While writer and artist are the superstar, above-the-title names in the comics business, the colorist is the oftentimes the low-key MVP of a totally cohesive reading experience. Lesley Atlansky may have had ideas about different career paths before comics, but she’s found her place in the industry with a solid, ever-growing resume of quality work.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Colorist
Your home base: Portland, Oregon
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: The big question up front: Why comics? What attracts you to making comics specifically over other art forms?
Lesley Atlansky: I started out as a painter, actually. I paint abstract pieces with gouache. When I started really getting into reading comics as a hobby, I began to notice and appreciate when the art styles or colors were different than the standard styles of a lot of books — specifically superhero stuff. I really wanted to be a part of that creative process!
KS: I imagine not many people originally think of specifically being a colorist when they think of getting into comics. How about in your case? Where did the idea enter into your thinking?
LA: I remember I was reading Immortal Iron Fist, and at some point I believe there was a fill in artist, or colorist, or both? Anyway, the style drastically changed. At this point I wasn’t totally aware that things like that happened; I was expecting consistency, so it was really jarring. It got me looking, and I realized that the colorist could really make a difference! I had an old intuos tablet I’d never used gathering dust, and I had Photoshop. So, I bought The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics, found some lineart of Buffy, and gave it a try.
KS: Before Iron Fist, what was your comics reading diet like when growing up? Were you an active collector or more of a casual reader?
LA: I didn’t really read them as a kid, except for things like Garfield and Peanuts. The first time I stepped into a shop was when the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show ended, and I heard they were going to continue it in comic form. From there it was a slide into Sandman and Runaways and Y: The Last Man. Our library system here in Portland has an amazing comics collection, so I’d mostly read that way.
KS: What was your general thought process in your younger years regarding making a living as an artist?
LA: It was definitely impressed upon me that this was not a valid career path. I don't feel like I ever fit in with the "art kids" in school either. Basically, I had some talent, and I used it to draw horses. In college I took a couple art classes, and I tended to stick with representational drawing because I was afraid of trying anything truly creative. I wound up doing graphic design because it felt like art that was made useful, like I'd snuck into it being creative by doing a "real job." I never would have thought I'd end up creating a pile of abstract paintings!
KS: Since you started out as a painter, was that discipline ever a career path you thought of pursuing, or did you see it more as a hobby?
LA: I'd say somewhere in between? I really like painting, and it was a joy to come up with a concept to pursue over several paintings, or land on a technique that worked for me. I never went to art school and didn't know anyone in the local art community once I moved to Portland. I managed to get my work in some area coffee shops and the like for a few years, and sold my art that way. But I found no guidance from the art community; it very much felt like it was every person for themselves. I feel like when I discovered comic coloring, I was at a bit of a crossroads with my painting. I was in a bit of a lull trying to settle on a new concept. I considered learning how to do the art fair circuit. I was still really just a stay-at-home mom, so everything had to be juggled around school and activities, as well. I discovered I could lose myself into coloring much as I did when I got going on a painting. And the comics community was and has been one of the most supportive groups of folks I've ever met. It was like night and day in comparison to the local art scene.
KS: Were those coffee shop displays the first time you got paid for your art, or had that happened before?
LA: I used to live in a very small town outside of Portland that is a weird mix of very conservative, rural, logging folks, and hippy artist dreamers. They artists formed a co-op gallery, and I joined even though I hadn’t been painting that long. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at that time, as well. I remember driving down the highway into town, deciding that if I could go through these treatments, then I was surely brave enough to sign up for one of the first sets of solo shows the gallery was going to do. So I did, and I sold some paintings, which was really validating as an artist. It also helped me not to be too precious about my work, which is still helpful. Some people will like it, some people won’t, you just have to keep moving forward and not let rejection or criticism derail you.
KS: To move into what you currently do, please talk about the specific process of coloring a comic, because not everyone knows exactly what goes into it.
LA: Besides the line art, the script is the next most important thing! Hopefully, the writer has noted specifics like time of day or other color choices they’d like to see. There’s nothing worse than coloring a house or a shirt throughout a comic only to find out that it needed to be a specific color for the story to work. Most colorists have a flatter fill in the colors on the page, sort of like coloring in a coloring book, just filling in the pieces. Then, you can adjust those base colors to fit what the book needs. The way I work is in Photoshop. I only use two or three layers above the “flats” to render or paint the colors on the page. Usually, the first few pages of a new project take a while as I figure out just what style I need to use.
KS: As a comics reader, what do you appreciate about the coloring in books you look at?
LA: I have a tendency to not leave well enough alone when I’m coloring, so people that can pull off beautiful pages and wild colors with a minimal amount of rendering or interesting brush strokes always amaze me. The way Tula Lotay colors her work is so great. Skip by Molly Mendoza is also incredible. I work part time at a bookstore, and I sometimes just stop and flip through that book to soak up the art.
KS: Are you able to look at comics like those purely for pleasure, or is there always some part of your artistic brain at work, analyzing as you flip pages?
LA: I definitely analyze after having been rejected for a book. Then, I get a little obsessive over how I can do better. Or if a book is just so gorgeous, I can’t help but get lost trying to see what the colorist did that I could learn from.
KS: How did you first get traction as a colorist in the business? Is there a typical way colorists find each comics assignment they’re part of?
LA: I don’t know how it works now, but when I got started I just found lineart off the internet and colored it, and then posted it to a DeviantArt portfolio. Someone liked what I did and asked me to color their book. Then, their friend needed someone, and pretty soon I had met a bunch of comics folks looking to get their books out there. I started taking my portfolios to conventions, as well. So, I guess word of mouth!
KS: Let’s give a shout out to the “someone” who opened that initial door for you.
LA: It was a comic called Master Tape, written by Harry French. This was before Kickstarter; I think he just printed them and sold them at cons in the UK? And maybe online? I don't think he writes comics anymore, but we are still in touch.
KS: Were your tabling at various cons when you took your portfolios?
LA: I have never tabled at a show; I don't have enough merch of my own work to sell. I have always brought a portfolio though. Gosh, my first time going to Emerald City Comic Con after I started coloring, Sana Amanat from Marvel was there at a table giving portfolio reviews. Sana Amanat! And I just got my name on the list, and she very patiently and kindly gave me about a hundred pointers, because I was super brand new and my work was just terrible. I cringe thinking about it.
KS: Did you have a personal standard for what categorized a “successful” con?
LA: I try to get at least one person to look at my portfolio at a convention, especially if there are editors. It can be so hard to learn what might be happening at a convention; you really have to follow editors and the talent scouts on social media and watch what they post leading up to a convention, because it isn't always advertised. I am pretty introverted and while I'm fine trying to get an editor to give me feedback, I'm terrible at just chatting up writers and artists at their tables or during con social times. But I know folks do that, too. You just have to be friendly, be open to feedback and not defensive, don't waste people's time or be a pest. Follow Steve Lieber on Twitter — he is very generous with his time and knowledge and he shares a lot about portfolios.
KS: Is there something you better understand about this business since you’ve been working in it, that maybe you didn’t — or didn’t fully — before you started?
LA: I thought the endgame was to work for the Big Two, and that that would mean a steady job and no more hustling. But that isn’t the case at all. I mean, I wouldn’t turn down a Marvel gig, but my schedule is really full right now and I love the people I work with.
KS: Tell us about a moment of pride or joy that stands out as a career highlight.
LA: I think the moment an editor reached out to me for the first time. I'd just finished an all-ages comic called Kid Sherlock, and BOOM! reached out to see if I'd be a good fit on an Amazing World of Gumball OGN. I ended up doing two for them. One time I had someone reviewing my portfolio and they suggested I not put kids’ comic pages in it. I was told, "You don't want to be pegged as just a kids’ artist," and I thought, why? They are a joy to color. I wish I could do more!
KS: While line artists might have a style that obviously evolves over the years, do you think that’s true for colorists? Looking back at your earlier work, can you identify anything markedly different versus the you of today?
LA: I really, really wanted to just convert my painting style onto my coloring style. For a while I was really detailed and tried to paint everything. It was really time consuming. Now, I rely on my ridiculous amount of wild brushes and let them do the heaving lifting.
KS: Are there any non-comics art tools or techniques you’d like to play around with more? If you were set free to create something just for the joy of creating, what might you come up with?
LA: I think just as a broader concept, I'd love to somehow meld nature and art. I remember seeing someone that had tied pens or pencils to the ends of weeping willow branches, and let the wind move the pens across the paper. I follow Karen Vaughan's "Art of Soil" on Instagram; she creates paints and pigments from a variety of soils. It would be so cool to create my own art supplies out of natural elements. I listen to a lot of audio books while I color, and I really enjoy books on the environment, nature, and climate change. All this is kicking around in my head, I'd love to create something beautiful that uses nature and opens people's eyes to the natural world.
KS: What’s a hobby of yours totally unrelated to art or comics?
LA: My husband and I play a lot of board games. We’ve got maybe 400? We are in the process of replaying and culling older games we haven’t played in years, while also buying new ones, so the number fluctuates.
KS: As we come to a close, how about a comic or graphic novel by someone else that gets your full admiration?
LA: I’m really drawn to graphic memoirs and non-fiction graphic novels. Oftentimes, the art style truly fits the narrative, and they cause such a visceral reaction, just a perfect use of the medium. I loved The House by Paco Roca, Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, and Belonging by Nora Krug.
KS: And lastly, what should readers be on the lookout for from you the rest of this year?
LA: I’m working on a book with my friend Mario Candelaria and artist Lautaro Havlovich called Killchella. Lautaro’s art is so gorgeous; I can’t believe I get to color it. That will hopefully hit solicits some time this year. I just wrapped a wild sci-fi action comedy series written by Santino Arturo, and drawn by Aaron Ancheta and Ridge Lowis. It is goofy and I wish I could say more. I also colored an all-ages graphic novel, which I absolutely love doing. It is Red Panda and Moon Bear Vol. 2, by Jarod Rosello, and it comes out in April!