The Artist's Toolbox - Working with References
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By FionaCreates   |   Watch
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Published: February 17, 2014


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



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Nocturnaliss's avatar
Very good article I must say! And inspiring. I'm one of those people who tends to not take the time to use reference material, even though I really should. And plan to. Thank you :heart:
FionaCreates's avatar
FionaCreatesProfessional General Artist
Thanks :D I sketch a lot reference free. So my sketchbook can be a mess of stuff that could be better. Because referencing does take time and effort. It's if I decide to take a sketch and work more on it that I take the time to reference properly. I have sketches in my sketchbook with notes like "dog goes here" and a blob that looks vaguely dog shaped XD Cos it's about working out composition not drawing pretty art. that comes later.
Nocturnaliss's avatar
I don't draw enough, period XD but I really do like your idea of taking photos of yourself to use as reference... so often I have trouble with hands and poses and I don't really have the patience to sift through reference pics. It's an ideal solution.
theantist's avatar
theantistHobbyist Traditional Artist
Thanks for the article! Very interesting!
FionaCreates's avatar
FionaCreatesProfessional General Artist
You're welcome :D
TamaraLynn23's avatar
Great article!! Adding to my favs!!! Love love love your work!!! Talent isn't quite a strong enough word!!tammy
FionaCreates's avatar
FionaCreatesProfessional General Artist
Thanks :D Talent only gets you so far! The rest is hard graft and enjoyment.
Xadrea's avatar
XadreaProfessional Traditional Artist
I've pointed so many people in my seven years in art school to dA resources (the ones I know to be unrestricted and what-not) because it is INSANE finding people willing to model in real life (even friends have their limits XD). Aside from the figure, objects are important to reference! Great article! :clap:
FionaCreates's avatar
FionaCreatesProfessional General Artist
I find google great too, more for... research based things, like going "ok I've done a drawing of a kitchen... and I've drawn in a kettle a hob and a toaster.. what else do people have in their kitchens?!" So great for just typing in kitchen and perusing thousands of images of kitchens to steal little ideas for details.

But yes for direct referencing or "heavy" referencing I either use myself or dA stock where possible, as you said there's so much stuff now. And a lot more of people like Senshistock who do pose refs,  unlike 5 or so years ago when stock was more for photomanips so more dressing up fully clothed in costumes.
Xadrea's avatar
XadreaProfessional Traditional Artist
Yep, like heavy machinery or even physical locations Google is your best bet for finding a decent range of referencing materials for sure :D For figure related stuff I always default to dA ^ ^ Senshi is wonderful for posing and posturing, and I use a plethora of other resources on dA to reference facial features rather than a single face (sounds weird, but it is actually quite helpful :lol:)
FionaCreates's avatar
FionaCreatesProfessional General Artist
yes, I often build my faces and bodies from a tonne of references like eyes from one person nose from another.

it's only commissions where clients tend to name just one person to ref, and it's usually an actor or actress.... so you have a new character with a famous face, but eh they're paying for it XD
Xadrea's avatar
XadreaProfessional Traditional Artist
Ah the celebrity portrait :XD: One of the most requested things other than pet and self portraits lol. But hey, if people are willing to pay me for it, I'll do it no questions asked XD. In fact, my school is having a competition for a self portrait commission of some highroller in the city and the prize is a $500 grant XD (the catch is if you're chosen you only have like a week and a half to crank out the finished portrait and the client could very well ask for something outrageous as far as scale and material)
FionaCreates's avatar
FionaCreatesProfessional General Artist
competitions are bullshit anyway, it's a way of making young artists who are over enthusiastic and often talented, do great work for very little reward in comparison to hiring an established professional...
Xadrea's avatar
XadreaProfessional Traditional Artist
Yep, it's been a sad realization of mine over the years, which is why I don't enter contests anymore. Although I did enter ArtPrize last year which is sort of like a contest, but I had no expectation or intention to win anything. I just wanted more exposure for my work ^ ^ But yeah, the prizes and rewards are usually not comparable to what you would actually get paid for pro work :giggle:
PhookaBoo's avatar
PhookaBooProfessional Filmographer
Nice one; very helpful n_n
FionaCreates's avatar
FionaCreatesProfessional General Artist
Thanks :D
IamDogged's avatar
IamDoggedProfessional Traditional Artist
Wow this is fantastic and so helpful! For the life of me, I cannot draw hands well at all! I've stared at pictures of hands for hours and even had a friend sit for me several times, but my hand drawings always come out awkward at best. maybe with enough problem solving from your tips and more practice, I can and will draw realistic hands!
FionaCreates's avatar
FionaCreatesProfessional General Artist
It does take practice, even with reference, of course.  When I'm on bus journeys or train journeys or sitting in a waiting room where I'm alone and nothing is happening I often find myself "playing" with my hands. Moving them about, posing, watching how they catch the light, basically learning to understand them without the need to draw them right at that moment. I often watch other people's hands (as discreetly as possible, I already look nuts observing my own in public XD) so I can see how they differ to mine and how they're the same...

Observing can be as useful as just drawing.
IamDogged's avatar
IamDoggedProfessional Traditional Artist
Thank you so much! That's great advice and I can't wait to start applying it right away! :)
PD-Black-Dragon's avatar
PD-Black-DragonHobbyist General Artist
This is great and makes me feel so much better. I honestly thought that using references as much as I do made me a worse/ less imaginative artist than when I was younger when I felt I could draw anything. But reading this made me realize that there is no shame in using whatever helps me create better art! :iconclapplz:
FionaCreates's avatar
FionaCreatesProfessional General Artist
I find it is only "less imaginative" if all you do is get one photograph and copy it exactly.

But drawing is about imagination. When photography arrived in our lives in the Victorian era working artists who used to make a living drawing and painting life and events were essentially put out of business. When a photograph can be taken and developed so quickly what advantage does an artist have? And so that's when you find impressionism and other more abstract imaginative styles of art begin to take root, because it's what you couldn't do with a photograph.

And that's something I ask myself every time I go to make an art piece. I am always trying to find that place my illustration belongs, in things that cannot be made with photography alone. Much more fun that way.
lu--24's avatar
lu--24Hobbyist General Artist
Such a great and useful article! ^^
I always keep forgetting how helpful references can be... And that misconcepion of considering it as a weakness, or even as "cheating", it's really radicated somehow... And then I remember that all (or almost) the great painters of the past had models in front of them: they weren't just painting royal families or landscapes from imagination, but they needed the actual people and places for reference.
In comparison, we are incredibly lucky to have a world full of references without calling people or going outside and visiting far away places, so we should take advantage from that!

So thank you for making me remember once again! :)
(and why hadn't I discovered about this group and these articles yet? ^^')
FionaCreates's avatar
FionaCreatesProfessional General Artist
Glad I could be of use!

And Project Educate is pretty awesome. I always love their Artist's Toolbox week because it covers all walks of art, not just one specific gallery :D
LadyNin-Chan's avatar
LadyNin-Chan Traditional Artist
Thank you so, so much for writing this journal! Honestly, I thought I was the only one who needed references to draw. It's something I've been a little ashamed over. I've been drawing all my life. And I have friends who've been drawing for years, too. But they can all draw directly from their imagination, and I can't. Every time I try, it comes out awful. I know what I'm trying to draw, but if I can't see it in front of me, it doesn't work. I've taken art classes throughout the years, and it just validated my need to look at things. We'd draw from photos, or objects, or live models/people. And that was fine. But it didn't help me at all to draw without those things. I used to be stuck on step 1- drawing exactly from images. Because that's all I knew how to do. But for the last couple years now I use steps 2 and 4. I even save images I find that I think I can use in the future. Even if I've studied something and know what it looks like, I still need to see it to draw it. And this has bothered me for a while. I work so hard and yet I feel like less of an artist for it- especially if I want to submit to groups and it says no copying/tracing and I always have to wonder if what I have falls into that category at all. But by this article, it seems using references and/or pieces of references for art is a good thing; and by the comments- done more often than I thought. Thank you so much for this. Really. :heart:
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