Embracing Color: Tamra Bonvillain Talks Personal Style And Proper Credit
Tamra Bonvillain is one of the hardest working people in comics. She’s coloring a ton of comics: Doom Patrol, Wayward, Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur, Nighthawk… the list goes on and on. If you’re into comics, whether it be Marvel and DC superhero books, or creator-owned comics, you’ve read something colored by Bonvillain.
ComicsAlliance sat down with Bonvillain at Emerald City Comicon to talk about her history in comics, her coloring style, and giving credit where credit is due.
ComicsAlliance: Hi Tamra! First, could you tell us little bit about how you got into comics?
Tamra Bonvillain: Sure. It’s kind of a long path. I was always interested in comics from a young age; I was always doing art things. I went to an arts magnet school for high school. I went to a local college for fine arts for about four years, but that’s pretty general, and it wasn’t really focused on illustrative-type things.
So I went to the Kubert School. I went there from 2006 to 2009. I was interested in all aspects of it, but I just started to pick up coloring work, at the same time as I was trying to just do anything — drawing, coloring. But I just started getting more and more coloring work, to the point where it was taking up all my time, so it was like, “Okay, I’m a colorist now.” I still enjoy the other aspects, but right now I’m pretty happy where I am.
CA: It seems like you’re pretty busy, so I think you’re doing okay. [laughs]
TB: Yeah! [laughs]
CA: Do you find it difficult to switch between projects when you’re so busy?
TB: It’s not too bad. Typically what ends up happening now, just because I am busy, is that I have to go with a book until the deadline. When it’s switching random pages — like three pages of this, three pages of something else — that’s a little harder. But if I’m doing book to book, it’s not too bad.
I have to do maybe a little refreshing of my memory, if something’s a little complicated. If it’s a scene that showed up before, I have to remind myself how I did it, but it’s usually not that bad. Nothing too time consuming; just flip through my layers on it, and I’ve caught myself up.
CA: I was talking to another colorist, asking her if she felt like she has a particular style when it comes to coloring. She wasn’t sure about herself, but she identified you and Jordie Bellaire as two people where you know it’s their book as soon as you seen it. Do you feel that you have your own distinct style when it comes to coloring?
TB: I guess! It’s weirder when it’s you, you know? I definitely think there’s things that I do, but I also try to do different kinds of things. I feel like Wayward is very different from Moon Girl, things like that.
But I tend to like colorful things. Finding a way to make that work, even sometimes with things that seem like they shouldn’t be. Like Nighthawk, which is kind of a gritty crime book, but colorful, you know? You just use it differently. Some people go all grey and washed out, and that’s fine, it works, but to color that way is boring for me. It can be beautiful, but I don’t want to do it. So I guess that’s kind of what I lean into.
It’s weird to say that, since we’re all coloring — “I use colors!” [laughs] But yeah, I think I tend to find a way to get brighter colors. Maybe someone else could figure out what I’m doing.
CA: It’s harder to identify your own style, I think!
TB: I recognize that I have it, but it’s hard for me to put it into words.
CA: Is there anybody out there doing colors right now that you really love?
TB: There’s a ton of people! Dave Stewart, of course; Jordie, of course; Matt Wilson… these are the big ones. And there’s tons of others. I’d start listing but I know I’ll forget people. Legitimately,. there are so many amazing colorists out there right now. Those are the big three, but there are so many more.
At this point we get interrupted by Ramon Villalobos, who comes by wanting to ask Tamra to lunch.
TB: I’m doing a thing! We’re doing an interview!
Ramon Villalobos: What’s that? I didn’t mean to interrupt, I was just looking at books!
TB: [to me] This is Ramon. We did Nighthawk together.
RV: Say good things about me in the interview!
TB: I already did! We talked about Nighthawk.
RV: Did she say how influential I was on the palette?
CA: No! But I am curious about that.
TB: I didn’t get to that part yet!
RV: You weren’t going to! [laughs] You weren’t talking about Nighthawk when I walked by. I gave her the game plan, as a coach! I said, “Here’s a Rihanna GIF, I like that…”
TB: He’s not joking, by the way. He’s maybe overstating his part of it, but we definitely talked. He sends me Rihanna GIFs, he sends me shoes…
RV: I said, “Tamra, you know best, but here’s a pair of shoes. Make the palette like this. Here’s a Rihanna GIF, make the palette like this. That’d be great!” But I trust her. She’s talented. By the end, I was sending her really weird color palettes, like a 1980s mall and some weird abstract thing I did in MS-Paint. “This is it! This is the look!”
CA: That’s awesome.
RV: Anyways, she doesn’t give me any credit. I’m a colorist too!
TB: Look at this guy.
RV: Anyway, have a good time with your interview!
CA: [laughs] So do you want to talk about how the process works with different artists?
TB: That’s totally fine! It varies, you know. I usually try to make sure we’re communicating at least to the point where they see everything and we’re all talking, but some people I know really well.
Like, I know Ramon. We do a Google Hangout thing with some other creators, so we talk a lot, almost every day. And when we started working on Nighthawk it was great, because now we could really talk it out. Some things he’s more particular about, like he would send me… for the first scene in it, he sent me a shoe that he really liked. It had a cool palette. And it’s just about how you would incorporate these three dominant colors, and these accent colors on it — how do you turn that into a page?
Some pages, he gave me a more general idea, and for some he was more specific. Like Nighthawk’s lair; it has kind of like an Oracle figure back in the lair talking to him on an earpiece, so he sent me this Rihanna music video to get the cool lighting from that. It had very bright blues and magenta, so I tried to get the double lighting of that in there. It’s inspiring; you don’t try to copy it exactly but it’s a good starting point.
And it helps to have a visual thing to communicate those ideas. Some people, they’re not very particular, and don’t have too much to say, and other people will have references and stuff. Obviously it’s up to your interpretation how you want to use that, but it varies.
TB: It was cool. It’s no different, we have our email chains with everybody: the editors, Johnnie [Christmas], Margaret… There’s sometimes promotional people that are involved too. But yeah, it was very easy. She’s great. Sometimes people get ideas about people who are more prominent figures, but she’s very easygoing and easy to please. I was lucky to be able to work with her on that project.
CA: You’re pretty outspoken about colorists not always getting credit. Do you find that’s mostly in the press, or in the industry as a whole? At cons, do you find that you’re maybe less busy than writers and illustrators?
TB: Sure, a bit. It’s gotten better over the years. For me, it’s less about that. I don’t care. I understand that the writer’s going to get more, and the artist. I don’t need my name in lights. I just like to be properly credited. That’s my main thing.
I think it’s a combination of reasons, but a big problem comes down to solicits. Because when things are solicited, there’s not even an option to put the colorist. Or letterer even. It’s just the writer and artist. Some people — Jim Zub is one of them on Wayward, he’ll just put the colorist with the artist, so you get listed. But it filters down to everything, because people go off the solicits. You get a review and they don’t [list the colorist]. You go to Comixology and you’re not listed there because they use the solicits, they don’t look in the book and type in who the colorist is, or the letterer.
So you have no way of knowing unless you buy the book and look at the credits page. You don’t even know in the preview, because there’s no credits page in the preview. So that’s stuff bugs me. I worked on it, I spent a lot of time on it, so I’d like to be credited. That’s all!
I do appreciate that there is more cover credit these days, that seems more standard. But you’ll still see promotional material from those companies with the same cover, with your name on it, but in the promotional material there’s no name. When it’s things like that, you just start to question why these decisions are being made. So that’s my main thing: I just want it to be fair. I want people to know I did the work. Whether people care or not after that, that’s up to them.
CA: So you’re focusing on color now, but do you think that you’ll transition at any point to doing more illustration work?
TB: I enjoy drawing; I’ve done a little bit before I started getting more coloring work. I’d like to do more at some point, but I like coloring. I enjoy it, it’s fun to me. It lets me work on a variety of projects at the same time. The only issue with trying to draw is that it’s so much more demanding and would take time away from coloring other people. So I’d like to try to dip my toe in there at some point, but how that happens and when, I don’t know.
Right now I’m very very busy. My first goal right now is to get a little bit of a life back. [laughs] I feel like I’m in a good spot coloring, so I can chill out a bit, and once things settle down a bit I can explore more drawing.