Digital colorist par excellence, SDCC Artist Alley driving force, problem-solver, taskmaster, designer, teacher and friend to all, Clydene Nee has been heavily active in the comics community since the 1980s. Here on CCN, she opens up about roads less traveled, aesthetics, and golf balls.
Clydene, was there a specific point in your youth when you knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that a creative life was the life for you?
I was interested in comics at an early age. At about 6 or 7 years of age I noticed Archie Comics in the drug store near our house. I would read through them and get them as I was able. When I was 10 years of age we moved from Knoxville, Tennessee to San Diego, California. My father’s mentor – Dr. Jim Davis, who worked at United States International University – he had a son several years older than I was and he gave me his collection of comic books. This collection included Spider-Man #1, Fantastic Four #1, and a lot of Silver Age Superman and Batman. There were about 200 issues of these books in a huge box. I took the box home and kept it next to my bed and read them every night.
My mother eventually sold my comics in that box for $2.00 at a garage sale.
So that was my introduction to comics. I guess at that age I was interested in making stories. I wrote some science-fiction stories, but being shy, I never showed them to anyone. We moved several times, and eventually I threw them away as I went further along in school. I watched Star Trek reruns on TV as well as Dr. Who (original series in the 1960s on KPBS in San Diego). We (my brother John and I) watched Kimba the White Lion, Speed Racer, Star Blazers, and Space Battleship Yamato. I was a big consumer of science-fiction. When I was 11 I got to go see Ray Bradbury give a class on writing to the kids who were in the San Diego City Schools. It was a fun afternoon, listening to him tell us about writing.
I should imagine so!
My life growing up near the beach pretty much continued. From time to time people would give me their collection of books when they moved and I would read them. I once received a man’s 25 year collection of science-fiction and Fantasy Magazine along with other books and just read them.
Between high school and university I got involved with the science-fiction club at UCSD, Darkstar. I helped them raise money for video and film projects. One of the guys in the club, John Hooker, took me to Comic-Con and made me a volunteer in the films area. Mostly because I was a girl, but also because I could run a 16 mm projector and knew my way around splicing film and handling film. So over all the summers between high school and the end of university, I got to be one of the best projectionists and soon Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett would only allow me to handle their films they loaned to the convention to be shown. It was a great time, and I got thank you letters from both of them for my volunteer work.
I also wrote for the campus newspaper and had to do layout and paste-up from time to time to help get things out. My brother mostly did this for the paper, and I only did it when no one else was around. About this time I got a Macintosh computer, a Mac Plus, and started using MacPaint to create things on the computer. There were no color separation programs at that time but I figured out how to do spot color jobs on the MacPlus for business cards and t-shirts. I got SuperPaint, Aldus Pagemaker and started doing desktop publishing. After I graduated from university, I didn’t go back to Comic-Con that summer.
My mother was a painter and art teacher and I did some kind of art from an early age. She showed us how to make colors with different shades of play-dough and other things with mixing paint. I was always doing some kind of crafts under her watchful eye. I am not good at sketching, but she had us do it a lot. She would give us butcher paper or left over paper from a local printer to draw on when we were little. We were always making something or cutting or sewing or crocheting.
Can you recall the first professional comics gig you landed? Were you comfortable with your work then, or were there any nightmares along the way, in terms of establishing your presence?
Well, that is a loaded question. I was the silent partner in a comic book coloring business called InColor. I was working at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, as a research assistant to a professor in Epidemiology and getting my MBA part-time. The business got in trouble and I had to leave my job and go run the business. The first jobs I worked on were with Harvey Comics, which was an existing account. I had to get a book called Little Dracula recolored and out the door to please the customer. After running the business for one month I showed a profit and so I decided to stay instead of returning to work at UCSD. The business had existing accounts with Dark Horse, Harvey Comics, Malibu Comics, Innovation, and several other smaller companies. Basically, we colored comics for everyone. The first job I ever colored was a Hot Stuff cover for Harvey Comics.
After running things for awhile I started to try and get work from Marvel and DC. Which was really hard at the time because they were still committed to doing things the old fashioned way with people cutting Rubylith, which was cutting plastic into shapes and composting them using a camera exposure system. It was very limited. But people like Murphy Anderson (artist of DC’s Hawkman) had the coloring business tied up. I remember going to San Diego Comic-Con and showing off one of our systems trying to show people how to color on computers. I was supposed to color Marvel Comics’ the Hook mini-series project over Charles Vess. Charles and I had been friends for a long time and I had computer-colored a piece of his art work from Midsummer Night’s Dream for my portfolio. He liked it so much that he suggested to Marvel that I color the movie tie-in book for Hook. I did some test pages, and sent them along with my portfolio to editor Fabian Nicieza and Marvel. Then the whole Image Comics thing came about and Jim Lee left Marvel, and Fabian and Tom DeFalco decided they didn’t want to send me work because of my ties to Image Comics through my brother, John. I got caught in the middle of the politics at the time.
I had still been in contact with Jim Valentino and was friendly with Keith Giffen. We were really struggling to make ends meet at the business and one day I got a call from Jim. I think I had seen him at a comic book show and showed him some of my work. I used to go to shows and try to get people to see what I could do. I think it was after a WonderCon that Jim called me, he had seen some of my work and he gave me Images of Shadowhawk by Keith Giffen. It was my first professional work I got on my own. In the middle of working on Images of Shadowhawk, I got a call from Eric Stephenson, who was working for Rob Liefeld at Extreme Studios. Rob had been over to see Jim Valentino; Jim showed him the work I was doing, and so Rob had Eric call me and arrange for me to do work for him. It really dug us out of a hole, and I did some of my best work for him when I had a chance. There was one issue of Supreme where there was a flashback scene and I had the crew color the pages in sepia tones like an old photograph. It was one of the first times we had done something like this and it caught on with other comics.
After I got out of comics coloring I worked for Callaway Golf when they started their Golf Ball Company. I was employee #35 of what became 800 employees. While working for them I helped write a US Patent, and was called the Secret Weapon because I knew so much about the science of printing. Once when I was touring a plant with my boss, the manager of the plant offered me a job in front of my boss to come work for them. It was very nice of him and when I went back to my office, my boss told everyone about what happened. I know a lot about printing.
I would imagine there’s quite a few folks who would call you the “Secret Weapon”. I know you also did some early coloring for Heroic Publishing — I remember most of your credits as your style was always just so different, so brilliantly original. Steve Oliff had his Olyoptics group running back to the mid-80s or so — Amanda Conner even interned in his studio for a year prior to her penciling career.
Steve Oliff and InColor started computer-coloring at the same time approximately. By necessity, we colored comic books, trading cards, and we did color separations for t-shirts and skateboards for screen printing. Understanding screen printing and printing on chromium cards helped me understand how to reproduce color on almost any surface. At one time, we were making film for skating companies like Bird House, ACME Skateboard and lots of other companies.
I think it was the mid-90s when the threshold was crossed in that by then well over half of all comics were being digitally colored, and we saw in those days the rise of several large digital separation studios. Malibu was embracing that very early, and I always wondered if that was also part of the reason why the Image founders chose them initially. But your Images of Shadowhawk issues really stood out when they were released. You colored Giffen’s Trencher in these dulled metallic hues, that differed so much from what Lovern Kindzierski had done on the character’s own mini-series, with the end product adding depth to the character by literally casting him in a different light. I thought it was wonderful.
I was sort of a Secret Weapon in Images of Shadowhawk, because I knew what a printing press could hold and how much ink I could lay down for each color. I made the colors look more metallic by putting in more black and using the shades of black to make that metallic look without making the other colors look muddy by adding too much black to the red tones. There is a balance you can achieve if you know what paper stock you are using and what the press can hold.
It probably sounds strange, but it all comes down to a math problem. I knew at what angle to color using the blacks and what angle to put the blends at to maximize the metallic look on the piece of paper the books were printed on. It also helps to know whether a book is going on a sheet-fed press or a web-press. I had coding sheets for our colorists so they learned and knew that when you put down an 85% screen you had to understand how the dot-gain interacted with that color or other colors which would muddy up the art. I was about coding everything, and making sure that the color wasn’t too dark, otherwise it couldn’t be printed, and also not making colors too light so they couldn’t be printed. Most of the people who worked for us learned this system so they could see color and we standardized on certain reds and other colors so we had charts around the office. We also used a Pantone chip book that used to match color. Several of the lead colorists who worked for me would change colors on the final output, so our Quality Control would be used before a job left our studio. I am not saying we didn’t make mistakes, but our mistakes were very few and far between.
With the rise of more accessible software, do you see any bugs in the machine?
One of the most common mistakes and I still see in today’s work is not understanding how much ink can be absorbed in printing and how much black you can put in a color. Reds tend to get really muddy if you use too much black because of the dot-gain on press for the black; as it is the last color. It is something you have to understand for the printing process. This is mostly because you can make something look really great onscreen, and it will print great on an inkjet printer, but when it is printed on a press the colors will look muddy because there is too much ink and there is too much black. It is not just about coloring to your uncalibrated monitor, it is about creating colors that can’t be printed.
This is one of the reasons when I went to Callaway Golf Ball and used my color sense techniques for printing 4-color and 5-color jobs on golf balls. I understood the process of how much ink I could lay down on a golf ball and the angles so I reproduced 4- and 5-color jobs like they had never been printed before on a golf ball. I was able to achieve true color reproduction. The other thing is I know how to print on plastic, not just paper.
I know the Science of Color. That is why people have hired me to fix books.
You mentioned before the lack of real coloring schools back when, and I personally always thought the coding for just the color guides used in pre-digital days read like some military effort to sequence satellite positions or some-such. There really was a length of time, from when digital coloring dominated on, to where even the basic programs needed for up and comers were priced way out of range for many blue-collar folks. Options have opened up a lot in more recent years, but I could imagine the need still exists for proper schooling. I know you’ve given private counsel to many a creator through the years, but have you ever outright pursued teaching what you’ve mastered of the science of color and color theory? Or are you more the “learning by doing” sort, like autodidact through trial and error?
Brian Haberlin has a great group of training CDs that can teach coloring. I recommend that series. You can get everything you would need from him for a couple hundred dollars. Most people couldn’t afford me. I billed Warner Bros $1,500 a day for consulting. Warner Bros paid me, but I got burned by the guy who set up the Scientology CD printing facility. He got all my advice and never paid me. After you get burned a couple of times you stop wanting to do this.
The other thing is I have been taken advantage of by people in and out of comics. Todd McFarlane was the worst because he pretended to be my friend. He sent me work for SPAWN before it was released. He promised me I would get to color the book and get royalties. He wanted SPAWN to be shades of salmon. I talked him into using other colors by doing four costume color combinations. Instead of telling me he wanted Olyoptics to color the book he sent my color samples to Steve, and I found out through the grapevine that I wasn’t coloring SPAWN. It was just handled in a very underhanded way and my feelings were hurt because I thought Todd was my friend. We used to talk for hours on the phone. But like so many others I wasn’t the only person he treated like this.
Okay, so was it your wealth of experience in multiple fields that prodded you to oversee the organizing of SDCC’s Artist Alley (which few would honestly have the balls to do), or was it a more personal cause that brought you back that much deeper into the comics world? I mean, scoring the participation from the DeviantART team especially is a mother of a stroke of either blatant genius or purest luck or the two together in a much-needed crossover.
I was in charge of the Artists Alley the whole time I was coloring. Dave Elliott was the person who introduced me to DeviantART, though. He really deserves the credit for DeviantART sponsoring the Alley.
Dave Elliott is the patron saint of DeviantART. I think he is the bee’s knees. But that shouldn’t downplay your own role in that deal. This applies to how each of you seem to conduct your careers – that after years in the trenches you relegate yourselves to finding places for yourselves, seeking voids needing to be filled. That has to go beyond mere survival instinct. I don’t have your experience, but even I can see that for every Dave Elliott (or yourself) there are easily a hundred “Todd McFarlane experiences” in the funny book biz. And life in general. But instead of that weighing you down, you seem to be increasing the scale of your efforts at keeping on, as SDCC continues to grow year-after-year. Is there something about the constant stream of countless doe-eyed rookies that brings out the mama hen in you?
Sometimes I think of myself as the 10th Muse of Comics.
Certainly, I have seen a lot of new talent in my life. It was great to have people like JH Williams in the Alley when he was just starting out. Having Jim Lee in the Alley was interesting because he was famous for X-Men work pretty much coming out of the gates. The Shiflett Brothers had the most interesting story in coming to the Alley. These two skinny teenagers drove from Texas to Comic-Con and they showed me their sculpting work, which even then was fabulous and I gave them the space. Like most people, they had the raw talent needed to be successful in their industry, and I only provided a showcase for their work. Earlier on, I would see what kind of work people were doing and steer them towards companies or making suggestions to artists on how to market their particular product or skill. I have quietly assisted people in getting their work seen.
One of the things that used to happen is that we’d go to the Westin Hotel and hang out until all hours in the morning. Artists from LucasFilm, ILM, Disney and other companies would all come and hang out there. Michael W. Kaluta and Charles Vess used to hold court there back in the day and some editors and publishers would show up and sometimes people would bring their portfolios or plans would be made to see someone’s work the next day in Artist Alley. Often people from companies would come to me at the show and ask me who was new and hot.
There are a lot of success stories that came out of the Alley. Spectrum-winning artist Heather Theurer is one of those success stories. She showed up to Comic-Con with two or three little children in tow. She showed me a painting she had and I gave her a space because she was really great. At the time she had almost no confidence in her own work and I sat her near the other painters working for Lucas Film and she just took it in. Her work was great, but now it has become fabulous. She blossomed through her exposure being in Artist Alley. Now she is doing painting for lots of companies and usually has a booth at Comic-Con.
Beyond the “day-job” aspects of your conducting Artist Alley and coaching up and comers and freelancing for assorted business clientele, do you still afford yourself time and means to pursue your own creativity for the sake of creativity? Do you still write, or paint or anything along those lines?
In my “spare time” I make jewelry, read, and dabble in creative writing. You will probably see more of my work in the coming year. I make wire-wrapped jewelry – there is nothing quite like twisting wire into shapes to release stress.
I don’t watch much television. I think we have 6 shows that we record weekly, so I have a lot of time for reading. I am probably what I call a competitive reader. Last year, I read over 100 books. I started trying to keep count and have read about 1,600 books in the last 10 or so years. Mostly my roommate and I watch and read mysteries. I read more hard science and science-fiction. She reads more Steampunk than I do. Right now, one of our most favorite authors is Gail Carriger. I am fascinated with viruses and nuclear proliferation. I’m sure the NSA must have a field day with my reading list as it will be whatever Neil Gaiman has just written along with old Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch, to books on the weaponization of viruses to the IAEA reports on nuclear proliferation. I am not particularly religious but I read the Bible, the Mahabharata, the Mormon Bible, the Quran and a lot of other holy texts. I have also read pretty much everything Robert Bloch ever wrote as well as HP Lovecraft.
Until 2012, I worked in the summers for a Jazz concert series in San Diego, Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay. That was the year I had my stroke. Even though I did not have high cholesterol, I was taking ZETIA because my doctor wanted my cholesterol lower, but the mechanism for ZETIA is to block the absorption of cholesterol in the stomach and small intestine, and it did block the absorption of my blood pressure and diabetes meds for 4 and half months. And voila, I had a stroke.
Now I have kidney failure, which has been a scary proposition. I go for dialysis three times a week where they take my blood out, clean it and put it back. I have had three surgeries since November, and I had pneumonia in January where I was hospitalized for 5 days in consolation. It was a very scary time because I actually didn’t know if I was going to die or not. I was so sick on the second day of my hospitalization I didn’t know if I should have my attorney come to do my last will at the hospital.
Oh Clydene, in light of your many victories big and small over the years, I have no doubts that the health issues will be whipped into submission. You are a fascinating polymath of a human being, and I can’t wait to see where the future takes you.
Thanks, Richard. Every day can be a challenge. Hopefully, I will make it. As Scarlett O’Hara said, “Tomorrow is another day!”
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