Understanding Flatting: An Interview with Ray Nadine
About a year ago, I wrote this article on colorists. It was as much to educate people new to the comics medium as it was to educate myself, who had recently decided to start reviewing comics with little to no knowledge on how the things get made.
While researching the coloring process, I heard about "flatting." Having never seen flatters credited in a comic before, I was curious about what they did. I assumed it had something to do with flat colors, but a lot of the resources I could find online (of which, there were few) went over my head or contradicted other resources. For example, some said the colors chosen in the flatting process were important, while others said they weren't. However, I was writing about colorists, so understanding flatters would have to be a research project for another day.
That day recently came, and I realized I'd have to get more direct if I wanted to understand the process in a way that was clear for someone who isn't an artist. I reached out to comic artist, colorist, & letterer and fellow St. Louisan, Ray Nadine, who graciously allowed me to interview them.
COMIC BOOK YETI: In basic terms, what does a flatter do?
RAY: A flatter takes the black and white line art of a comic and fills in the colors, sort of like a color-by-number. Usually an artist will give their flatter a color palette to work with, but still often times artists will adjust the flat colors as needed.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Where do you come in during the comic book creation process?
RAY: After line art is finished, I'll flat the comic and send it back to the artist. This allows the artist time to work on other parts of the comic (such as working ahead on pencils for other pages, or writing, or lettering. Pretty much anything).
COMIC BOOK YETI: What does the flatting process look like once you have the line art?
RAY: For me, it's an evening on the couch after I've finished my own comic work for the day, turning on reruns of whatever I'm watching on Netflix, and filling in the blanks until the work's done haha. I like doing flatting and coloring work cause I'm able to pretty much go into auto-pilot with it, so I can at least enjoy mindless activities while I work.
"A flatter takes the black and white line art of a comic and fills in the colors, sort of like a color-by-number."
COMIC BOOK YETI: What kind of tools or technology do flatters typically use?
RAY: I use Clip Studio Paint for all of my artwork, including flatting. I feel like it has a better paint bucket tool for flatting than Photoshop offers, and I'm so used to using the controls for it that it's muscle memory for me.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Do the flat colors you choose matter? Do they have to correspond to what the color palette usually is for that title, or what you think the colorist will use for the pages? And, if so, do you talk to the colorist about the palette before you get started?
RAY: It depends on the artist, I always talk to them and ask their preference before getting started on a project. I've flatted comics that require a specific palette for certain characters (provided to me by the artist), and I've also flatted comics that the artist just requests that the colors be different enough in tone that they can easily select colors to change them after they've been flatted.
When I flat my own work, I keep in mind color choices for the end product as I flat, but when I have someone else flatting for me, I often change colors after the flatting is done. Though even in my own work where I hire a flatter, the flatter I've had has been working with me long enough now that they've grown accustomed to the colors I usually choose and I don't have to tweak them that much (shoutout to Kiel Murray for saving my life weekly).
"I've flatted comics that require a specific palette for certain characters (provided to me by the artist), and I've also flatted comics that the artist just requests that the colors be different enough in tone that they can easily select colors to change them after they've been flatted."
COMIC BOOK YETI: How much communication do you typically have with the colorist or other creators on the title? RAY: At the beginning of a project there's a good amount of communication, discussing turn-around time expectations and color palette options. Once we get in a rhythm, the communication goes down to a weekly "hey, got the flats done!" or "can I anticipate receiving inks on this date?" or "pls send me pics of your cat."
COMIC BOOK YETI: How long does a standard issue take to flat? Are some art styles more difficult to flat?
RAY: All the comics I flat are for Webtoon, which is less of a standard issue than most comics. These comics usually end up being roughly 5-8 "traditional" pages a week, and I'll spend about 4 hours flatting an episode.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Does the colorist pay the flatter? Do they tend to get paid after the comic is published?
RAY: I've always been paid by the colorist/artist as the work is completed, usually before publishing, and in cases where I've hired flatters I pay them upon work completion. I've always been paid for work even if a comic goes unpublished, for example if I flatted a pitch that didn't get picked up.
"A good/bad flatter is less about the end product, and more about other things like turn around time or communication. Even if a flatter is technically skilled, if the product isn't turned in on time it defeats the purpose of having a flatter in the first place."
COMIC BOOK YETI: Can readers tell the difference between a good flatter and a bad flatter, or is that something mostly just seen by the colorist? RAY: From my experience, it's not something a reader will notice because a colorist will fix issues with flatting (or...I do at least, but then again I'm lucky to have an excellent flatter so I don't usually have mistakes to fix haha). But also, a good/bad flatter is less about the end product, and more about other things like turn around time or communication. Even if a flatter is technically skilled, if the product isn't turned in on time it defeats the purpose of having a flatter in the first place.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Does every colorist have a flatter?
RAY: Not all do, though amongst my peers that I know personally, most of us hire flatters, or in my case I've done flatting and coloring work both while also hiring a flatter to flat my own comic. Having them flat my comic allows me time to take on other coloring/flatting work.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Why do you think flatters don't get credited in comics?
RAY: I think it's perceived as not having enough "skill" to be credited, though personally I vouch for having flatters credited on my own work. So far I haven't been able to win that battle, so I tweet about my flatter often so at least people are aware of their skills.
COMIC BOOK YETI: How can a flatter practice their technique or get feedback? RAY: Watch tutorial videos on YouTube for whatever program they like using, ask their colorist/artist they're working for if what they're doing is working out well. Honestly, communicating your needs to a flatter, and vice versa, is the best thing you can do in my opinion.
While Ray answered my burning questions about flatting, some of you may have more, or maybe you just learn better watching a video than reading an interview, Kurt Michael Russell, colorist on the Vault Comics series Money Shot, has a phenomenal video where he walks you through the flatting process, which I've added here:
If you're looking for a much more technical article on flatting, this is the one I originally referenced the most in my "Colorists: What & Why" article.
Needless to say, flatting is a skilled task that not just anyone can do. Flatters help the colorists, which in turn help the comic live up to its potential. As such, they deserve credit on every comic they work on.
If you have more questions about flatting that I didn't answer in this article, please let me know in the comments!
Ray was born and raised in central Illinois, and was drawing as soon as they could hold a pencil. They knew from a young age that they wanted to tell stories, and after years of growing up on manga and webcomics, they pursued an art education at Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville. After graduation, they launched their ongoing webcomic, Dollhouse, in January 2013 and have been publishing two pages a week until Summer 2017. In fall of 2017, they quit their day job to be a full-time freelance comic artist working on Messenger with Paul Tobin, published by Webtoon. Aside from Messenger, Ray creates short one-off comics, linoprints, letterpress, and risograph prints, zines, metalwork, and other knick-knacks.
Ray currently lives in St. Louis with their cat, Nico. They work all day and night as a comic artist, colorist, and letterer.
They love the city, and in their free time they love making music playlists, collecting skulls, and playing video games (currently playing: Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain).
Ray is currently looking for coloring work, and they'd love to draw your next variant cover. If it's got blood, crime, or knives, then they're even more likely to love the project. They're also available as a guest speaker and educator.