How to Develop Your Own Style as a Colorist
Let’s try something.
Think of an artist you admire. It doesn’t matter who. They could be within your field or perhaps hail from another discipline entirely. Now, think about this artist’s work, and what exactly you like about it. Got someone in mind? Take a minute to really think about them.
Whomever you’re thinking of, I’m willing to bet that what you’re attracted to most in their work isn’t their technical skills or the tools they use. Rather, it’s their vision, their approach, their creative fingerprint.
In my experience, an artist’s unique “take” is the purest definition of creative style, and this is especially true for colorists. It’s something all great creative minds have in common, and something we all seek to cultivate in our work.
But how exactly do you develop your own creative style?
True, style is an abstract concept, and pursuing it means patiently accruing experience over thousands of hours of hard work and experimentation.
But while we don’t creatively mature overnight, that doesn’t mean we’re completely powerless in driving this development.
In today’s article, we’ll examine five tangible principles that will help you develop your own creative style as a colorist. Let’s grow!
1. Find a mentor
The first step to developing your personal style as a colorist is to work with artists who already have a distinct style of their own.
No matter who you are, or how long you’ve been working, there are always colorists with more hours logged in the grading theater. You can and should learn from them. Yes, working under stronger artists can feel imposing, or even stifling at times, but these are the very pressures that force your own creativity to define and declare itself.
Keep in mind, it may take you time to find an appropriate mentor. Expert colorists willing to share their knowledge can be hard to come by, but it’s worth the effort to seek them out.
I had the opportunity to work under a world-class colorist named Shane Reed (Chef’s Table, Sorry For Your Loss, Western Stars) for several years, and it was truly transformative to my creative style.
As a mature artist, Shane had already cultivated very specific ideas and taste, and much of my job entailed studying and matching his approach to the best of my ability. This provided the ideal structure for my own ideas and taste to develop.
I was initially overwhelmed by all I was learning, but my understanding slowly grew and with it my curiosity. I’d find myself wondering, “what if we did this instead of that?” On my own time, I explored these what-ifs and how-abouts, which deepened my understanding of the craft.
Over time, these experiments led me from questions, to theories, to convictions about what looks best and how to achieve it. I found it easier and easier to look at an ungraded image and envision where I felt it should go.
Of course, color grading is a collaborative art form, and I’m not the ultimate arbiter of a film or show’s look. But this strong creative compass, sharpened through mentorship, remains my most valuable asset as a colorist.
So if you want to cultivate your style, find someone better at your craft than you are, and position yourself to learn from them. It’s a surefire route to creative growth.
2. Watch films analytically
The second step to developing your own style is to be more intentional and critical of the content you consume.
It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a filmmaker. More than ever before, we’re surrounded by visually impressive motion imagery. But this avalanche of content is a double-edged sword, because it comes with increased pressure to become a passive consumer.
For colorists committed to artistic growth, simply watching content isn’t enough. If we want to creatively benefit from the work we admire, we need to engage with it analytically. Paradoxically, this is most difficult to do when watching well-made material, because by definition we get emotionally involved in it!
But just like we build physical muscles through physical exercise, the ability to toggle between our critical and emotional faculties is a mental muscle group we need to develop as filmmakers. Better yet, we should learn to inhabit both simultaneously. It takes practice, but this is a learnable skill.
When you find a film or other piece of content that inspires you, try watching it multiple times with a fully engaged mind. Each time you watch it, your connection to the what and understanding of the how will deepen.
Try this exercise, paying attention to both the net effect of the filmmaking, as well as the creative choices that drive it. As you watch, ask yourself questions:
- How does this moment, image, or scene make me feel?
- What choices were made on set and in post-production to create this feeling? What are the key tools and techniques being used?
- How are the key creatives — director, cinematographer, production designer, editor, colorist, etc — each contributing? What might they have done differently to be more (or less) effective?
- What are the defining qualities of the imagery? Low or high-contrast? Colorful or muted? Cool or warm?
Even films that span genres and cinema history can share key visual traits, and help you explore these questions. Here’s a sample from three movies The Sound of Music, Blade Runner, and The Master:
The more you explore these kinds of questions, the more you’ll begin to find patterns in the work you’re drawn to. In my case, some of the key commonalities I began to value over time included:
- The combination of strong “rolling” contrast, with shadows that never fully reach pure black
- Split-toned images with cool shadows and warm highlights
- A controlled color palette with strong color separation, and higher saturation in the shadows than in the highlights
But the real epiphany came when I realized that these commonalities were not a random bundle of image characteristics—they’re the very things that define the behavior of a traditional film print stock. I had stumbled upon the fundamental “code” for the movies I grew up loving, and for virtually every film image mastered before the rise of digital intermediate.
This realization informs my work and my process to this day. Print stock colorimetry is a core part of my aesthetic, and learning from films that employ it has helped to focus my process, and to give my work a subtle but consistent creative fingerprint.
That’s why actively engaging with the content you consume is so important. It won’t make your work look more like someone else’s—it will make it look more like your own.
3. Study other art forms
Studying the work of other filmmakers is critical as a colorist, but if you really want to improve your artistic style you need to step outside the realm of cinema.
Painting, still photography, and illustration can be just as valuable to our creative development as filmmakers, and sometimes even more so. These forms can challenge and expand our ideas about light, texture, composition, motion, and color.
And of course, we can find inspiration in non-image-based forms as well. Sculpture, architecture, dance, and music can all spark surprising ideas and connections.
For example, many years ago I became obsessed with the unique sonic texture of Freddie King’s “Living on the Highway”. It had an incredible grit and power to it, and it simply felt bigger than other music.
I learned that one of the reasons for this quality was that it was recorded using analog equipment that “soft-clipped” the signal, driving it to maximum loudness without ever fully distorting or “hard-clipping”.
This song inspired my first grading experiments with what I now know is called “roll-off” in color grading—the upward bending of a signal as it approaches pure white. This technique creates a greater perceived contrast without ever exceeding what the display can reproduce. Years later, I’ve refined a specific roll-off shape which I deploy in some form on nearly every project I tackle.
So, if you’re serious about cultivating your personal style, pay attention to the creative ideas all around you, especially those expressed in other art forms.
4. Make mistakes
Perhaps the best thing we can do to cultivate our style as artists is to make mistakes.
Before you brush this off as a tired cliché, let me emphasize that I don’t mean “be willing to accept your mistakes.” I’m telling you to intentionally and proactively make them.
This is one of the most difficult aspects of turning passion into a profession. When we’re learning for our own enjoyment and aren’t obligated to a boss or client, we feel free to experiment and fail, and as a result, our development tends to be quite rapid.
But as we begin attaching identity, money, and expectations to our work, the stakes increase. Consciously or otherwise, we become risk-averse and self-preserving, more likely to go for the tried-and-true than to go out on a limb. While sticking with what works is part of what keeps us in business, it can also easily lead to creative stagnation.
The only antidote to this is to spend time doing things wrong on purpose, challenging your rules and assumptions about your craft. Of course, you may not want to do this with your client in the room, but with conscious effort you can find the right moments.
For example, I like to open up old projects and re-grade them with one or more constraints in place, such as:
- Grade the entire timeline using only one tool or knob
- Grade every shot to fall below 50% on the histogram
- Grade the entire project with saturation maxed out on every shot
These are just a few ideas, but the possibilities are endless. The point is to constrain yourself from the outset with a “wrong” decision and to find a way to make it work.
And be sure to remember this suggestion the next time someone comes to you with a low-paying project. Negotiate additional time in exchange for a lower rate. This extra time will give you latitude to experiment, and can be a great way to make a tight budget work for everybody.
As you work on delivering a polished final product, you’ll have the ability to explore ideas which may not necessarily prove fruitful, but will help you develop your style in a real-world setting.
5. Study the history of your craft
A final piece of advice in honing your creative style is to study the masters who came before you.
This is good advice for any artist, but it’s especially applicable to color grading as our craft represents the fusion of two very different disciplines: color timing and color correction.
This distinction is a lengthy subject in and of itself, but to simplify, color timing was designed for mastering cinema images and color correction for tweaking broadcast video.
Today, this distinction has blurred nearly beyond recognition, leaving us with a patchwork of tools and creative culture that borrows from both. This can have a profound impact on our process and our results, which places an especially high demand on colorists to understand the lineage and legacy of their practice.
Here’s a simple example. Color timing employs a subtractive color system, while color correction traditionally uses additive color. In the digital realm, we’re free to use either, but only if we know that we have this freedom. Let’s say we have a frame we want to add a strong pop of saturation to.
In the following image, I’ve introduced saturation using additive color, meaning that as I add color, I’m also adding luminance.
And in the next, I’ve added the same amount of saturation, but using subtractive color, meaning that colors get darker as they become more saturated.
The image you find more pleasing is a matter of personal taste, but that’s precisely my point. By understanding the difference in methods between these two disciplines, and by experimenting with both, I’ve cultivated a strong preference for the latter in my work. The concept of subtractive color has become another cornerstone of my personal style.
Studying the history of your craft opens your eyes to the full range of creative choices available, and allows you more control over the results. You don’t have to passively accept off-the-shelf methods or tools, because you’ll have the full breadth of the craft to pull from.
Get to it
I hope these principles give you some fresh ideas and motivation for developing your style as a colorist.
While there are no easy shortcuts to achieving this goal, there’s nothing wrong with actively pursuing it. In fact, without doing so, you’re unlikely to progress much at all. But if you consistently invest your curiosity, imagination, and passion into the process, you’ll find it one of the most rewarding aspects of our craft.
Got any tricks or ideas of your own for cultivating artistic style? Let me know in the comments.