The Art of Color: Nathan Fairbairn and Lighting for Location
While there are many different qualities that a colorist brings to a comic book, one of the most beneficial and subtle effects is the effect a good colorist can have on the line art, shaping a good artist into a great artist and a great artist's work into something transcendent. Unless you're consistently comparing the black & white original pages to the finished color versions, it can occasionally be difficult to accurately assess what a colorist is really doing to change the work.
Thankfully, Nathan Fairbairn is not only one of the best collaborators in the comics industry, he also dedicates time to showing the color theory and thinking that goes into his process on his Tumblr; an indispensible resource for anyone interested in learning more about colorists and comics coloring.
Of course, we're not just going to coast on examples he's laid out for us. Here's one of my favorite showcases for the subtle effects that colors can lend to a story:
The splash page shows eight-different fights happening simultaneously worldwide between Batman Inc. and Leviathan. Artist Chris Burnham splits the splash into an almost triptych shape, with three main action setpieces along the bottom edge that links the whole scene together --- the man/men with the knife, the two henchmen being knocked together, and the guy being knocked out by batman in the final panel --- while individual actions take place in each separate panel.
It's an ambitious page, demonstrating the simultaneous delivery of information that's one of the coolest qualities of comic books, but without Fairbairn's excellent coloring, it could very easily have become messy and difficult to read. Notice how the shading and lighting of each panel is drastically different from both the previous and the proceeding panel: the first takes place in dusk, demonstrated by the sky and bright muzzle flashes. The second panel is still night --- note the window in the upper area is lit up --- but the tone of the panel is a greenish twilight, rather than the darkening dusk of panel one. Panel three is bright red, deep under the catacombs, while panel four is almost all stark grays and blacks.
The color progression also builds as it pushes through to the other side: Red Robin fights in the desert in broad daylight, while panel six is anchored by the yellow of the windows and the orange of Clayface, leading to a brighter more all-encompassing red in panel seven, before the final panel reverts to a more realistic coloring.
As the scene begins on the left side, the coloring increases in intensity and brightness, naturally leading the eye towards Batman's uppercut and, not coincidentally, the focus and lead of the comic. The uppercut itself is colored like that partly as a natural contrast to the prior red panel, and also because it's the conclusion of the action scene, the end of the experiment, so the comic's colors are preparing to settle back down towards the more "realistic" style.
Fairbairn's clear coloring work subtly gives a sense of weight and location to each of the separate panels, allowing Burnham the freedom to connect the individual panels in overlapping areas without running the risk of confusing the reader. Even more impressive, he builds to the final punch on the right by choosing colors that create a staccato rhythm that urges the reader to rush to the climax, all without obscuring Burnham's heavily-detailed line work.
Fairbairn's work is diverse, matching his thoughtful color choices and interesting palettes to whichever artist he chooses to work with. His colors always add to the work without overpowering it, highlighting the artist's strengths while smoothing over their weaknesses. Check out some more examples of his work below: