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The Artist's Toolbox - Working with References



I can draw anything... as long as I get to look at it.

There is a great myth that drawing is a memory exercise. That if you can draw entirely from memory it makes you a better artist who deserves more kudos.

Of course the study of drawing will lead to a good memory of the things you've already studied how to draw, humans, animals, whatever it is that you love to draw. But the downfall of this is that you can restrict yourself to only drawing what it is you have studied how to draw, ie what you've memorised.

Using reference is not a weakness! It is a strength and almost all top level artists use a lot of reference. Using reference means you're not trapped one person's life experiences and can draw upon a wealth of extra knowledge. How can that be a weakness?

One


A lot of people seem to assume that the reference should come first. They go out and they scour the dA stock etc to find the perfect pose to copy. And while this is a legitimate method, it relies on other people doing the photos and releasing them online, and then when you copy it directly you might end up as one of hundreds of artworks drawn from that image. So while I don't say "don't copy stock" I personally find it just as restricting as relying only on my memory.

In my opinion the ideal option is a blend of the two! Imagination and Reference. Which leads me to my second point.


Two


You can use pieces of reference to shore up your artwork where you're having problems. Often I do a sketch, and then I look at it and see where it's not working very well, the hands aren't good, or the face isn't unique enough or I don't actually know how to draw a pick up truck so if I made it up it would look very shoddy.

This is when I go out and find the reference I need just for that one area of the image. Where hands are concerned I often want a very very specific pose so I take my own references with my phone and a mirror. (You could do the whole pose too if you want to!) I like to take my own photographs where possible because then I KNOW no one else is using the same refs as me.


The Sketch. I kept trying to draw the hands over and over and it ended up a muddy mess, I knew what I wanted but doing it just wasn't working out well.


The phone photos! I took each hand individually as I had to hold the phone with my other hand. I used a gluestick to give me something to hold as the weapon handle. (My gluestick has been many things over the years, from Gandalf's staff to a lightsaber!)


The new drawing. I simplify the hands from the photo down into the style that best fits the work so it doesn't look out of place, and then keep going on the rest of the image which didn't need reference for.

This is the final image.  It doesn't take long at all with a mirror to get the kind of pose I need for my own references. Often I also change the style of my hands to chunkier male hands, or shorter fingers etc to suit the character. The reference just gives me a good idea of angles and lighting.

Three


In this example there was a lot more imagination involved in the interpretation of the reference. The previous method was to draw it exactly, here I used the references to then manipulate onto the specific angle and shape I needed in my picture.



I only vaguely know how to draw a truck, but I knew I wanted this very specific fisheyed angle in my work, so I drew it in anyway in the angle I wanted using simple  boxy shapes. Since I do not own a truck so couldn't take my own refs, I googled it. Using the showroom type images I was able to distort it to fit my sketch that I'd already made, in such a way that it actually looked like a pick up truck. It took multiple images of the truck from lots of angles to make it work for me. A reference need not be a single picture after all.


Because the underlying boxy structure of the truck was already there it was all cosmetic changes to make my poor attempt at a pick up truck look like an actual vehicle and not a toy car made of blocks.


Four


This is the closest to my way of working when I get to big ass proper illustrations. I use a lot of references from all over the place, and some are only for research and inspiration. It's not about realism for me, so if you're a cartoonist don't think referencing isn't for you, it's about doing something believable, and your memory isn't always believable. If in doubt.. look at something.


This is an idea drawn entirely from my brain. I like to work like this because it does allow me to be free with my ideas and compositions without worrying about being "accurate" or "life like". You could even add a blob for "item goes here" into the thumbnail.

The illustration will be of a fantasy type castle Women's garden, including female knights and ladies doing their lady things. So there will be suits of armour, ladies in elegant dresses, a castle in the backdrop, castle walls, weaponry, poses, hands, faces and much more.

I could make it up, and probably do a pretty cool image. But I want to make something more interesting than just the first generic style that comes into my head. (Which is what it would be if I did it all from my head.)

So what I'm going to need is tonnes of references and research for ideas.

Images of

Armour,
Ladie's gowns inspiration,
Castles,
Soldiers on medieval walls,
Pikes,
Research what kind of small decor I want, plates, cups, tables. chairs etc.

I went to the stock section of dA and typed "armor" in the search bar, this is what came back that interested me for this project

It took me a grand total of 3 minutes to find a bundle of images, and already I'm spotting details I could add to the suit of armour I have in my imagination in regard to this image.



This is my new sketch. It's still fantasy, but I used a lot of medieval references for the sofa, table, armour, castle etc so that it retained that old world feel. You could use whatever you like for inspiration.

Even from this stage I will still have to get smaller bits of reference for things like the hands (like in part Two) when I'm further through the image and ready to make the hands look fabulous.


Five


References can also help with things such as what colours to shade something, or where to place shadows and highlights. Even for very cartoony work. Have you ever played about with a single light source (lamp or torch) and your own body in front of a mirror moving the light around and observing the shadows? It's a lot of fun and you can learn a lot about where to place shadows. You can play like this for any object, cast different lights onto things you own and see how they react.

So don't count referencing out if you're a cartoonist either, even if it's not for realism but for lighting and colours!


End


Once again I appear to have written quite a lot of words in regard to referencing. For me reference is a tool I could not do my artwork without, and the internet makes my job a million times easier. It eliminates the need for me asking people to model for me for long periods of time like the artists of pre photography days.

I hope you stuck it through and perhaps learned something interesting.


TL;DR


Do sketch
Identify Problem Areas
Find References to help those problems
Fix Problems
Be Happy



Add a Comment:
 
:iconaristanova:
Aristanova Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Fantastic article! Very helpful ~Thanks very much for sharing.
:clap:
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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014  Professional General Artist
Glad you liked it ^_^
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:iconrovanna:
Rovanna Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014   Digital Artist
This is great advice! :D I've been starting to sketch more before finding references and it helps a lot. I take those phone pics of myself for reference too. :giggle: My photos folder has a lot of grainy pics of my hands in it.
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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014  Professional General Artist
Yes, sketching before reference, but knowing you will be redrawing it with refs for stuff that looks bad, is a lot of fun, and ego boosting because the drawing doesn't have to be good, only the idea has to be.
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:iconbubble66:
Bubble66 Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Very helpful and inspiring thank you :)
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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014  Professional General Artist
You're welcome :D
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:iconlady-compassion:
Lady-Compassion Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Great explanations...thanks for sharing this :iconflowerplz:
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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014  Professional General Artist
You're welcome ^_^
Reply
:iconsun-lily:
sun-lily Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist
This is very helpful for me. Thank you!
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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014  Professional General Artist
Glad it was useful to you :D
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:iconnaseemk023:
naseemk023 Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you for this article.....it helped me a lot....
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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014  Professional General Artist
Glad you found it useful ^_^
Reply
:iconvividybowski:
ViviDybowski Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014
"if in doubt.. Look at something." :)

I have to keep that in mind! I tend to give up when I struggle with hands etc. instead of just googling some references and try again :stupidme:

You've written a wonderful article, very informative and useful! I also love how you used photos to explain everything, that's really great!

Thank you !!!
Reply
:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Professional General Artist
As I mentioned I use my own hands a lot, because I can get the exact pose I like. And if I want to transform my own boney feminine hands into another type of hands I might have a couple of pictures of the hand type I want (muscled or male or rounded etc) plus my own photos and use my imagination to combine the two.

I also pose a lot in my full length mirror. Like "Acting" I pretend I am a character and think "if I were them how would I be standing/sitting etc right now" and that helps a lot too. Even if I don't draw that from life it gives me ideas.

I hope you find my article useful for your future pieces :D
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:iconvividybowski:
ViviDybowski Featured By Owner Feb 24, 2014
Thank you! :heart:
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:iconakkajess:
akkajess Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Awesome article! 

It's very useful :clap::heart:
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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Professional General Artist
Thanks :D
Reply
:iconhefeigal:
hefeigal Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you so much for this! I often take references for little pieces of my work, and I've worried before if that is considered 'copying'. It's great to hear that references aren't always bad, and now I have plenty of things to practice!

Wonderful article! Keep up the great work! :D
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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Professional General Artist
Research is very important, even simple things like character costume I spend some time broswing clothing and such and I'm certainly not alone.

As I said you can't draw what you don't know, so how would you get any better if you didn't use little references for help. :D I swear the whole "references are cheating" is some kind of strange internet conspiracy to keep artists in the beginner phase and never help them get better. XD
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:iconhefeigal:
hefeigal Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I don't understand how people think they can improve without references. I learned to draw by copying the artists I liked. (I might've done better if I chose better artists to emulate but hey I guess everyone starts somewhere)

References are, in my opinion, only cheating if you trace the actual thing, and act like it's completely yours. Even if you trace a part, but keep it to yourself, I think that's ok. 

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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014  Professional General Artist
I think for me as a teenager I was super into Anime, which I drew in my spare time, and I did realistic work for art classes which was always from life or reference.

In my head I couldn't see how a realistic reference translated across to the cartoon work, because all I knew how to do with a reference was copy it exactly into a photorealistic pencil or paint piece.

Now I realise that a reference can be as simple as working out where to put seams in an outfit, or how a pattern might fold through material, or how light might work on a colour. It doesn't have to be the direct copying it was and so it is something I was doing unconsciously anyway as a teenager (I used to draw ballgowns I liked at the oscars on my anime characters all the time) but never realised I was 'referencing' while doing it. And so I would declare "I did this without reference" because reference meant realism.

I'm still much more of a cartoonist, I prefer the freedoms, but I realise now how reference can improve my work for the better and that research and reference are the same thing really
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:iconhefeigal:
hefeigal Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Absolutely. I didn't even realize it, but I used references for more than just poses. Without even noticing it, I would copy the styles of anime artists I thought I wanted to be like. 

"research and reference are the same thing'. I couldn't agree more. :nod: 
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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014  Professional General Artist
More like research informs which references you choose I suppose,  having thought about it, but the research is almost the more important part, you choose what you want, which design bits you need to see more pictures of, which you decide aren't right... etc etc... It's part of the same process of working.
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:iconartbymba:
artbymba Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I am so bad at using references. People think using references is a weakness? In the contrary if you can use references it means you are professional.
I have a lot trouble with it. When I use a reference picture; somehow I mess up especially proportions. I try to fix it for a while and finally quit after hours and go with imagination.
To me; this means I am too bad at art.
As you have said; as an artist you have to learn more expand your boundaries further from your imagination.
I am trying to learn how to use references in my own way.

Thanks for the article, especially telling the techniques we can try to use reference photos. You helped me a lot!

:heart:
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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Professional General Artist
One of the best things you can do to help with proportions and such is draw from life/reference but not for the sake of an illustration but just to practice drawing from life. I did exercises at art school where we drew crumpled up bits of paper, or balled up clothing, so that we were just copying what we saw without worrying about it being a thing like a face or an apple etc. It's very helpful.

A tip I didn't put in here is if you struggle, flip everything upside down, reference and drawing, and draw it that way, it does the same thing as drawing abstract shapes, it allows you to concentrate more on the shapes than the "Symbols"  ie it's a bundle of lines that look like a hand as opposed to trying to make it look like a hand.. I'm not explaining that well but I hope you get me...
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:iconartbymba:
artbymba Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Oh! I get what you mean. That makes sense! Thank you, I didn't know that, I have never thought it like that.
Not too long ago, I saw a comment on facebook under an artwork WojciechFus posted. There the person write something similar.
"Drawing what we see instead of what we think we're drawing." Now, with your suggestions I feel so enlightened.
I didn't went to art school or classes so these information I gather around sometimes by chance, sometimes by research are very important to me.
I will try these. Let see where they take me.

There are no words to thank you enough. :heart:

*I will feature your journal when I gather it with other info about the subject.*
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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Professional General Artist
yes, exactly, draw what you see, not what you think you see. and the more you do this the more you will be able to make up. Esp if you're cartooning, or working just off realism, you do want to styalise the reference and if you understand how it works it helps a lot. I'm not saying force yourself to do studies if you don't want to (They can be very dull) but rather "the more you work from reference the better you'll get at it" and doing more of it means you get better quicker. But above all make sure you're enjoying it. Nothing worse than making art you don't enjou.
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:iconschwannie:
Schwannie Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014
This was very useful :clap: I'm surprised that I've already used some of the techniques you recommended :wow:
Reply
:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Professional General Artist
Well I hope the things you don't already do have been helpful :D
Reply
:iconschwannie:
Schwannie Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014
Yes, they have been as well :D It's funny how I let other people pose for my drawings :XD: I just want to get the right anatomy somehow.
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:iconnichrysalis:
Nichrysalis Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
:clap:
Reply
:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Professional General Artist
:onfire:
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:iconvalasedai:
ValaSedai Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Great article! :nod:
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:iconfionacreates:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Professional General Artist
Thanks :D
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