Illustration Art · Look Here · Original art vs. printed page · Richard Corben

Look Here: NEW TALES OF THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, page 23, by Richard Corben

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I invented a technique —my system of color overlays —which apparently nobody can understand, but it’s really very simple. The luminescent quality of my color overlays is derived from the way I combine the colors. I shoot the photomechanical separations myself, to a slightly higher contrast than a normal photo engraver would do. This makes the colors appear brighter. I’m excited when I do finally see the colors. I can see if my ideas work well or not so well.”
—Richard Corben in conversation with Brad Balfour,
Heavy Metal #53 (August 1981)


17 thoughts on “Look Here: NEW TALES OF THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, page 23, by Richard Corben

  1. Corben’s coloring process is fascinating! While there are many brief, interesting snippets about it scattered across various interviews, I’ve yet to find a thorough explanation (or demonstration!). I’d also love to view a complete set of color separations for one of his pages.

    The first greyscale/tonal image above appears to be the base layer only, without overlays. Does anyone know why there are warm-vs.-cool color variations in the greys?

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  2. Fascinating, I agree, but also a product of a bygone age. Nobody, not even Corben, would bother with handmade separations these days.

    Yes, the continuous tone image above is the base layer only, without the overlays. The warm-versus-cool colour variations in the greys are not essential. Rather, they are the result of Corben’s use of a variety of mediums on the page — rapidograph, pen and ink, prismacolour pencils in black, white, and various shades of grey (often blended with a stump), white paint, ink washes — and differential aging of those mediums. Remember: the black and white art is the K (key) layer in CMYK printing. It’s shot as a halftone and printed in black ink only. So the warm-versus-cool variations in the original black-and-white art are not preserved.

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  3. It occurs to me that all the talk about “overlays” is a bit misleading, because what is an overlay in the creation phase becomes a cyan, magenta, or yellow plate in the printing phase. It’s not as if Corben simply coloured the artwork with transparent blue, red, and yellow washes on three layers of acetate or some such and shipped it off to the publisher; rather, my understanding is that there simply was no finished colour artwork to see until the piece was printed, i.e., that Corben produced four “overlays” for EACH colour — 12 overlays in all — in continuous tone, and then used his own copy camera to convert the overlays into three halftone films which he handed off to the printer to turn into the CMY printing plates along with a halftone film of the original continuous tone art that the printer used to create the K plate. God only knows how Corben was able to visualize the final product. Trial and error, and cumulative experience, I guess…

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  4. Yeah, for a piece like this, I think the coloring process would involve the painting of just three overlays (not 12), and they’d be continuous-tone greyscale, much like the base layer. Discrete halftone separations—3 or 4 per ink, à la comic book production—wouldn’t work for Corben’s painterly, airbrushed coloring techniques.

    Todd Klein had an interesting blog post regarding the coloring of comic book covers, which differed from the stories themselves and might parallel Corben’s methods: http://kleinletters.com/Blog/more-on-coloring-old-school/.

    I ran across a blurb today where Corben described how “layers are applied straight over the base drawing when photographing, and they are removed one by one for successive exposures.” This I found confusing, as I pictured it leading to some very muddy colors—but I could be misinterpreting his description. (It might be that he’s referring to photographing the acetates one at a time, on top of the base layer, but it reads more like they’re all stacked together, and he peels off one layer at a time.)

    http://www.muuta.net/Ints/Int1984SPA47eng.html#A

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  5. In his book on Corben’s work, Flights into Fantasy, Fershid Bharucha attempted a description of Corben’s “overlay” process. In a later interview, Corben said that he thought Bharucha’s description was confusing, but Bharucha does, definitely, say that Corben would make four overlays per ink for cyan, magenta, and yellow, with each of the four overlays representing a different percentage of ink. I have the book and checked before I posted my replies to you, Doug.

    But, yes, the overlays were likely in continuous tone greyscale.

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  6. “I ran across a blurb today where Corben described how ‘layers are applied straight over the base drawing when photographing, and they are removed one by one for successive exposures.’ This I found confusing, as I pictured it leading to some very muddy colors—but I could be misinterpreting his description. (It might be that he’s referring to photographing the acetates one at a time, on top of the base layer, but it reads more like they’re all stacked together, and he peels off one layer at a time.)”

    No, my understanding is that each colour would have to be photographed separately. Four exposures per colour (at least), one per overlay (assuming four overlays per colour), with differently angled halftone screens for each colour.

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  7. Of course, certain pictures might not require four overlays per colour. Seems to me that four — the number mentioned by Bharucha — would be the maximum. It would depend on the colours, range of values, etc., that Corben wanted to see in the final printed artwork, right? If none of the colours in a given piece required 20% yellow, for instance, why create a 20% yellow overlay/exposure?

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  8. I’m going to ‘go out on a limb’ and stick by my previous comment. Continuous-tone greyscale and color were hallmarks of Corben’s style in this type of graphic novel. That style couldn’t have been created with a discrete halftone percentage (‘flat color’) system of the type described by Bharucha. Much in the way the tonal base layer would be photographed and converted to variable halftones for printing—as in the original Bloodstar, or the example above—so would any color overlays. For a four-color process, this would require the creation of just three overlays in total (still a lot of work!).

    Anyway, this is exactly why I’d love to see some of these overlays!

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  9. That’s your prerogative, Doug.

    For those who haven’t made up their minds, however, I will simply note here that Bharucha did write Flights into Fantasy with Corben’s cooperation; he wasn’t just some guy speculating on the Web (like me, for instance).

    Anyway, unless I’ve misunderstood completely, which is entirely possible, the difference between Corben’s 12-overlay process and old-fashioned comic-book colour is that the four halftone percentages for each colour in Corben’s process were produced directly from his continuous tone overlays, whereas in comics colouring the printer used to be provided with line art and colour guides with percentage formulas for each colour indicated on them. If continuous tone colour art was provided to the printer by a comics colourist, it was as a convenient visual aid to show what the finished colours should look like and nothing more. In other words, unlike the overlays in Corben’s process, the full-colour colour guides for comics, if they were provided, were not actually photographed through halftone screens.

    Bharucha:

    “[After the greyscale artwork is completed] Richard then punches register holes on the side of this ‘continuous tone’ black and white page and, over it, registers four acetate overlays for each primary color. Let us follow one colour through its various stages. Each of these four levels represents a percentage of that particular color. For example, in the case of cyan, the first overlay could represent 90%, the second 60%, the third 40%, and the last 20%. Richard then works on each individual overlay, starting with the first, and outlines all of the dark areas of cyan with a Rapidograph pen. Then, he opaques out these areas. The airbrush now comes into play, and he graduates the areas that have to blend into a different intensity of cyan or of another color. The same principle is followed for the second, third, and fourth levels, and for each of the other colors. There are no overlays for the black plate. When the twelve overlays have been completed, the artwork is ‘camera ready.’ Richard uses a copy-camera that reproduces positive to positive (Photo Mechanical Transfer). Two ‘bump’ exposures are made, one with the artwork without any overlays and one with the first overlay in register. Then the appropriate screen is placed over the negative and varying exposures are made for each of the levels and base art to achieve the right intensity of color (longer exposures for light and shorter for dark). The last exposure is a short ‘flash’ (with a piece of white paper over the art). Seven exposures in all, all on one piece of film. The length of the exposures depends on the color: yellow being weak in intensity has to be more saturated than the magenta and cyan, which in turn have to be darker than the black plate. The black is shot from the original art only and is the lightest of the four films. These four films once printed in their corresponding colors give us the Corben magic. (Phew!)”

    As I said before, Corben has expressed reservations about Bharucha’s description, but in the absence of detailed clarification from Corben himself, Bharucha remains the best source we have. He even took pictures as Corben worked. In Flights into Fantasy, five of these process photos are reproduced in black and white and labelled as follows: “Base art with cyan overlay (90%)”; “… with first two cyan overlays (60%)”; “… with third cyan overlay (40%)”; “… with last cyan overlay (20%)”; and “Completed cyan film after camera work.”

    Make of that what you will…

    ———-

    Also, note what I said before your “out on a limb” message: “Corben produced four “overlays” for EACH colour — 12 overlays in all — in continuous tone, and then used his own copy camera to convert the overlays into three halftone films which he handed off to the printer to turn into the CMY printing plates along with a halftone film of the original continuous tone art that the printer used to create the K plate.”

    I repeat: twelve overlays in continuous tone, original art in continuous tone, but only four films in total to hand off to the printer at the end of the process.

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  10. Okay, I’ve sent an email to the only person who can supply a definitive answer to the question, three overlays or twelve? If I receive a reply to my email, I’ll share the answer, three or twelve or whatever it is, here.

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  11. Thanks for the clarification! In truth, of course, I am just speculating. I didn’t realize the level of detail offered in *Flights into Fantasy* regarding this process. Good to know. I don’t fully follow his description, but thank you for sharing.

    I’d love to have that book as a source—and would love to see those photos! It’s frustrating how much of Corben’s work is out-of-print, which means the only people profiting from it are resellers. I recently picked up a copy of *Neverwhere* online at a reasonable price, only to find out that it reeked of basement mold. Ugh.

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  12. I’ve received a reply to my email to “the only person who can supply a definitive answer to the question, three overlays or twelve?” and the answer is, yes, Corben really did create twelve overlays, four per colour, for each page that he coloured with his overlay process. Bharucha says that “the first overlay could represent 90%, the second 60%, the third 40%, and the last 20%,” but that should not be taken literally, as though different screens were used for each percentage of colour. Only one screen was used for all exposures of the overlays and base art for a given colour, with the final sizes of the dots being determined by the cumulative length of exposure. I can supply a few more details if anyone is interested, though there’s really not much more to say…

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  13. Thanks for the follow-up on this! Through interlibrary loan, I was able to obtain a copy of Flights Into Fantasy, so I could see the photos that accompanied Baruch’s description.

    I’m still trying to figure out why a multi-acetate, multi-exposure process was needed for each primary color, rather than a single tonal acetate (à la the base layer). Was it by technical necessity, artistic preference, or just an outgrowth of his earliest color methods? For example, perhaps achieving tonal gradation on an acetate overlay was not feasible—in the book’s description, Corben’s method for each overlay involves outlining in Rapidograph pen and opaquing (plus a bit of airbrushing), so that black was essentially being used to represent each percentage tint, from dark to light. Or perhaps this method allowed for the photographic capturing of both flat and halftone colors, with a larger dynamic range than what could be accomplished using just a single layer?

    CidOpey (1971) is mentioned as one of Corben’s earliest published color works, and an excerpt of its first page is included in the book. It’s interesting to compare that page to the cover of Mutant World (1980). In CidOpey, line work is distinctly separate from color, much as in a traditional comic. Colors are really intense, and distinctive splatter effects create a unique look, but it’s still essentially flat in its approach. (There’s also a noticeable moiré pattern between Cyan and Magenta, and two different screen angles used for Magenta!) In Mutant World, the aesthetics are more like a photograph of a painting. All blacks are rich black, and even the line work is rendered in halftone. The original tonal base layer of the piece becomes almost invisible as it’s translated into color.

    Somewhere in this, it occurred to me that B&W versions of Corben’s major color works (e.g., Mutant World, Bodyssey, New Tales of The Arabian Nights) would make a very interesting addition to his published canon.

    Also, I didn’t realize until recently that a second, more painterly version of the Mutant World cover exists (possibly released as a poster?):
    http://www.comicartfans.com/GalleryPiece.asp?Piece=341176&GSub=3125

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  14. This thread may be dead, but here goes anyway…
    I watched Richard as he went through the process of producing the overlays and exposing the color plates and then (to the best of my abilities) tried to describe what I had seen. At that point, I was pretty proficient at plate-making myself (I engraved my Maxfield Parrish book: Black & White, entirely on my own). But watching Corben do his magic was a whole new experience and I know I couldn’t possibly do it justice, in attempting to put it into words… you had to BE there!

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  15. Terrific to have you here, Fershid. I purchased Flights into Fantasy the same year it was published, and I’ve had it on the shelf with the rest of my continuously growing Corben collection ever since. I was in my late teens at the time of the purchase, and your book really opened my eyes to the breadth of Corben’s achievement in comics and illustration from his childhood to 1980 or so. Thanks so much for making it happen!

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