Making Comics: Some Science Behind Colouring Water by Triona Farrell

Written by Triona Farrell

This’ll be an introduction to the basics of colouring water, and doing light effects on objects, mostly characters in the water. I’ll be covering some basic things to keep in mind when colouring your water and water related substances in your comic, in the context of informing the reader about what’s happening in the panel. Water I personally find is an odd topic for colourists, because of how it interacts with light and content. Not to mention how objects in water are influenced by it colour-wise. It can be challenge to understand the colour of something that is essentially see-through. But I’ll be giving some of my thoughts and advice throughout this article to help any newcomer to colouring makes their start with this often daunting task.

I’d like to preface this before I get into the nitty and gritty that I am by no means an expert, professional colourist, but I just wanted to share my experience spending the last year coping with water effects in my webcomic, Azure Capricorn.

So let’s talk about colouring bodies of water. Oceans, seas and rivers are subjects that I find is relatively easy to draw, but difficult to colour. It’s easy to slap down a big bucket of blue and leave it at that, forgetting the basic properties of water. Its colours depend entirely on the time of day, where it is, how deep it is. Not to mention what’s in it. The river Thames is definitely not going to be a sparkling blue with its consistency of sludge.

During the night, water is noticeably black with the absence of light, but it takes on a variety of shades during the day. Water reflects the sky above generally, which is why you get a blue tinge to a lot of water. Cloudy, or stormy weather is obviously going to add a grey-ish green tinge to the water, explaining why the Irish sea usually looks like this:

Super inviting.

Super inviting.

With the sun out, the water is going to be far more appealing with a brighter blue. The example below is a bit of an extreme example with the bright blue. But feel free to mess with colours to match the mood, making them as saturated, or as under saturated as need. An important note is how the light catches the water when the sun is out, adding tints of white to match the movement of the water can add a lot to the ocean, sea or river you’re colouring.
Keeping this all in mind, can not only but add to the mood and inform the reader the time of day. As something as changeable as a river or a sea, the eye doesn’t expect the colour of water to be set in stone. This gives a colourist plenty of freedom to utilize water as a method of conveying a scene, in comparison to more solid objects that have more set palettes. As with everything though, experiment! Picking and choosing colours from photographs is an especially helpful way to get the exact colour you need, and you may be surprised at the strange colours water can take on at certain points in the day.

Next let’s talk about how water affects the colour of skin. This is a subject that I see either treated with water in mind, or treated as if they’re outside on a sunny day. The way that light interacts with a body is partially due to the atmosphere around us and the way that light bounces off other objects. This explains why when facing away from the main source of light, the sun, our shadows are not entirely black (such as when you see astronauts in space). This not the case in water however, and it’s easy to make the mistake of colouring with a standard palette with standard shading such as below.
Because water is so reflective, it bounces light entirely around the body. This means when shading that the tone from dark to light is far more gradual in comparison to something outside of the water. Because of this reflection, the colour of the skin changes and takes on the hint of the colour surrounding it. In the example below on the left, because the water is such a bright blue, there is a hint of blue as well in the skin, turning it a slightly greenish colour. The colour of the skin is also a factor, changing the colour significantly but on the same principals. Sunlight that filters down from the surface also affects the skin, giving the strips of white across the body that you can see in the example on the right. To get this effect personally, I often paint this on a separate layer and set the layer to a lower opacity on a setting of luminosity, however it’s best to experiment with your own style to find out what works best for you.
When writing this, I decided to omit some of the more technical aspects in favour of explaining some of the science behind colouring water and water scenes. Everyone has their own way of approaching colour, and I’m sure my own techniques will be a polar opposite of how others will personally colour. Though a little general, this hopefully will give you an idea of how exactly light interacts with water, and how to translate this to your own work. And to stress again, don’t be afraid to experiment!

Triona Tree Farrell is a writer, artist and colourist of comics like Azure Capricorn. You can follow her on Twitter @Treestumped.