10 Questions for Tom Luth

Tom Luth is a talented artist, illustrator, photographer, and comic book colorist. He is probably most associated with his twenty-year run coloring the work of Sergio Aragones on Groo the Wanderer and other titles. He’s also colored Usagi Yojimbo, Captain Victory, Aquaman, Nexus, and MAD magazine.

Based in Gardena, California, Luth keeps busy with Usagi covers, MAD projects, film work, visual effects, and motion graphics. You can learn more about him and view his online portfolio at www.thomasluth.com.

Question 1: When did you first decide that you wanted to create your own comics for a living?

I had always been a fan of comics, of course. Also, we had a family friend who was an animator, and I had the opportunity to visit many of the studios back in the 60s, and this inspired me to pursue cartooning and comics. I suppose around junior high I decided comics would be a good career to consider. I have always been torn between motion pictures and art.

Question 2: Who has had the biggest influence on you outside the comics industry, and how did they affect your life?

There are too many to list, but I’ll name a few. I have always loved movies and many were a great influence on me. As a kid, I could not name a director, so much of this knowledge came much later. I just knew I loved films. I loved Jason and the Argonauts, Jack the Giant Killer, To Kill a Mockingbird — still my favorite film — Bond movies, and others. I loved the spy genre, including TV shows. I was addicted to Bond, Man from UNCLE, Our Man Flint, etc.

I got excited about special effects, and our animator friend explained many to me. I also drew a lot. I discovered fine art when visiting Europe — and its art galleries — in the late 60s. I have a particular fondness for the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly John Waterhouse, and I greatly enjoy Andrew Wyeth’s work.

By high school, I discovered a book on visual effects, Raymond Fielding’s Visual Effects Cinematography, that I checked out every opportunity I could. My primary interest was matte painting. In college and later, I saw many more films and discovered many filmmakers who greatly influence me. I love David Lynch’s work, early Peter Wier, Kieslowski, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Lars Von Trier, and my favorite, Juraj Jakubisko.

Musically I love an odd mix, from The Who, Yes, Camel, Beatles, Donovan, Hendrix, to classical, and a lot of Jazz. I also enjoy The Police, U2, Eno, Fripp, Kaki King, and recently have discovered David Lynch’s musical collaborations, which make very nice backdrops for working.

Question 3: Who has had the biggest influence on your comics career, and how has that person changed your work?

The first comics I read, or rather, looked at, before I could read, were Popeye and Atomic Mouse. The first super-hero books I read were Adventure — #300 was my first — and the Superman family books. Batman soon followed. I read tons of the old MAD magazines my older brother had and loved those. Sergio has always been a favorite — his marginal cartoons are brilliant. My other favorite humor cartoonist would be Leo Baxendale, who I discovered when traveling in England as a kid.

I always copied comic characters, but moved away from comics by mid-high school. I continued to read them, but concluded this was not a serious career choice. Soon after, a new breed of artists showed up on the scene producing a new type of art. Specifically Neal Adams, Berni Wrightson, and Mike Kaluta. I was very impressed. In particular, Mike Kaluta did work that I would call fine art, and found a way to incorporate serious art into a comic book. This inspired me to reconsider abandoning comics, career-wise.

Question 4: What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?

I love travel, but have not been able to near as much as I would like. Recently, I took a week off to visit Death Valley, the Trona Pinnacles, and the Alabama Hills for a photography vacation. If I can’t travel overseas, I’ll seek out local gems. It is good to leave familiar surroundings, and leave deadlines behind. I had a great time, and have a truckload of photos, both as photography and reference for paintings.

The Groo Crew were also recently guests in Kansas City at Mo-Kan Comics Conspiracy convention, and I had a great time. The hosts were wonderful and showed us around town — I was very favorably impressed — and they fed us quite well. Beautiful city, and great people.

I also try to take one class each semester, usually at a junior college, to get me out of the house and to stay connected with current trends. Long Beach City College has excellent classes in art, film, ProTools, editing, etc., that keep my mind active. I also belong to a couple of professional societies: CAPS, the Comic Art Professional Society, of which I have been a member for 31 years, and Digital Media Los Angeles, formerly Motion Graphics LA, which I have been with for 10 years now. As a freelancer, so much of what we do is in seclusion that I really appreciate an opportunity to connect with other professionals on a personal level.

Question 5: Describe your typical work routine.

Typical? It varies widely.

As I juggle several careers, from coloring comics — occassionaly draw them, but mostly color — illustration, visual effects, motion graphics, and odd jobs I never anticipated, it is hard to detail a typical day. But, I will contain this to comics, and that will simplify a lot. As a colorist, everything is computer. That is good and bad, mostly good. I do miss traditional media, and make a point to use my personal time painting traditionally. For work, it is on the computer, and almost entirely Photoshop. Ten years ago, I would have to rush to FedEx minutes before closing to get a job out on time, sending either a SyQuest hard drive or painted guides, to frantically meet a deadline. Today, I can work up to the hour of the deadline — I try not to do that, but it has happened — and upload the last files to an ftp for immediate delivery. This greatly streamlines the process.

A job will start with either the artist or publisher sending me scans, either via e-mail, or ftp. Sergio literally scans the page he’s just completed, in sections, and attaches as an e-mail he sends me. I will assemble the pieces, with minor touch-ups, or adjusting the rotation, where I will adjust for line art. I place the line art, while working, into a new channel, and color on top. There are numerous tutorials on-line for the specific process. I only use flatters on occasion, mostly I just do it all myself. I tend to do very limited flats when I do my own, almost no detail, and just one color per figure. I usually partly flat several pages, then begin coloring. I usually finish one page, before moving on to the next, but not always. When I get bogged down on a particular page, it is time to change focus, and work on something else. Once completed, I will upload to the ftp.

In some cases, a client will want to see work at various stages, so I may save out a small jpeg and e-mail for approval or changes. On some jobs, I might call Sergio or Stan [Sakai of Usagi Yojimbo] for a clarification for color. Both are quite good at adding notes in the border if something needs a specific color. Usually, I have free run to do what I want.

Question 6: What writing, drawing, or other tools do you use?

For comic coloring, it is 95% Photoshop. I rarely use Painter. I have used Bryce, some years back to do skies. I found them to be a bit too “computery” and prefer to just paint them in Photoshop. For illustration and design, I also use Illustrator, Painter, and InDesign. For film and video, I add After Effects, Final Cut Pro, Cinema 4D, ProTools, Soundbooth, Reason, Absynth, and Soundhack.

Question 7: What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?

Sketching is the most relaxing, and often very pleasing aspect of my work. In coloring, discovering ways to use color and value to tell the story. Comics are about storytelling, and directing the reader where you want them to look. I try to find ways to lead viewers through a scene, yet make certain they quickly locate the main focus. Sometimes I can use color or the saturation of a color to accent the story. This can be quite exciting.

Question 8: What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career – in or out of comics – and why?

There are many. One that stands out is the Fanboy series, because of all the guest stars. I had the opportunity to work so many artists I would never have had the chance to work with otherwise. Being able to work with Golden Age giants such as Dick Sprang, Joe Giella and Jim Mooney was a blast, and to try to emulate the style of the age was great. Stealing Neal Adams marker coloring style on his sequence was a challenge. Trying to emulate Lynn Varley’s classic Dark Knight look might be tacky to try, except when it is coloring Frank Miller’s Batman sequence, it gave me an excuse to go for it. Jumping in and out of these styles was a lot of fun.

Question 9: We’ve all met very talented newcomers who are trying to get their first professional projects. What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard given to a promising new creator?

That is tricky. One thing that is crucial in all areas of work I do, whether comics or film, is that it is a team effort. One works as a support member to produce the end result, which means I am not the star, but someone who contributes to the end product. Keeping in mind what the end goal is, and helping the team to arrive there is crucial. It is storytelling, and doing my part to support this is what it is about. It is not about impressing anyone with my bright colors. In many instances, you want people to be so absorbed in the story that your work even goes unnoticed. This actually means you have done a good job.

If one is trying to start a portfolio, try to locate some black and white pages. Full pages telling a story are important. Covers and pin-ups do not show your ability to tell, or support the telling, of the story. Some pages are available online. Make sure they are at l east 300 dpi at printed size. I tend to work at around 450-600 dpi these days.

If you can visit comic conventions, do so. Meet with other artists, and ask for feedback when appropriate. Study art outside of comics, and try to get a well-rounded education. This needn’t be in college. One can learn by visiting museums and galleries, reading newspapers, and traveling.

Question 10: Time to get philosophical: What’s the most important “big idea” that you’ve learned in life – in or out of comics – and why is it important?

All these tricky questions. Hmmm. One thing I learned was basically a change of how I perceived success. I had viewed my career as a journey from a novice to a destination where I achieved success, or a professional skill level, and then I had achieved “it.” It soon became obvious that there is no such thing as arriving at this destination. I have met artists who believed they found this perfection, and their work became stale in spite of being very well crafted. The life was gone. To stay alive, there needs to be a constant search for the next step. Perfection is a goal to strive for, while accepting that it will never be achieved, but we will keep getting closer. I have so much left to learn, and hope I can keep pushing forward. Work needs to stay exciting on some level.

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