Master Digital Color

What the Heck is a Gamut?


© DC Comics

You’ve just finished coloring this amazing Superman cover and couldn’t be more proud of your work. There’s Sup’s vibrant blue suit and his iconic bright red cape. Looks amazing on screen, right? You finished your work, saved it as a CMYK TIF and sent it off to your editor of approval and 15 minutes later your get a frantic email back saying the suit looks like mud and the cape is a weird, drab color and you may have to re-color the whole thing! Oh, and your deadline is 30 minutes from now. ZOIKS! What the heck happened!? It looked amazing while you were coloring it and now it looks terrible. Why did your colors get turned into mud? Because the colors you chose or created were outside the CMYK Gamut your computer converted them and the result was terrible.

I can see you staring blankly at the screen asking, “What the heck is a gamut?” Allow me to explain a little.


So let’s start this by talking a little bit about the science of color. What we perceive as color is our brains interpreting different wavelengths of light emanating from, or bouncing off of, objects in space. If we look at the color spectrum we see that long wavelengths appear as red warm colors while shorter wavelengths appears a blue, cooler colors. As those wavelengths get longer (moving to the left on the chart) we move into infrared colors, microwaves and various other electrical waves. As they get shorter (moving to the right on the chart) we get into Xrays, Gamma rays (our favorite!!) and other harmful radiations.

What we can actually see, however, is just a very small portion of that spectrum which we call visible light.

Visible Color Gamut

If we pull out that visible portion of light, simplify it and twist it into a circle we get every artists BFF, the color wheel.

But if we take that entire spectrum of visible light and twist is into a circle we see what is called the visible color gamut. Keep in mind…this example you see here isn’t ACTUALLY the full visible color gamut because you are looking at it on a computer screen which presents color to you in an RGB color space…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

RGB variation


This visible color gamut represents all variations of every visible color. So in this example the black arrow over the blue indicates every possible variation of the color blue. Very bright and intense colors exist at the outside edges of the circle while less intense, desaturated colors exist at the center. In order to make this a little easier for you to see, I’m going to replace our circle with one that has an exaggerated difference in saturation level from outside to the middle.

RGB Circle

So nature produces an innumerable amount of wavelengths of light, most of which we can’t see, but we create our artwork using technology that has yet to be able to reproduce all the colors of visible light. Specifically our computer monitors reproduce color in what is called the RGB Color space. This sort of bloated triangle shape over the visible color gamut indicates which colors are actually reproducible in the RGB Color Space. Using red, green and blue your monitor can recreate MOST of the colors in the visible light gamut, but not all. You’ll notice that it has trouble with some of the more vibrant orange, teals and violet colors. This is why your photos of those gorgeous sunsets never look quite right. Your camera is translating those natural lights into RGB and a little something gets lost.

CMYK Circle

However, when our artwork is complete it has to go to print. Modern printing presses mix 4 inks (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta and Black) to create “Full Color” your prints. As you can see the CMYK Color space is REALLY small compared to the RGB Color space and encompasses most of that drab, desaturated area in the middle of out circle.

CMYK-RGB Color Circle

You can really see the difference here when we lay the RGB and CMYK color spaces on the same graphic. By now you’re probably asking, “what does this mean to me, the comic book colorist?” MOST colorists, including those of you using the Hi-Fi method, render their work in RGB so while we’re working we have to always be aware that before each page is finalized it will have to be converted to CMYK.

When you color an image in RGB and the color you choose (or create inadvertently) falls outside of that CMYK color space it will have to be converted before it goes to press. Maybe I’ll cover how your computer makes those decisions (Relative Colorimetric vs Perceptual conversions) in a later article but suffice it to say your computer will select each pixel containing color outside the CMYK color gamut and changes it to a color that it thinks best represents the original color.

Just a note: I have again exaggerated the colors in the following example so you can better see the way the colors change.


Let’s take a look at your Superman from earlier and find out what happened. If we pull out the blue and red from the image and roughly plot them on the RGB color gamut you can see that they fall well outside of the CMYK gamut.


When you convert that file from RGB to CMYK your computer decides what those new colors should be.

Now instead of those nice bright colors…they are muted and kind of dead.




And if we look at them side-by-side you can really tell the difference in the color. So what can we learn from this exercise? First of all, when you’re coloring try to avoid selecting colors that are TOO vibrant and over-saturated. That’s your first clue that you may be heading down the path to conversion trouble later on.  Also, make sure you are using the View/Proof Colors option in Photoshop. That will allow you to color in RGB but have a CMYK preview on your screen while you work. You’ll immediately know if a color is going to end up looking gross.

At this point you’re probably asking, “Well why don’t we just skip this whole mess and color right in CMYK? Wouldn’t that avoid this whole problem in the first place?”

Well, yeah…but it leads to some other issues that are not as easy to overcome than coloring in RGB but being mindful of a future need to convert. We color in RGB because that is how Photoshop was intended to work. It was designed as a digital space for creating and editing images and digital space means RGB. Because of this in CMYK there are a LOT of tools that aren’t available to you at all. You will find that those tools that are available to you will give you a drab, gray-ish color when used in a CMYK color space instead of the rich, full colors you would get were you attempting the same process in RGB.


Also, your files can be SIGNIFICANTLY larger. These two files are the EXACT same PSD except one is RGB and the other is CMYK. The CMYK file is almost twice the size. So, yes…you could avoid all the RGB to CMYK conversion problems entirely by coloring straight in CMYK but at a cost of lack of tools, lower functionality of some of Photoshop’s tools and potentially gargantuan file sizes.

Proof ColorsProTip: when coloring in RGB make sure you have the View/Proof Colors (Ctrl+Y) option active in Photoshop. This will allow you to color in RGB but see what the file will look like when it converts to CMYK. You’ll know instantly if a color you are creating is going to look like mud.


Eric White is a graphic designer and artist with 15 years of experience in the printing industry. He’s been working with Hi-Fi since 2008 as a consultant, web-guy, go-get-er, flatter and colorist. You can find more of his work at his website or follow along on twitter @Geekywhiteguy

Find out more about "Licensed Art!"

Spotting art in the wild on a Superhero Safari: How Licensed Art works.

Our favorite superheroes are everywhere these days. From the big screen and video games, to action figures and children’s books, our favorite caped wonders have escaped the confines of the local comic book store and have found themselves in almost every aspect of the media.

Just some of the Marvel books from HiFi available now.

A collection of just some of the Marvel books painted by Hi-Fi.

One of the most important markets that comic book characters have remained strong in is actually so subtle that it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. Enter the world of Licensed Art.

What exactly is Licensed Art and why is it important in relation to comic books? Before we get into that, I’ll explain how the employee relationship works in the comic book industry.

In the world of professional production art, the way things work is pretty straightforward. There is an employer/employee work relationship where an employer will pay an employee to create art. This art is then used in a final product that it was intended for. For example, when comic book veterans Ian Churchill, Norm Rapmund, and the team of Color Artists at Hi-Fi create artwork for “The Ravagers” from DC Comics, the nature of the art being produced under the legal definition of Work-For-Hire is typically (but not necessarily always) intended for limited publication in comic book form. That is, the artists can expect to see their work reproduced in the monthly comic, later on in a collected Trade Paperback version, as well as in Digital Comic versions.

Marvel Super Heroes 3D Activity Center

Marvel Super Heroes 3D Activity Center, with box art created by Hi-Fi Artists. One neat thing about working on Licensed Art projects is that you never know where you'll see your artwork pop up next!

Most work contracts for big league companies such as DC Comics and Marvel are catch-all contracts, meaning that under the explicit language of the contract the art becomes the property of the company that has ordered it, and they have complete reproduction rights on it. So if one day we see a t-shirt with a scene from an issue of “The Ravagers” for sale, it is, without divulging the details of the contracts, most likely within the rights of DC Comics to do so and profit from that.

With that profit comes a cost. The old saying, “You have to spend money in order to make money” is reversed in this case; when you make money, you have to spend money. This is called a Royalty Payment. Royalty Payments ensure that there is a quid-pro-quo (this for that) arrangement when something is reused for profit. For example, if an art team is paid $X for the original production art for a comic book, and the company produces from that art a pair of shoes with the artwork printed on the sides, it’s only fair that the art team is given a portion of that profit as well. Typically, Royalty Payments are a very low percentage, and only kick in after a certain profit ceiling has been reached. Regarding Royalty Payments, a contract will typically explain that once a certain amount of money has been made from the new product produced from the old art, then the art team will get a fraction of a percent of the profit made from each new sale.

This is a wonderful setup for artists, but it can backfire on the company in some situations, specifically where the products being made are created with little profit, or even being offered “at cost” in value markets.

In comes Licensed Art. In essence, all art in the comic industry is licensed. What we refer to with this term, however, is when art is produced for the company who has complete, carte blanche rights to its use from there on, and may sell the rights to that art to other companies for the creation of new products.

Licensed Art is vital because it permits comic book companies to use, distribute, and reuse artwork while keeping a budget.

As artists, of course we want to ensure our own financial safety by making as much money as possible, so in the production of Licensed Art we are typically paid slightly more up front. Think of it as a Royalty Payment in advance.

This allows for a new market of low-profit, high distribution products to be created and to then saturate the market.

Coloring books, greeting cards, stickers, school supplies, lunch boxes, Frisbees, shoes, the list goes on. All of these products you can find at the local department store, supermarket, dollar store, and even the corner gas station. These things are all great, but even mighty companies like DC Comics and Marvel aren’t big enough to have their own footwear division, Frisbee factories, etc.

Art from various sources has been used on this neat movie projector!

Art from different sources has been assembled together on this cool movie projector, included with an activity book! Here you see Captain America on the projector (Left), along side the original painted artwork (Right).

Because they’re produced in such high quantities to be offered at such a low price, it would be nearly impossible for the company to recover any profit if Royalty Payments were a consideration with these products. The idea here is to respond to consumer demand, by offering these things. There isn’t always a lot of money for a company to make, but the tradeoff in having “The Mighty Avengers” coloring and activity books in the dollar store is that a consumer demand has been met, the company has “broken even” on the sale of the product, and now there is a happy child with a coloring book, who in ten years may remember how cool he thought “Spider-Man” was, growing up, and that may lead to him visiting his local comic book store and catching up with his old friend Peter Parker.

Hi-Fi Artists are responsible for much of the Licensed Art you may see from Marvel today, with much more to come.

The Mighty Avengers Look and Find

The Mighty Avengers Look and Find, featuring Licensed Art from Hi-Fi Artists.

We illustrate and paint Marvel characters for children’s books, activity and coloring sets, and many other products. As Marvel and its parent company Disney brainstorm to create new products, many times our art will be reused. For example, I recently saw a page I had painted for “The Courageous Captain America: An Origin Story,” where Captain America is running to battle in World War II reused as the image on an audio button for “The Mighty Avengers: Play-a-Sound” book and more Hi-Fi artwork can be seen on the cover of “The Mighty Avengers: Look and Find” both of which are published by Publications International.

HiFi painted artwork used beautifully along the margins of a children's activity book.

Hi-Fi painted artwork used beautifully along the margins of a children's activity book. Youngsters couldn't ask for better reference! This Captain America image is very popular.

The art keeps coming back in different products, and that’s great news. Marvel and others are pleased with the work we’ve done and is continuing to reuse much of it as Licensed Art. I even saw an activity book where some of Hi-Fi Creative Director Brian Miller’s paintings for the protective sleeve covers of the Marvel Origin Story books were re-purposed into face masks. What a cool added value for the activity book, to be able to pop out a die-cut mask and wear it to become your favorite Avenger!

There are many teams producing Licensed Art for the comic book industry, but much like every product, there is a dwindling contingency that is American-made. Because of economic hardships, following the example of what happened with the 1980s Cartoon and Animation Industry, many companies have opted to look to the artists of Asia to produce comic book art. Though they’re very talented, because of lower standards of living they accept a lower rate of payment. The comic book industry has pushed and tugged towards this end, but American artists are pulling it back. Hi-Fi Colour Design, despite the British “u” in Colour is an American-based company and many Hi-Fi Artists and colleagues live and work in America.

Veteran comic book penciler and Pittsburgh’s own Pat Olliffe produces much of the preliminary pencil work that we use as the framework to what we do. Brian and Kristy Miller have the heart of Kansas City and the hip-factor of Arizona. They manage these large projects as well as provide art from the Hi-Fi Mothership in Arizona. Hi-Fi Artists like “yours truly” provide art from around the nation. Some pages that I painted in “The Incredible Hulk: An Origin Story” were painted on an 18-hour bus ride to New Orleans. A battle between Iron Man and Hawkeye in “Hawkeye Joins The Mighty Avengers” was painted at the same table in the family home where my whole family encouraged me to draw when I was a child.

The Mighty Avengers Play-A-Sound Book

The Mighty Avengers Play-A-Sound Book. I was pleasantly surprised when I first saw artwork I had painted for another book now appearing on one of the sound effect buttons on this. Neat!

I believe that these are only possibilities for the American artist. We’re free to be mobile, and not confined to a studio in . The office of Hi-Fi is virtual, and the work week of the Hi-Fi Artist is flexible. Our art can and has been made from our homes, coffee shops, libraries, and even in unexpected places like on interstate bus rides. With the advent of Tablet computing, and great how-to books such as How to Paint Comic Books with the iPad I can’t wait to hear about what interesting new places people will create artwork from.

We’re all very proud to serve you in bringing your favorite characters to you. From the Color Art found in the pages of DC Comics’ “Green Lantern Annual #1” at your local comic shop, to Marvel children’s books found at the book store and on iTunes, to anywhere else the art may appear.

Keep your eyes open for more Marvel art from Hi-Fi Artists in the near future!

Matthew Swift is a Painter and Color Artist with comic book color studio Hi-Fi Colour Design.  Hi-Fi provides color and paint services for publishers like DC, Disney, Image, Marvel, and more.  You can follow Hi-Fi on Twitter at: and see more comic book art on Hi-Fi’s Facebook page at:

Hi-Fi panels at SDCC

Going to SDCC? Do not miss Hi-Fi’s panels.Thursday 3:00-4:00 Comics: Digital Color for Comics— Every month your favorite comic books must be colored before going to press, but just how are they colored? Learn about the creative art of comic book coloring as Hi-Fi’s Brian Miller (World’s Finest) and Kristy Miller (SpongeBob SquarePants) demonstrate the step-by-step transformation of a comic book page from black and white to full color. Learn the basics of flatting, rendering, color holds, and special effects, along with top digital coloring tips. Q&A session. Room 11AB

Friday, 2:00-3:00 Comics: Painting Comics on the iPad— The iPad has transformed the way you read comics, but did you know you can create comic art on the iPad too? See a comic book character come to life as Hi-Fi’s Brian Miller (The Mighty Avengers) and Kristy Miller (The Amazing Spider-Man Storybook Collection) demonstrate step-by-step how to paint comics on the iPad. Learn the basic tools and techniques, including which apps work best and how you too can transform your iPad into a portable art studio. Q&A session Room 11AB