Even to the untrained eye, there is something unmistakably special about comic books colored by Dean White.
While his name might not be on everybody’s lips — an unfortunate statement about how poorly recognized comic book colorists tend to be, even today — his work has been attracting attention for more than a decade at this point, appearing from publishers including Artists Writers and Artisans, Image Comics, Marvel and DC, on titles including Uncanny X-Force, Superman, Suicide Squad, and Avengers vs. X-Men.
Despite the many different artists and styles he works with, from the ornate subtle work of Jerome Opena to the blunt, ink-heavy collaborations of John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson, or even the graphic clarity of ACO, White’s work is almost always immediately recognizable for two reasons, both of which speak to White’s attention to detail in different ways.
In the macro sense, White approaches his work less from a literal standpoint than a graphic and emotional one; instead of coloring artwork “realistically,” he traditionally composes pages that read more atmospherically, keying the reader into the emotional beats of the story being told in ways that are far more subtle — but, occasionally, more effective — than the work being done by the writer and penciler on any given project. To look at one of White’s pages is to immediately have a sense of what’s happening in the narrative even before focusing on the individual panels, and it’s all because he knows just what is important in any given scene, and how to bring that to chromatic life on each page.
Beyond that, there’s the way in which White plies his trade. Unlike other digital colorists — White has colored traditionally, with his 2008 collaboration with Eduardo Risso in Marvel’s Logan being colored using watercolors, but his most commonly used tool is Photoshop, according to interviews — White’s work has an unusually painterly quality in terms of his mark-making, with his best work seeming almost impossible to “read” as digitally created outside of extremely close examination.
The result is something that speaks to a fine art approach — with White choosing to use miniature marks to add texture and color gradients like brushwork, instead of relying on digital tricks and shortcuts — to build an end result that feels at once contemporary and classic, and oddly more human and intimate at the same time; the fine detail present on every page, and the choices made by White in terms of color and emphasis, making it clear that these are comics that have been carefully considered, as opposed to simply created as generic product on an assembly line.
Part of this may come from the fact that White is, himself, a painter — his social media regularly features his original artwork, in addition to his color work and images of both in various stages of completion — and he has cited fine artists like Andrew Wyeth and John Singer Sargent as influences, instead of the more traditional list of other comic book colorists or movie directors and cinematographers; White may be an oddity in his field, but perhaps he’s a model others should learn from, instead of an outlier to be kept at arms’ length.
In many ways, White feels almost old-fashioned in his work despite the tools and methods he uses, or at least part of a continuum — you can see echoes of Lynn Varley’s colors, as well as some of Dave Stewart’s choices and textures, and there’s some Richmond Lewis to be found in color palettes chosen. None of these are necessarily influences — conscious or unconscious — but it’s worth noting that White isn’t such an oddity in comic book coloring, as much as he is part of an unfortunately rare breed, especially amongst those currently working in mainstream comic publishing.
In a 2011 interview, White talked about his work by saying, “I look at coloring comics as juggling three ideas: one is that the page is in itself a graphic element that needs to read as one image, second [is that the page] is akin to animation, where each panel and scene are one cut to the next and everything is moving, then third that it is a stage play, that all three have to work together.” In that same interview, he talked about the role of the colorist, in his eyes, as being “a weird dichotomy in that I believe you have to make it yours but at the same time stay true to the intent of the pencils. When it really works it becomes its own thing.”
When White is at his best, he really does create something new out of the black and white artwork he’s given; an artist in his own right, he elevates the material he starts with, and the result is a collaboration in the truest sense of the term. His very presence can make a new release worth checking out, and very often can make good artwork into genuinely great comics, even to the untrained eye.