Colourist Matt Wilson Talks Palettes, Gods and Brightening Up Daredevil

Colourist Matt Wilson Talks Palettes, Gods and Brightening Up Daredevil

June 3, 2015 2 By EVA

Ask a group of comic readers to name their favourite contemporary colourist, and the name Matt Wilson is sure to appear.

Wilson has drawn numerous plaudits for his colouring on comics like The Wicked + The Divine, Daredevil and Thor. As a result he has been shortlisted for the Best Coloring award in the 2015 Eisner Awards.

I had the chance to pick his brain on everything from how the colouring process works to his phenomenally successful partnership with Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.

How did you get started in colouring? Were there any colourists when you started who took you under their wing?

After working in Lee’s studio for five years I began getting books under my own name. So I coloured for the studio in the day and then for myself at night until I had enough work on my own, and stopped working for Lee.
I went to art school and studied comics. During my studies I took a computer coloring for comics class. I really enjoyed the process of colouring, and did well in my colouring class.
At that time another colourist, Lee Loughridge, had a colouring studio in the same town as my college. So, shortly after graduating I visited Lee’s studio and brought him my portfolio and asked for a job. A few weeks later a spot opened up in the studio and Lee hired me.

What is the actual process for you, for example on The Wicked + The Divine? Do you get direction from the writer/illustrator, or do you have free rein?

My process is this: I get the script, notes from the artist sometimes, and black and white artwork. I’ll send the artwork to someone called a flatter. A flatter is an assistant that fills in flat shapes that are easy for me to quickly grab and manipulate. While my flatter flats the pages I’ll read the script/notes while looking at the black and white artwork.

Once I have flatted pages I decide on the colour palette for a given scene, or sometimes a few scenes at once. I’ll get all my palettes set for the pages I’m coloring that day. Then I’ll go in and colour all the backgrounds, adding textures, gradients, etc. to give dimension to the background. Then I’ll go through each page and colour the characters, adding shadows and highlights.
Finally I’ll add glows and colour holds (changing lineart from black to a color). When I’m all done I’ll save a small jpg to send to the artist, writer, and editor so they can take a look at the colors and give me feedback. They’ll sometimes have corrections for me, and once those corrections are done I turn in final files.

Besides the notes, which are often minimal, or if the script specifically notes something about colour, I’m free to do what I want with the colours in most books.

These days the colouring of most of my books are pretty collaborative, but people’s input is usually vague and just a suggestion. If I feel like I have a better idea that helps the storytelling more than a note I’m given, and I can explain it, people are usually open to my interpretation.

How do you go about working out which colours fit which comic?

Just from reading the script and talking to the writer, artist, and editor. I’ll see what they have to say, look at the style of the art, and then the appropriate approach for the colours just kind of comes to me.

Sometimes it’s down to me just wanting to try a specific technique or palette that I think will fit the story or art. Other times it’s down to the writer or artist wanting a specific look. Regardless of how I arrive at the coluors I pick, my goal is always to enhance the art and help the storytelling.

The Wicked + The Divine has featured all sorts of weird and wonderful gods. Who has been your favourite god to colour so far?

The Morrigan/Badb/Gentle Annie. I like coloring her pale eyes and bird tattoos.

Kieron Gillen has said that the Dionyseus issue nearly killed him. Just how stressful was it from your point of view? 

That was the toughest issue for all of us, for sure. It was easily the hardest issue of comics I’ve ever coloured, at least until I wrapped my head around what we were trying to achieve.

I probably spent a day and a half on two pages just trying to get a look down that everyone was happy with, and that accomplished what we wanted the colours to do in that story. After that I was able to colour more pages per day, but getting the colours to balance on each page, and making everything glow was very labour intensive.

It was a tough week, but I couldn’t be happier with the results.

You’ve worked with Gillen/McKelvie on Young Avengers and The Wicked + The Divine. What is it about their work that appeals to you?

And Phonogram! I love the depth of their storytelling.

Both of them work on multiple levels in terms of how they convey their ideas. There’s a lot of layers to Kieron’s dialogue and the scenes he chooses to show in a story.

Likewise, Jamie is showing the reader a lot about a character with the clothes that they wear, or their body language, or facial expressions.

My favorite part of my job is adding extra layers of storytelling with my colors. Rather than just picking a color, or a palette, or a lighting scheme arbitrarily, I try to find a reason for my color choices that enhances the story. So working with a writer and artist that also think that way is very appealing. It’s also extremely helpful to me, because I can take the multitude of ideas that they are trying to convey and build upon them.

Often times, by taking one of their underlying ideas that isn’t overtly shown in the art or dialogue but is conveyed in the script or notes, I arrive at colouring choices I might not have otherwise.

The current run of Daredevil is so bright and fun, and a massive part of that for me is down to the colouring. How do you go about brightening up a character that is so often featured in gritty and dark comics?

Well, a large part of that credit goes to Mark Waid in writing a more hopeful Daredevil, and to Javier Rodriguez who colored the majority of Waid’s Daredevil run before I took over. So I’m following a lot of things Javier did before me.

However, there are things I think about when coloring Daredevil to match the mood of the story and keep the look from getting too dark. Mostly that means I save darker and more moody palettes for when they’re really necessary.

For example, if there is a rooftop or a city street scene set at night, but the mood of the story isn’t supposed to be scary or depressing, then I make sure to inject plenty of vibrant colors. If you look at city at night there’s lots of bright colors to be found, so I use that to my advantage. Then, once the story shifts to a creepier scene, and I use a less vibrant palette, there is a great impact from the contrast between a more saturated palette and a less saturated palette.

The same goes for anything set during the day where I try to really punch up the saturation and brightness in the skies, or signage, or water.

Then when Daredevil descends in to a dank cellar or sewer tunnel the reader really feels the change in scene and mood when I use muddy greens and browns.

Have you ever worked on more terrifying characters than the Purple kids? I can’t look at my two sons the same way ever since…

Ha, those were some creepy kids. Man, those pages that Chris Samnee drew in that arc were a master class in horror comics. The compositions and the lighting that he used were spectacular.

Those issues were particularly tough for me because I was new to the book and finding my footing. I knew I had big shoes to fill replacing Javier, and I didn’t want to mess up the beautiful pages Chris had drawn. But yeah, those kids… Creepy.

Who have been your favourite characters to work on so far? And which are on your bucket list?

I’m not sure I’ve really got a bucket list for characters. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a ton of characters, so if I did have a list all the names would probably be crossed off by this point.

I recently had a lot of fun coloring M.O.D.O.K. in Secret Avengers last year. Micheal Walsh drew him making some great expressions. I also enjoyed the brief time we spent in New Genesis in Wonder Woman. I loved Cliff Chiang’s take on that stuff.

Oh, and then Swamp Thing had some terrific character stuff to color, with all the vegetation and different avatars.

Finally, as the colourist on Daredevil, I have to ask if you’ve seen any of the Netflix show and what you think of it. It’s not exactly the same tone as the current comic!

I did watch Daredevil on Netflix. There was a lot I liked, and I enjoyed it overall. I thought it was a solid start to the Marvel Netflix shows, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that whole collaboration plays out.

That said, I almost never like a show or movie that’s style is “every place in this world is really poorly lit” so that bugged me. It’s like, no one would get any work done in an office that dark!

But I can see why that choice was made, and it makes sense for the themes in this show. It’s just a personal pet peeve.