Me, To Send The Question, And Promote The Work Of CO2 Comics, in Southamerica

    My Best Gretting
    Your Pal
    John Mulder

  16. paul zdepski says:

    lou brooks gave a lecture to my class in SF last year, where he swore his current digital work didn’t use any programs… however, tools like Mr Retro’s Photoshop Plugins mimic much of the old school dot screen feel without going to print:
    I love that look, but haven’t found many situations in my illustration work to purchase the plugin.

  17. […] last blog that I wrote about the flat color guides in True Colors Part 3 was very well received and prompted inquiry about how the colorist used the guides that I […]

  18. RT @co2comics: The Comic Company:</br>True Colors – Part 3 Ouderwetsche kleuren.

  19. Davinci990 says:

    Thanks for this! Your post adds bits I wasn’t aware of; I didn’t know about the addition of the 70% column.

    I like the Comico chart much better than DC Comics’ eye-crossing chart of that era, with specs like, “Y3RB4”

    One point I’d like to add =
    1930-1960 comics and all 4-color advertising of that day, owe some of their distinct look to the fact that the Cyan, Magenta, even the Yellow wasn’t anywhere near as chromatically exact as today’s lithography (or laserjet) ink.

    I’m still exploring the far-from-pixel-pure look of 1950’s CMYK art, when companies like WESTVACO were experimenting with truer mixes. The look is best seen in non-photograhy ads on coated paper, where large areas of ’50’s-era Cyan (100c/0m/0y/0k) are used under smaller-area solids of Magenta and Yellow.

    It’s funny that Pantone once called Cerulean blue “the color for the ages” or some such PR, since that is what color I would use on a palette to paint a retro look,

    However, when a client asks for “something retro”, s/he is rarely happy that I restrict Photoshop’s CMYK sliders from its 16 million colors, to the ‘Chemical Color Chart’ recipes– known by heart.

    Think I’ll switch to Comico formulations! ;o)

    Thanks for the read.

  20. Fulvio Bisca says:

    RT @co2comics: The Comic Company:</br>True Colors – Part 3

  21. BLASTER UTD says:

    Vintage comics colour guides: RT @co2comics: The Comic Company:</br>True Colors – Part 3 #design

  22. mikey says:

    Some people still haven’t figured out that color is more easily done by computer. One guy that lives around here still uses Zipatone patterns for his work.

  23. Elif Crt says:

    "The Comic Company:True Colors – Part 3 « CO2 COMICS BLOG" ( )

  24. Do you have higher-resolution versions of the color guides scanned for this article? I’m specifically interested in the “Chemical Color Chart” and both Eclipse charts. The current web resolution is too small to learn from. These resources would be greatly appreciated in my Art of the Comic Book class. In advance, thanks.


    David Marshall, Comics and Art Guy
    Comics Teacher
    Creative Services Consultant

  25. Thanks for this informative post! I put together some swatch palettes for Photoshop, Illustrator, and other graphics programs that reproduce the palettes listed here. I’ve also included the DC Comics palette that used 75% screens instead of Eclipse’s 70% screens, and an even more limited Golden Age palette that doesn’t use the 50% screen of yellow. Anyone can download the whole package here:

  26. Neil, thanks for the great job on the palettes I’m sure plenty of folks will enjoy them!

  27. Tam Lin says:

    I used to work at Chemical Color Plate back in the seventies as a color separator. Seeing those color codes sure brought back some memories! Knew I had to quit when I started dreaming about comic book characters and describing colors to non-separators by their codes: “I’m looking for a shirt in BR2.”

  28. LaurenKent-Madden says:

    I am one of the last color seperators of Chemical Color Plate. What an awesome job it was, and I still dream about getting my homewok finished for Lois! Who called me KENT, because there wee too many Lori, Laura, Lorens,,haha Our names,,,color seperators were published just once, in a Hulk comic, can anyone tell me what issue/,,, I had one and lost it over the years in my travels. Just saw the new AVENGERS,,,brought tears to my eyes,,,,GREAT memories. My geandaughter said, “Nan I hear your heart ticking”,,I have a Titanium Aortic Valve,,,,I said,,,”I’m an AVENGER!” And we were super for bringing the supeheroes to life.

  29. Kent, you just gave me a lump in MY throat! can truly appreciate the fond memories you have and I’m so glad that you so obviously enjoyed what you did because I believe that it was that energy derived from the truly human and emotional touch that you and other separators like Tam Lin and the rest of the pool put into your work. Those separations were not always perfect but an off register color screen is still an iconic part of what made comics what we all love and cherish.

  30. johnogre says:

    I was a comic book colorist/separator from 1990 til the late 90’s and remember the “Y3RB4″ callouts. My days were all digital from vector based “Codd Barrett” software to Photoshop starting with version 2.5, I can’t imagine the pre-digital days. Codd Barrett was archaic enough for me.

    In 93/94, a powerful Mac with enough RAM to color an 11″ x 17″ page at 300 DPI cost well over $10K.

  31. […] based on vintage comic book color swatches. And while you’re at it, read the fascinating history of comic book coloring by Gerry […]

  32. Martin says:

    “The line screen also changed from 60 to 120 lines per inch”

    Are the lines per inch values for original art size (i.e half or twice up) or reproduction size?


  33. Jane H says:

    I worked at this little factory in Bridgeport hand painting with red paint every overlay sheet–R1,R2,R3, B1,B2…I remember the giant plastic overlays for Archie comics and X-Men, among others. Many at once sat at our own tall metal “art” desks spotted with paint (with drying sheets draped around us) filling in the marked tiny spaces. Have had many jobs and careers and, despite the very dangerous area and real factory type conditions, this was one of my favorites.

  34. […] The other thing that is really striking about this comic is the coloring by Tom Palmer. It must have been a new and/or certainly more expensive process because I don’t recall comic colors being any where near as beautiful as these in the 1970s. The ad above does mention Full Spectrum Color reproduced directly from Palmer’s hand-colored originals. I wonder why they didn’t start doing this process for more comics. My guess is that the process was too expensive, and it would have never reproduced well on the cheap newsprint most comics were printed on. I’ll have to quiz Gerry Giovinco about this. He’s done some marvelous articles on coloring comics over at CO2 Comics. […]

  35. I worked At Chemical from 1973 until it closed in 1989! Loved it there,it was the best job I ever had.I worked on the covers for most of the years and those involved another step that is hard to explain called greys.We also used airbrushes.I have the color chart and a lot of my separations still.I remember Laren Kent who commented above.After it closed I was a colorist for Marvel comics for several years.

  36. John Morton says:

    I’ve loved reading this series. I’ll have to give it a few more reads to understand the exact technical process of these methods of color production. What brought me here is an interest in somewhat replicating the older methods of coloring and the limited 64-color pallete.

    Looking at the Comico color palette it looks as though a stochastic or random dot pattern was used for the various shades. I wonder if for the more vintage applications if anyone has information on the size of dots (in lines per inches) or angles of the dot screens used? In process screen printing I know a different angle is usually assigned to each of the four CMYK colors, but in the few close ups I’ve seen of 60’s color comics, I can’t detect four different angles.

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