Learn to Color Comics With K Michael Russell + Interview

Reading Time: 11 minutes
Line art by Tim Seeley. Colored by KMR.
(HACK/SLASH: RESURRECTION #6, page 9) Image Comics

Budding artists around the world have discovered that art isn’t easy. It takes practice, practice, stubbornness, and more practice. What looks like natural talent is usually just the reward reaped by the artist who never puts their pencil/pen/brush down. But what do you practice? How do you improve? For this and other challenges, I’ve turned to K Michael Russell (Kurt) and his huge body of tutorials and lessons for newbie artists. GeekDad is proud to present a highlight of Kurt’s teaching work; provide some information about Procreate, the iPad Pro, and Photoshop; and share our interview of the pro himself.

Free Content

Our first stop is Kurt’s YouTube channel, K Michael Russell. Through this channel, Kurt has been coaching artists around the world as they develop new skills. While the channel mostly focuses on Photoshop, the lessons can be applied to any program. The channel has evolved over time with livestreams, critiques, reviews, and other advice about the comic book industry popping up. Most notably, Kurt started using the iPad Pro for some of his professional coloring, and now he offers tutorials for Procreate, an iOS app for the iPad Pro.

Kurt has been doing this awhile, amassing over 160 videos since 2013, when he started the channel. Where should a new colorist start? Here are some videos you can chew on right away:

Paid Content

Our next stop is Kurt’s website for his paid courses: ColoringComics. Here, students can take comprehensive lessons which can allow them to ascend the ladder from scribbler to professional colorist. With access to Kurt’s courses, you can submit art for critiques and get direct personal feedback from an industry pro. Individual courses range from $50 to $125, with different bundles also available with huge discounts for getting all of the courses you want.

I started with his new course, “The Beginner’s Guide to Digital Art With Procreate on iPad!” because I started using Procreate on the iPad (at his suggestion) last December. I’ve watched dozens of his videos, so I knew I could trust Kurt to present the information I needed in a format which would teach me everything I needed to know to get started.

In this course, Kurt goes through the basics, progressively becoming more advanced. It helps to be a teensy bit familiar with Photoshop, but that’s not required at all. This is only because he refers to tools and options in Photoshop for reference. While “The Beginner’s Guide to Digital Art With Procreate on iPad!” is not a drawing course, Kurt addresses many basic challenges and techniques for budding artists.

Original sketches for the course.
Image: K Michael Russell

Early in the course, Kurt introduces a project he illustrated especially for the course. In the image above, you can see the early sketches for the project, as Kurt goes through his process of developing a character on the page.

In this image, you can see Kurt’s linework for the sketch. Don’t worry, the progress is all shown in the course; this is just a snapshot. Procreate has a feature which records a time-lapse video of your drawing, and Kurt provides the original image as part of the course. I have found this terribly useful, and have spent (and am still spending) a lot of time in this area of the course. Not only is it fascinating to see the progress, it gives insight into how Kurt finalizes his lines.

The Course image with flats (basic color).
Image: K Michael Russell

For folks outside of the pro coloring world, “flatting” is the first step of coloring a comic book page. This is much like the kind of coloring you’d typically think of. Filling in the lines with color is a little more complicated than a paint bucket tool, however. In this stage, shapes are created based on the line work, but on different layers, in order to generate an image that prints well. This stage is actually often farmed out to new colorists so that pros don’t have to spend the time it takes to do this step.

Finished course image with line, color, lighting, shading, and special effect.
Image: K Michael Russell

Next is coloring in earnest. During these lessons, Kurt covers shadows, lighting, cut & grad, color holds, and special effects. Each topic has its own tutorial, so it’s easy to consume these lessons and revisit the content you’d like to review. Again, with the Procreate playback, we can also track every stroke, bringing the course to life in the convenient platform of the app. This is also great for looking things over offline and on the go.

I cannot endorse this class enough for comic book colorists and illustrators interested in using their iPad Pro for paid work.

TL;DR

The YouTube channel K Michael Russell is an excellent starting place for new artists/colorists interested in breaking into the comic book and graphic novel industry. The courses available through ColoringComics are a bottom-to-top course for becoming a professional colorist. I fully endorse his classes, and am grateful that someone in the industry is working to make education available without expensive and lengthy college courses that so many of us are trying to avoid.

Interview

Wizard in the Woods Painted by KMR in Procreate.

My thanks to Kurt for answering my many questions. I’ve been so happy to learn more about Kurt, his work, and the industry I’m such a big fan of. To the reader, I’ve organized the questions the best I can for you to find what you’re looking for. That said, I found our entire exchange interesting.

Kurt, the Colorist

GeekDad: How did you get started in the industry?

K Michael Russell: I didn’t know anyone working in comics when I first started, so I primarily met other creators in Facebook groups, Twitter, forums, etc. I did several small press anthologies, pitches, and indie projects early on—just to get some work in a portfolio. Those early projects led to introductions to some more established creators, and it sort of snowballed from there.

GD: If you could work on any project in the industry, what would it be?

KMR: Spider-man. He’s always been a character I could relate to.

On Teaching

GD: Why did you decide to start doing tutorials?

KMR: Early on, it was just going to be a hobby or a little side gig for fun, but people reacted well to the videos, so I decided to put more time into it. I also realized that the vast majority of the coloring tutorials and even the few books available on the subject completely miss the forest for the trees when it comes to what sequential coloring really is.

When I first started, I thought coloring was just about staying in the lines and making lighting and shadows—like a lot of beginner colorists. I had no concept of being a storyteller as a colorist. I wasn’t separating foreground, mid-ground, background properly. I wasn’t leading the eye to the focal points on each page. I wasn’t creating any mood or atmosphere. I wasn’t separating locations properly. I didn’t understand the importance of value and contrast.

Once I realized that there was this big gap in coloring education available online, I decided to make that a theme of my tutorials, so that hopefully beginner colorists don’t have to deal with the same headaches I had when I started.

GD: You seem to put a lot of time and energy into your YouTube channel, and there are over 160 videos that people can watch for free. What do you get out of these tutorials?

KMR: Creating tutorials forced me to become more knowledgeable of color myself, so that I could verbalize why something does or doesn’t work. If I’m doing a critique, it doesn’t do the student any good to just say something “doesn’t look right.” I need to be able to explain WHY it doesn’t look right. So I guess that’s the deep, dark secret—making these videos makes me a better colorist too! And of course, the YouTube channel helps generate interest in my other content outside of YouTube—like the online courses and Patreon and whatnot.

GD: You recently broke the threshold of 3,000 students in your courses. How does that make you feel?

KMR: It’s pretty insane. Last time I looked, there are students in 133 countries represented. It’s just nuts. I never expected the courses to take off the way they have, and it really makes me feel like I’m contributing something meaningful to the art community. I’m very proud of that.

GD: With over 100 lessons, do you feel that your courses are comprehensive enough to take one of your students from pencil-and-paper to professional digital work?

KMR: Absolutely. I’ve had a lot of students go on to get professional work that have written me to credit my courses in being a big part of their growth, and a handful even said the courses have been more valuable than their art school on the subject.

I’m actually working on a video now—sort of a student showcase—to talk about some of these students in more detail. When I put a call out for students willing to participate in this video, I was expecting a few, but the number of responses was overwhelming, so this video is taking a bit longer than I thought!

No course or tutorial is going to be a magic wand though, and there are no guarantees. The students that have taken what they’ve learned onto bigger and better things have put in a lot of work to get to that point. I heard illustrator Marco Bucci in an interview recently say, regarding getting into art professionally, “the process is designed to weed out the unwilling.” You have to put in the work regardless.

Images: Apple and Wacom

On the iPad Pro 12.9 versus the MobileStudio Pro 16

Last October, Kurt shared his experience switching from the Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16 to the iPad Pro 12.8, going into a lot of depth regarding why he made the change. He’s also shared various challenges he’d had with the MSP, and described how he sold his own MobileStudio Pro 16 in order to buy his iPad Pro.

GD: For your needs, what is the most important difference between the two devices?

KMR: In some ways, they really are apples and oranges… no pun intended. The Wacom MobileStudio Pro (MSP) is a standalone PC tablet, and the iPad Pro is still a mobile OS. If you need to be able to use a mobile device for pro video editing or full Photoshop, an iPad isn’t going to work for you. For me personally, I needed to be able to get away from my desk. I’ve had a myriad of neck and shoulder problems that likely stems from 30+ years of sitting over a desk drawing. There’s almost no good ergonomic position for looking down at a display tablet.

The MSP always felt a little too clunky to actually be mobile with it, and the iPad Pro is significantly lighter. I can prop the iPad up on a pillow in my recliner or even just hold it with one hand if I want, and that was never really possible with the MSP.

I also think the iPad Pro is a much better drawing tablet in general. It’s smoother and just feels more natural to use in my opinion. But there are limitations. I still use my desktop for setting up pages since I can set up palettes for multiple pages at the same time and take advantage of the Photoshop actions I use for various purposes. I’m primarily rendering on the iPad though. It’s hard to completely rid myself of Photoshop!

I realize not everyone can have both a desktop and mobile device, so if I didn’t have my desktop, I don’t know that the iPad Pro alone would be efficient enough for everything, but I think that’s changing rapidly with every update.

GD: Why do you think the average user might benefit from switching?

KMR: I actually don’t recommend the iPad Pro across the board for all scenarios. I know the internet really seems to dislike nuance these days, but if you want something light with a massive battery life and a great drawing/painting experience, and you aren’t married to a ton of Photoshop Actions, go with the iPad Pro!

If you rely on a lot of Photoshop technical stuff like Gradient Maps, Adjustment Layers, Actions, or if you need one device to for things like editing videos, go with the Wacom or a Surface Pro, etc.

GD: Do you think more of the comic industry will (or should) move to the iPad Pro?

KMR: I think more and more are realizing Wacom doesn’t have the stranglehold on tablets they once did, but competition is good, and I’m still waiting on the prices to reflect that!

GD: Can you do everything (as far as coloring) in Procreate on iPad as you do in Photoshop on a PC?

KMR: I can do a lot of it. I rely on Actions (automated steps that can be repeated with a single shortcut) a lot for setting up pages, and that’s not something Procreate can do yet. I can also open multiple pages in Photoshop to copy colors from one page to the next or set up multi-page scenes at one time on my desktop with Photoshop. My biggest complaint about Procreate is the lack of a contiguous option on their “magic wand” tool, so selecting multiple separated areas with the same color takes far too long in Procreate, but Clip Studio allows you to do this. I’ve actually tweaked the way I set up layers a bit to compensate for some of the shortcomings like that.

GD: To those familiar with Procreate, it’s a common problem that Procreate lacks certain functions, such as exporting to CMYK format. Do you feel like these are easy to circumnavigate?

KMR: Yeah, I was in a hotel at a con once, but had to export some files in CMYK, so I found the app Affinity Photo allows you to do that. That’s something else that’s faster in Photoshop. I can batch a full issue at one time with it, so the files I’m working on tend to start in Photoshop, get rendered in Procreate or Clip Studio, then back to Photoshop for final file creation. It’s a quirky process, but it’s mine.

Procreate versus Photoshop

Images: Procreate and Adobe

GD: With Procreate, you’ve shown us some great work, and now you are teaching classes on using Procreate. Do you ever feel like key features are subpar?

KMR: I feel like Procreate is best at what it’s designed to be best at—drawing and painting. There are the Photoshop features that I mentioned earlier that it doesn’t do, but I don’t know that it ever will, and I think I’m fine with that. Savage, Procreate’s developer, isn’t trying to make a Photoshop replacement. So I don’t think Procreate is subpar, it just isn’t designed to do all of those things. Clip Studio is giving Photoshop a run for its money though.

GD: What’s the biggest feature you use in Photoshop which you cannot replace or replicate on the iPad?

KMR: The Magic Wand in Photoshop is highly versatile, and Procreate doesn’t really have a true equivalent. I’ve had to find workarounds for that.

GD: Which feature in Procreate might you say is better, easier, or more intuitive than in Photoshop?

KMR: Drawing, painting, and blending just feels more natural to me. My strokes are more confident in Procreate.

 

GD: You promised us in October that your channel wouldn’t turn into all-iPad-all-the-time, but do you find yourself thinking about tutorials in terms of the iPad more, or do you think Photoshop is still going to be the heart of your tutorials?

KMR: I’ll be doing tutorials on both for the foreseeable future. Photoshop is still the closest thing to an “industry standard,” but I’d like to get into other apps more too. The thing is… most of the time the app doesn’t matter anyway. Color is color. Drawing is drawing. The app is just a tool. Even the “Photoshop tutorials” will usually apply to almost any other app anyway. I think some people think they have to become fans of apps like fans of certain sports teams, but it honestly doesn’t matter what you use as long as it works for you.

 

(Note: Procreate costs $9.99 in the App Store, and a Photoshop subscription is $9.99/month. Alternatively, you can buy Photoshop Elements to avoid a subscription cost.)

You can find out more about Kurt and his art over at ColoringComics, and you can watch his YouTube tutorials, reviews, and demos on his channel K Michael Russell.

Disclaimer: Kurt was kind enough to provide access to his Procreate course for the purpose of this post.

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