Each week, Alex Lu is highlighting the work of some of the coolest illustrators of our generation. Know anyone who should be featured (including yourself)? Email email@example.com.
This Week: With the inaugural edition of Artists You Should Know, we turn our eye to Sarah Stern, colorist of books such as Goldie Vance and the Giant Days Holiday Specials and the creator of webcomic Cindersong.
In the Art Round-Up, we’re featuring a number of great talents from last week’s trending hashtag #VisibleWomen.
When we put out an open call for submissions to the Artist Spotlight last month, I had no idea we’d receive such a strong outpouring of support. While I’m still working through the emails I received, I just wanted to take a moment to thank you all for your submissions. I’ve already discovered some incredible artists that I didn’t know about and look forward to talking to in the near future. This column would not exist without you!
Alex Lu: What did your path towards art look like?
Sarah Stern: I don’t know that it was a clean arc or something that I did intentionally from the beginning. It just sort of happened organically and I didn’t escape in time!
I used to doodle in my notebooks and stuff when I was a kid. I taught myself to use tablets and to draw and color in photoshop, and I had a lot of fun making dumb comics in high school. I don’t know, I just didn’t want to do anything else more! That doesn’t sound very inspiring—destiny didn’t guide me to the shining star of an illustration BFA.
Lu: But you went for a masters, right?
Stern: Yeah, yeah, after I finished my undergrad at the University of Hartford, I worked for a year or so illustrating textbooks and just kind of struggling. And then I found a corporate desk job, and I hated that. If I’d had had a better attitude I wouldn’t have been so miserable, but I was like most art students– I was like, “I should be doing more with my life. It’s been like two years, I should be famous and rich at this point. Excuse me, I went to art school, where’s my private yacht?” You know?
So I was really unsatisfied doing the kind of job that most of the people on earth would be happy to do, sitting at a desk and folding envelopes and going through data. I decided to be proactive about a career change and went down to visit SCAD, because I had a friend who was there at the time for animation. And it was great. The animation program wasn’t a good fit, but the sequential department was wonderful and you could work towards a focus on pre-production and storyboarding that could lead to animation jobs.
I went back to school because I thought I was going to put this money that I saved from the corporate job (don’t worry I’ll still be in debt forever) towards getting a nice secure studio job afterwards. But I was getting rejected for internships and having meh portfolio reviews because frankly, my storyboarding and concept work wasn’t good enough. Along the way I just kept making comics, even though I figured it would always be something I did for fun, for myself, on the side.
Then, as I was graduating with no real job prospects, SCAD held an editor’s day (the school brings in editors from different publishers to do portfolio reviews. They’re very generous with their time and the feedback can be very helpful.) So I brought my concept portfolio and some pages I’d been working on, and Dafna Pleban from Boom! Studios sat down with me and said, “this is really nice and you’re cool. Why don’t you come work for me and do some colors?”
And I said, “Well, okay,” and then I did that.
Lu: So, once you started working at Boom as a colorist, what were your gigs?
Stern: Goldie Vance was my first gig. Dafna tagged me for that a couple of months after we met, she really looked out for me. She also pulled me into Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Pink.
Lu: Was there anything that you found surprising about coloring once you started doing it that you didn’t expect?
Stern: I think the amount of input a colorist really has in the creative process. I think, like most people, I just assumed [coloring would be like], “this is a coloring book and I’m just gonna be here, filling in the right color for the shirts and the eyes and everything.” But you can be surprisingly responsible for the look of the page with the palette and rendering choices that you make.
Also, occasionally, I make minor art additions—I think I might be shot if I tell you where exactly I drew things in. There’s a spot [in Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: Pink,] where the pink ranger’s pants is all me. In issue 1 there’s that big single page spread where she’s chilling in her new biker-inspired costume— I drew those pants because Daniele lives in Milan. He wasn’t awake and [Boom!] needed the adjustment quickly so I’m like, “don’t worry gurl, I got those pants.” There have definitely been times where the publisher asks you to do minimal redrawing, and sometimes artists will accidentally leave fragments of stuff in where it shouldn’t be and you can just clean it up for them— like a background layer only partially erased under someone’s face, things like that. I don’t do that very often because I like a little roughness to a page, and it usually feels sacrilegious to alter someone else’s inks. But when there’s an obvious art error, the colorist can just go in and fix it.
Lu: Do you tell the artist as well?
Stern: If we’re talking, yes. Some creative teams have really open communication, and sometimes everyone just goes through the editor. Writers and artists are usually pretty chummy I think, but there are a lot of artists that don’t really have a discourse with their colorist. Because they’re busy, because they genuinely don’t have feedback, or because they’re shy. Very often I think it’s because they’re shy. Sometimes, they’re a new artist and they don’t know that they could be exchanging tired, hysterical emoji with you at 3am. There’s people I’ve worked with for months or years but have talked to maybe twice, if at all, and the projects turn out great! But some of the best work that I’ve done has been with people that I already knew or people that were friendly and enjoyed having some back and forth.
Lu: Tell me about your webcomic, Cindersong.
Stern: I really like working on it. It’s about outcasts making their own families, figuring out what they owe each other and themselves, and killing other people in the woods with swords and magic. It’s the kind of story I would like to read, and it’s been a joy to share it with people. I’m spending a lot of time on it—I didn’t think it was possible to put more work hours in than when I was just coloring, but it totally was! It destroyed my sleep schedule for most of 2017. But I was able to put those hours in because I really needed to.
When I color, I enjoy it, but it’s also very much A Job that just has to be done. When what you love becomes work, it’s work. It’s still fun and it’s still much easier than something you’re not getting a dopamine drip from, but it’s also work. When you have a creative job, I think it’s crucial to have a discrete creative outlet that’s just for you.
Lu: In the future, what would you like to be working on?
Stern: It would be nice to work on my own comics and also continue to color some really good books. I want to keep working on Cindersong. I’m invested in that and it’s a ponderous friendship-fantasy comic so it’ll probably take me like 10 years [to finish]. So that’s set for a while. That would be ideal.
Mostly I want to be doing what I’m doing right now but with weekends and evenings off. There’s nothing noble or glamorous about the crunch. I’d like my job to be something that will allow me to make enough money to support a medium-sized dog and have a few hours to myself every day. Like many people in comics, I work pretty much continuously from sleep to sleep. When I do things that aren’t work— like going to see a movie, or walking to the store— that time has to be made up. I can live like this now because I’m still young and healthy, and I have the support of my family and the most understanding friends in the world who work around my schedule, but I don’t have any illusions about being able to stay on my grind at 70.
And really, I am where I am because I had the privilege to get a formal arts education, and to live rent-free with family for years after graduation, and to be offered these great jobs. I worked hard every step of the way to take advantage of those opportunities, but I was able to do that because of my excellent support network. I want to try and pass at least some of that on to people who don’t have the same leg up that I did.
Lu: What types of projects do you enjoy coloring the most? Are there any particular types of stories or color palettes you like working with?
Stern: I’ve honestly liked most of the jobs that I’ve taken and at this point I can turn a project down if I’m not interested in it! At the end of the day, spending those kinds of hours working on something you don’t care about is pretty rough.
I like things with really bright candy palettes, where the moods are very heightened. There’s a lot of room for me to work in books like that. I haven’t been on a lot of original projects, but things like Goldie Vance and Zodiac Starforce are really rewarding because the creative team is building a world and not just expanding it. That said, I do really like working on licensed properties that I’ve enjoyed before. I’ve colored some Star Wars, and Star Trek, an issue of Invader Zim, and I’ve been doing some work on Rick and Morty lately. “Nerd Cred” as a thing is exhausting and making how much you like a brand the sum of your identity is destructive, but there’s something genuinely rewarding about being able to say, “Hey man, I’m contributing to this really cool mythology and people are gonna read these books!” I’m in wiki entries now! That’s pretty cool!
Lu: What other properties would you want to work with?
Stern: DC’s Imprint, Young Animal, has been fantastic. Marissa [Louise] and Tamra [Bonvillain] have been doing excellent work there. So if they have something to throw my way, hell yes. There’s been some really good stuff coming out of the DC’s kids comics and everything they’ve shown so far for the Zoom and DC Ink imprints looks like a lot of fun. I think it’d be nice to branch out a little more! I don’t know. Let’s not go crazy— no one’s gonna offer me Spider-Man.
Lu: Do you want to color Spider-Man?
Stern: I mean, I wouldn’t say no. I’m there for Miles any hour of the day. You know.
Lu: If you had to pick three of your works for a coloring portfolio, what would they be?
Stern: Goldie Vance will probably be in that list for a long time. I think the Invader Zim issue I colored for Sarah Graley and the work I’ve done for Zodiac Starforce with Paulina Ganucheau and Kevin Panetta would round that out pretty well!
Goldie Vance #2 & #16 (BOOM!, Written by Hope Larson and Jackie Ball, Drawn by Brittany Williams and Elle Power)
Star Wars Adventures: Forces of Destiny: Leia (IDW, written by Elsa Charretier and Pierrick Colinet, drawn by Elsa Charretier)
The Weekly Art Round-Up
— just a marimo (@marinacjulia) February 15, 2018
I STAN THIS BLACKPINK FAN ART.
— ごっとう (@heroG22) February 21, 2018
Hello, evryone! I’m #Cifaela and I’m a freelancer 2d artist! I enjoy drawing with cute, fluffy and cartoonish style. I would like to work with illustrated children’s book someday. #VisibleWomen pic.twitter.com/mtvE2aQAfF
— Fabíola (@cifaela) February 19, 2018
— Yasahime (@JasminDarnell) February 18, 2018
she loves to be obnoxious pic.twitter.com/Ddzre5Sw0b
— Amelia Allore (@mimiadraws) February 18, 2018
happy valentines day! pic.twitter.com/qNewJfDbHA
— Kaia rhymes with papaya (@Kaiami) February 14, 2018
— Renie Strychalski (@RenieDraws) December 22, 2017
— mer ❄ (@nightmerss) February 15, 2018
— Abigail 🕷 Larson (@Abigail_Larson) February 10, 2018
I wish I had newer stuff but i dont wanna miss out on #VisibleWomen this time😤I’m Manda and I’m an aspiring comic book artist w/ a painting&drawing BFA. I love the mingling of horror and whimsy! As well as iguana-style sunbathing
🔥available for work at firstname.lastname@example.org🔥 pic.twitter.com/oHy18nIsjT
— manda (@blazkn) February 13, 2018
hello! im xanthe⭐i’m a dutch-indonesian illustrator & colorist from california!
I’m agender and i like knights, queer romance, and fashion. i work on comics & draw fanart for fun!#VisibleNb #VisibleWomen pic.twitter.com/5KUyUlOECw
— xanthe✨ (@xoxobouma) February 13, 2018
This started out as a warm up but it’s turning into a full comic – just a cute boop walking along totally unaware that she’s about to become the protagonist in yet another existential comic about adulthood. Yipeeeee 🍂 #comic #illustration pic.twitter.com/qVO1usCJvB
— Jamie Squire (@jamiesquire_) February 15, 2018
— アルバ (@Leaevra) February 11, 2018
illustration of shape of water I did for Variety’s Jan 30th’s issue. I had fun with this one \ o/ pic.twitter.com/Gv6nfiwmnp
— ✨NAKI @ Back 2 Freelance✨ (@YNJTB) February 19, 2018
— Vape (@Vapewraith) February 2, 2018
Alex is the New Media Editor of the Comics Beat. He is also a freelance comics editor with previous credits at First Second, Top Cow, and Papercutz. He primarily covers DC Comics and Magic: the Gathering.