When you look at the world of Equestria, what’s one of the first things that comes to mind? Colorful. Rainbows. Candy coated. Saturated. Vibrant. Color plays a large role in how we perceive worlds, real or otherwise. A choice of color can have vast implications, even if you might not immediately recognize it. With a cohesive palette full of attractive hues, Friendship is Magic is a breath of fresh air amongst cartoons and games that shy away from saturation.
Joining me today is none other than Heather Breckel, the colorist of the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic comic series. Heather has been coloring comics independently and for IDW Publishing for several years; her works range from Peter Panzerfaust to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with ponies being one of her latest assignments. She’s an oft-overlooked, but critical component to the creative team behind the first arc of MLP comics. Read more to discover Heather’s thoughts on ponies, color, and the creative process.
Let’s give everyone a chance to know you, Heather. Who is Heather, and how did you become an artist?
I’m just a comic fan that does nothing but read, draw, and color comics! I first started getting interested in art when I was a kid. I believe it was around when the Sonic the Hedgehog comics came out that I started to draw my own little ridiculous Sonic fan comics. It’s fortunate the internet didn’t exist back then. From there, I just sort of never stopped drawing.
How did you get involved with the Friendship is Magic comic series?
Well, I had worked with Bobby Curnow, MLP’s editor, for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Micro Series and Godzilla: Half Century War. When I saw that IDW had announced a MLP comic series, I frantically emailed Bobby about maybe getting to work on something for it. Never in a million years did I think I would actually get to do it!
So I take it you were a full-on fan of the show at that time. Everyone on staff seems to be a believer of Magic, Friendship, and the Equestrian Way, as it were.
Definitely! I got into the show around the very end of season 1. I’m a big animation fan, so when new and interesting shows pop up, I make sure to check them out.
It’s a bit of an unsung hero, being a color artist. But the world would be a lot more boring in black and white, especially with a property like My Little Pony, where the fabric of the franchise depends so heavily on color. The color artist is almost as important as a storyboarder or layout artist in influencing the visual direction of the show, or in your case, the comic book.
Thank you very much! Colorists do tend to get overlooked a bit. I believe it was Sheldon Vella (Deadpool, Kill Audio) who told me that being a colorist is like being the drummer in a band. People don’t notice you very much, but you’re very important in holding the songs together.
So you’re the Keith Moon to Katie Cook and Andy Price’s Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey? I guess that makes Robbie Robbins the John Entwistle. :)
Pretty much! Although I’d rather be Dave Grohl so I could potentially still do my own thing.
There’s several critical parts of the MLP: FiM palette that often go overlooked, because the viewer doesn’t exactly have color theory on their mind when they watch the show. But those of us in the know do see it, and it has the same kind of surprise and delight that the writing does. Even though all of the ponies have a uniquely identifiable color scheme, they actually share a lot of colors between all of them. The average viewer might not notice it, but their brain sure does.
Oh yeah, definitely! In college I had to take two color theory classes. They were the most annoying and tedious classes I ever had to take, but when it comes to stuff like MLP, I was thankful I had that knowledge. For me it’s always a little exciting when I see the show use more interesting palettes. I think some of my favorite scenes take place either during the fall or around Sweet Apple Acres. It’s not often you see a show really play around with so many different types of greens. I also kind of nerd out over the amazing shade of red that Big McIntosh is—seriously, the decision to use a cooler tone for his legs that are further from the viewer is one of my favorite color choices in the show.
It’s pretty consistent that they often hue shift for the shadow colors. Big Mac is much more noticeable, and is a great example, because shadows are cooler to our eyes. There’s a lot of subtle things that add to the texture of the show. They very infrequently use pure white—Rarity is a cool grey, Sweetie Belle is a warmer gray, Princess Celestia is a very light pearl color. Plus, as the seasons have gone on, their ambition with color palettes has grown considerably. In season one, they only had day and night palettes, but the range of color temperatures have increased significantly.
Yeah, it’s been pretty noticeable. I like that they’ve progressively gotten more adventurous. I especially like choices they made in the season 2 finale and season 3 premiere. They did an excellent job all around on those episodes. I remember being blown away by Chrysalis’ appearance.
A lot of people are curious as to your exact work process. We know that Andy Price inks everything traditionally on Blue Line boards. What’s your method going from black and white to the vibrant color the reader sees on page?
Everything is done using Adobe Photoshop CS3 and a Wacom Intuos 4 tablet. This explanation might sound kind of alien if you’re not familiar with Photoshop, but those that know their way around the program should know what I’m talking about!
Pretty much once I get a page from Andy, I’ll copy/paste Andy’s lineart twice. On the copy layer I’ll go through and fill in any gaps in the lineart so that I’ll be able to easily make selections. From there it’s a matter of select/expand selection/paint bucket fun. Once the flats are all down, I’ll remove the copy layer so that Andy’s lines remain untouched. From there it’s just a matter of adding shading/highlights/gradients.
That’s a workflow that’s not unfamiliar to me when I’ve colored comics in the past. The computers might be faster, and the software has a few more version numbers at the end, but we’re still paintbucketing and magic-wanding at the end of the day.
I know your team is on such a tight deadline, which limits how detailed or how flashy each member can get with their process. But I’ve noticed a rather scary trend in most comic colors lately, with overwrought, excessive rendering that looks cool on a shelf but to me looks like someone just went nuts with every possible effect that they could find. Comics like FiM, Adventure Time, and even the recent Darkwing Duck or Ducktales releases from Kaboom are a breath of fresh air to me. They’re minimal, but not simplistic. They’re true to the source but they have more depth and range to their colors and value, which a television animation budget couldn’t really support at the time.
Yeah, in general I normally get about a week to bust out each issue so it would be impossible to do a lot of fancy pants rendering. I’m not really a fan of extremely fancy coloring in most cases. (well, people like Jean-Francois Beaulieu, Tony Wash and Juanjo Guarnido are big exceptions) I tend to gravitate towards colorists that rely more on palette and texture work like Dave Stewart, Nelson Dániel, and Elizabeth Breitweiser. My outside pony colors are quite a bit more moody and texture heavy, and I wish I could bring a bit more texture into my work on the series. But I feel it would really clash with the look of the show.
While I’ve sort of done my own thing in terms of style, I don’t want to get too far out there. It’s important to me that even though I’m doing something different, that it will still look like it’s related to the show.
Because color is an integral part of visual design, you’ve got the ability to put your own stamp on the look, feel, and story of the comic. Granted, your hands are tied with the base colors of a lot of ponies, because the show has settled that for you. But the world of the mainline comics has gone places the television series hasn’t. That has to be pretty liberating in terms of what palette you can create and how you can create special effects.
MLP has been kind of a big learning experience for me. I’ve never actually worked on a comic where I had to so closely follow someone else’s color palette. And if you look at my other work, you’ll see I don’t do bright colors and I don’t do a ton of tonal/palette variation. MLP is like the opposite of how I would normally work on anything.
So when it came time to do the first issue I was actually pretty terrified. Not only am I a big pony fan (I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s pony comic experience!), but I was going into completely new territory. For the entire first issue I pretty closely followed screenshots and pantones that were provided by Hasbro to play it safe. Andy also gave me a lot of input on how he wanted certain scenes to look in the first issue, which was helpful since I was getting into the swing of things.
When the second issue rolled around however, I had a lot more freedom. Since we were into new territory, I could start building my own palettes which was extremely exciting. Andy still gave me some input here and there, but he trusted me to do the right thing. So the second issue is where I really hit my stride, and issue 3 I kind of go crazy.
The only person on the internet who might care enough to point out any flaws in the colors is the one talking to you right now, and you’ve got my stamp of approval.
Awesome, I appreciate it!
It’s funny that you mention “playing it safe.” Though I’ve provided color guides for other artists to use, they’re only ever meant as a guide (unless someone needs an exact color for some reason). An artist needs to be able to put his or her own spin on what they’re trying to do. Comics have freedoms (and limitations) that the TV show doesn’t have. What makes your palettes a strength for comics compared to the show?
Well, one thing that’s nice is because I use shadow, there’s a lot more opportunities to do things that are more dramatic. I also feel like I have a little more freedom to make things a bit creepier and darker in particular scenes, than you might see in the show. The opening scene in issue 3, which is on the itunes preview, in particular would be a good example of that. I was pretty scared we would have to change that scene because the sky alone makes it feel nightmarish. With my own work I’m sort of a dramatic lighting/palette nut, so I’ve really enjoyed the opportunities where I can do stuff like that scene or Chrysalis’ entrance in issue 1.
Something that was confirmed while we were writing this together is that you’re going to be the colorist on all the mainline Pony issues. In #5-8 the drawings will be handled by Amy Mebberson. Given how different her style is compared to Price, what do you think you will have to do differently, and what opportunities will that give you?
I just started work on #5 actually! It is nice to have some variety in line styles to work on to keep things fresh. I’m generally coloring her lines the same way to keep things easier on me. It helps that both her and Andy have very energetic and expressive styles so I don’t have to handle things too differently. Really the only major change is Amy doesn’t use a lot of black or hatching, so I have more control in terms of how the shading is going to work.
If there was a comic series you would want to be coloring right now (besides MLP, of course), what would you choose, and how do you think you’d be able to make your mark on it?
MLP was pretty much on the top of my list of comics I would want to work on, but I think IDW’s Ninja Turtles and Boom’s Adventure Time would be strong contenders. Getting the chance to do an issue of Prophet with Brandon Graham would be pretty awesome too. Adventure Time I would pretty much handle it in a similar way as MLP. Ninja Turtles I would get the chance to be more gritty. Prophet would be a fun challenge in terms of pushing my color palettes and trying new things while retaining a simple style.
While we were in the process of putting this together, Colorist Appreciation Day was on January 24, and people across Twitter (including the both of us) tried to get the word out about the role of the colorist. How do you see the role of the colorist changing in the future, and do you think colors will ever be given the same level of respect as inks or pencils? The letterers are in a similar kind of quandary.
Well, I think it’s possible that someday colorists might be given close to the same respect. We have a long ways to go as the pencilers are still kind of seen as the rockstars as the book and it’s pretty rare that colorists are mentioned on the cover of a book. I don’t think that we’ll ever get the same love as a penciler would, but colorists have gradually become more and more important for the overall look of the book.
Unfortunately for inkers (and for me, because I love the look of ink), the role of inker has been getting phased out. I don’t think it’ll ever truly be phased out and I don’t want to ever see that happen, but you see more and more artists just using pencils in comics. From what I’ve seen, when books use just pencils, the colorist plays a much larger role in making the book look more polished.
Besides ponies, are there any projects, personal or professional, that you want our readers to know about?
There’s quite a few actually! When I’m not coloring ponies, I actually write/draw some of my own comics in my tiny amount of free time. You can find them on my DA, which you already linked, at http://www.monkeypipestudios.com/winter/ and at http://entervoid.com/index.php?action=character%3bid=927 . I do have to warn you they can be kind of NSFW and can be pretty dark. (there’s no porn in them, don’t worry) So the opposite of ponies.
There’s also other books I’m coloring at the moment that you should check out! There’s Peter Panzerfaust, Number 13, and Godzilla:Half Century War. (I only do the flats on Godzilla) You can also find several small press titles I’m colorist on at http://www.monkeypipestudios.com/ (The Hero Code, The Black Wraith, Intraunauts, and Department 0) They’re all great books and are written and drawn by some awesome people.
Yeah, sorry that’s a long list! I’m always pretty busy and all over the place so maybe you’ll find me in the next comic you pick up! ■