Dr. PH. Martin's History of Comic Book Coloring

An increasing number of artists today are discovering Dr. PH. Martin’s Radiant Watercolors as a bright, potent medium for art and illustration, but few are aware of its historical role in coloring the greatest comic books of all time, and how Dr. Martin’s Dyes inspired artists of the Pop Art movement, leaving a permanent impression on art, toys, film, and fashion.

Dr. PH. Martin’s dye-based watercolors have been a favorite of illustrators and graphic artists for decades, and they’re being discovered by more and more fine artists as well who want a punch of intense color that traditional pigmented mediums can’t deliver. But, it might surprise you to learn about a former application for these brilliant synthetic colors that dramatically changed pop culture and visual arts, through the work of comic book artists.

Dr. PH. Martin’s concentrated watercolor products launched in 1934. These intense, staining liquids were developed from aniline dyes and similar synthetic-organic colorants that emerged from experiments with coal tar, a waste by-product of coal gas fuel.

Early comic book printing used a very limited, economical color process, and every single printed hue had to be created from combinations of only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink. Dr. Martin’s Watercolor Dyes were preferred by early 20th century comic book publishers for coloring line art in preparation for printing. Aniline dye watercolors aren’t very lightfast, but that wasn’t a concern when original art was just a means to produce a printed magazine.

Comic book colorists experimented and developed formulas for combining and diluting the dye colors to ensure that their original painted pages could be reproduced with a surprisingly wide range of hues. Eventually, large publishers commissioned custom batches of frequently used colors.

Hand-colored pages were separated into plates for each of the four colors. Today, comic book coloring is largely digital, but in the early days, color separation and toning were done mechanically. Hand-drawn gradients, cross-hatching, and dot patterns were labor-intensive, so the “Ben Day Process” was used instead to mechanically generate stippling and tones.

Image (right): Ben Day tone pattern examples

The Ben Day process used a regular pattern of dots, lines, and other patterns which, when overlapped, combined the four ink colors to create every color and shade in the eye, like a Pointillist painting.

Image (left): Left - Detail, comic book panel with visible Ben Day dots. Right - A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884

Through Pop Art, the jewel tones and unrestrained colors of Dr. Martin’s watercolor products continue to influence art and media today. The term “Ben Day Dots” became well known outside the printing industry when Pop Artists like Roy Lichtenstein drew on comic books as inspiration for his paintings and sculptures, transforming the dots into an iconic visual element that still influences designers in every field. Andy Warhol, who had used Dr. Martin’s watercolors in his early training, directly employed the clear, intense dyes in original art, celebrating the impermanence of the bright colors as part of the Pop aesthetic.

Image (right): Pop Artist Andy Warhol at The Jewish Museum

Artists today use classic Dr. Martin’s colors in a broad range of applications, including traditional watercolors, mixed with acrylic medium as a makeshift paint, and anywhere they want brilliant colors, where lightfastness isn’t a top priority. Meanwhile, Dr. PH. Martin’s has expanded to offer more lightfast, pigmented watercolors and inks so that fine artists can flood their work with the excitement and fun of this classic medium, with confidence that their work will be permanent.

Image (left): Artist Abby Nurre

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