I still remember feeling awe the first time I super-imposed text, with effects, over a picture downloaded from the internet. My high school’s art room had a brand new Gateway computer with Adobe Photoshop 3.0. Finally, I could make digital art and I was the only person I knew who could do that. My obsession with the program grew so that by age 18 I was co-teaching the digital-arts class.
1999 was a lifetime ago. Nowadays, basic information on Photoshop is widely available. My mother can place text in an image and I routinely see 8-year-old kids who post their digital creations on the web.
During my time as a ninth-grade art teacher, I helped hundreds of students learn to color with computers. Technology has radically changed things. Most students are accustomed to picking up digital skills much faster than was possible when Photoshop was first introduced.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the prohibitive cost of a program like Photoshop.We live in a world where the ability to manipulate imagery on a computer is expected of those pursuing a career in the arts. Why not make the industry standard (i.e. Photoshop) free for students? Why isn’t it free for everyone? The truth of the matter is that the Adobe’s sales infrastructure is based on a model from over 20 years ago. It would be unrealistic to expect the program to suddenly become free for all.
After I taught my students how to color in Photoshop and gave them assignments, something weird would happen. They would routinely return empty-handed because they had no access to the program. By the end of 2011, I was fed up. I made the switch to free open-source programs, specifically GIMP.
During 2012, I used GIMP almost exclusively to digitally color my comics. In fact, the first 16 pages of my comic, American BOOOM, perfectly illustrate the benefits of coloring with GIMP. The program is extremely versatile and easy to learn. It has many of the same capabilities as Photoshop, but it’s free.
Why choose to color in GIMP over Photoshop?
Digital coloring has so standardized the look of comics that original or unusual styles of coloring stand out. From Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell, to Romantically Apocalyptic, to the print stylings of Justin Ponsor, coloring has blossomed into a fascinating area of study.
But I digress. We all have to start somewhere, which is how GIMP fits in. While teaching high school three years ago with my colleague (now wife) Kay Flewelling, I gave my students an assignment called the Comic Book Project.
The goal of the Comic Book Project was to teach new students how to become better storytellers. The development of digital coloring techniques was a critical component of this. The example above demonstrates how one of our students, Drew, learned to color her own comics during the course of the project. Although she colored this comic in Photoshop, everything she learned applies to GIMP as well. Except with GIMP, the entire world can access coloring tools for free.
Have you heard about One Laptop Per Child? When those computers are distributed to developing countries, they won’t have Photoshop on them. They will have access to GIMP. Such free and open-source programs were developed to provide universal access to art-making tools.
From a personal standpoint, I highly value the humanitarian nature of access to a program like GIMP. It aligns with my desire to help all students create their comics without worrying about cost.
If GIMP is so great, why would anyone use Photoshop?
For all of the many advantages of using GIMP, it lacks certain advanced features that Photoshop possesses. Most beginners won’t miss these features, but as your abilities improve, you may contemplate making a change.
This is how I would advise your choice of program based on ability level:
Beginner — The beginner has no experience using a computer to make art. They may have drawn on paper, but this has never extended to opening a graphics program. They would like to learn how to color their comics, but expect that knowledge to take time. This tutorial series is perfect for the beginner.
Intermediate — The intermediate is fairly prolific. They know how to color in programs like GIMP and Photoshop, but are by no means experts. Their coloring may lack depth, shading, or sometimes have weird visual artifacts like specks of white. The intermediate user probably understands most of this tutorial, but it is recommended that they review it anyway. Learning that last little bit is vital!
Advanced — The advanced user would find everything in this tutorial intuitive. They are capable of coloring a page with flats in 45 minutes or less, and require more than basic functionality. GIMP may have worked in the beginning, but they have hit a ceiling with regards to its capabilities. For all its remarkable accessibility, GIMP lacks a number of features that professional colorists need.
Where do I start?
Attached below are some tutorials designed to teach the basics of digital coloring. The steps, and logic behind them, are broadly applicable to a variety of programs like Photoshop, Aviary, and yes, GIMP. They address the first phase of coloring, known as “flatting.”
What do I need to follow along?
You will need:
A computer that is running Windows XP (or above) or Mac OSX (or above).
A computer that is running Linux (I don’t know this operating system as well, but since it is free and open-source I expect to make comic-related tutorials for it in the future).
- GIMP 2.8. Other free, open-source alternatives to Photoshop exist, but this is the one I prefer. Many of my coloring tutorials will use GIMP — it’s fun, and does almost everything that Photoshop does. I strongly believe that the future of art (particularly art education) lies with open-source software.