Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Using Reference

Earlier this month I had a post looking back at 2010 and how I got More Serious with my illustration work. In that post I talked a little about how I have tried to use more reference and to go about using the reference in a better fashion. This look at reference generated several questions and requests for me to share more of my thoughts on reference. I thought I would address one set of questions left by an anonymous poster. I am going to tackle Anonymous' question in two parts, first looking at how I was and how I am now using reference, then I will share some thoughts on reference as a whole.

Using Reference
Anonymous asked: "I would love to understand better how you mean you were using reference wrong. Is the difference: BEFORE you would look at it once then put it away, and AFTER you would draw directly from it like life drawing (look draw look draw)?"
How was I using reference wrong? I WAS NOT USING IT! It is that simple. When I made the effort to get it I would take the photos or have them taken of me, I would pick the single image I thought best, print it out, look at it once and start drawing. I would maybe revisit it once while painting… sometimes. This is a huge waste of time for me, the model and my art director. What is the point of reference if I am not going to make it an important and early part of EVERY project I begin.

Warlock Apprentice - before and after using reference
I posted a similar comparison in my Getting More Serious post showing the night and day differences in regards to having reference and actually using the reference.
© 2010 Fantasy Flight Games

The one thing that I will pat myself on the back when it comes to my art is my skill with a pencil. I love to draw and I have devoted many many years of my life to it. Unfortunately a lot of that time was spent drawing just from my head. My one saving grace is my veracious appetite for books with neat pictures and my love of going to zoos, aquariums and enjoying the outdoors. After years of looking at all of these things I have created a toolbox of resources in my head to pull from, but this resource is lacking in areas (just look art the Warlocks head). This is why using reference while working is so important. The world is just to complex to pull just from your head.

Warlock Apprentice - drawing / reference / final
The reference I used for the drawing was very similar to the pictured reference, save several VERY important differences. The original reference was shot from much too far away, was blurry and I obviously NEVER looked at it. The drawing is what I thought the photo looked like versus what the photo actually looked like. The drawing and paining are both based on the same person in the same pose. If I hadn't done this myself I would not believe it. To me, the drawing looks like it was produced by a person with less ability then the person that created the painting.
© 2010 Fantasy Flight Games

You can really see the disconnect in the above image, the drawing looks nothing like the reference I thought I was using and resulted in a poor drawing that caused many problems and a lot of wasted time when it came to the painting. Another key thing I realized is I need to use and take multiple images for the work I am doing. Multiple closeup photos of hands in several different poses from several different angles are invaluable, this applies to the face and head as well. Make sure to get photos of your figures from different angles so you can really understand what you are looking at. You also never know when a happy accident will happen and you will discover a better solution while taking photos.

Very complex and very important, hands deserve time and attention. Make sure you get nice close ups and some variations because you never know when a particular images is just going to 'look off' in the final piece. A foreshortened thumb can look really weird and out of place and will need to be revisits.

Using and acquiring reference goes beyond the human body. Plants, rocks, animals, architecture, vehicles, costuming and weapons all need to be studied and referenced. Even if you are creating things that are completely unworldly there is something on this planet that will function as an analog to help you understand the form and texture and will help with how light affects it and is affected by it. Even if you have to arrange balls of colored clay in a space and shine a light on it you will get a guide to how the light and color is working on the forms. This is invaluable and will make all the difference between a mediocre and an exceptional illustration.

A sample of plastic, metal and wood prop weapons I use in photo shoots. Simply holding them helps understand the perspective and relationship in space of hard objects like weapons. Not to mention is if fun to pretend to be Ogre with a club and having a club in the hand helps you get more into the physical depiction of the creature.

Thoughts on Reference
Anonymous asked: "The thing that has made me reluctant about reference is the idea of being limited by it. Your warlock with reference looks more believable, but it also looks like the person in the photo, so to have a variety of bodies and faces you have to pull in lots of people into your studio for shots? So if I want a skinny tall guy and a short fat guy I have to go find some people like that? If you're warlock was angular emaciated undead, wouldn't you have had to change the surface/light so much from your reference (for sunken cheeks and angular nose) that it would be more out of your head then the photo anyway?"
Reference is never a limitation… NEVER. I have been given so many new ideas and unexpected information when looking at reference, be it books, the world around me or photos I take myself. You only limit yourself by not using reference. By not looking at new and different things how do you ever hope to come up with new and different ideas? If you only use what you currently have in your head that is all you will ever create, the same unchanging arrangement of parts from your mental toolbox. And more over, what if those parts in your mental toolbox are wrong, inaccurate or based on years of bad habits? Well, you get drawings like my Warlock Apprentice rather then paintings like my Warlock Apprentice.

Goblin and Reference
I am no goblin but I make useful and much needed reference for the piece all the same. By holding objects and wearing accessories I was able to get into the feel of the creature and have some fun. The pose, hand positions and all around physicality of the piece are all GREATLY improved by having this photo to work from. If I drew the goblin straight from my head it would have been much flatter much more static with less personality. Many choices within the piece were spurred by the reference and make it better and more believable as a whole. Getting help with foreshortening of limbs is so helpful!
© 2010 Christopher Burdett

Yes, the Warlock does look like the photo reference, but if you look more carefully I did change it from the reference to have some the qualities I wanted and needed for the piece. We can't always have or may never have the reference we need for a piece and that is when you as an artist must make the leap using your abilities while still using the available reference. Yes, it would be great to have on hand loads of people that fit every body shape and form and any number of props, objects and accessories to assist us with reference, but that is not possible and we make the best with what we have.

Imp and Reference
Again, I am no imp but I can be enough to answer the questions I will have when I am drawing the pose. I do not have wings or a tail but I do have hands and a face that I can use to create a much more expressive creature. The other parts I can look to animals and Medieval imagery to fill in the rest… as well as my own voice and creativity.
© 2010 Christopher Burdett

Reference is not an end unto itself and can not be expected to be perfect. Forms might look perfectly fine in a photo and then totally wrong in a painting and vice versa. You need to know when and how to change things, and that will come in time with practice and trial and error. It took years for me to figure this out, it is not an over night decision or change. Having reference that is not 100% perfect for what you need is 100% better then not using any reference at all… in my opinion at least.

A little goes a long way…
Using the Warlock reference photo I did a couple quick sketches, all based on the photo as a reference. Having a face to look at when drawing these other faces is SO helpful. You see form and perspective as well as how the temperature and brightness of the light is affect color and is defining the form. Trying to pull all of the information out of your head that is photo illustrates is extremely hard and why waste all that time and effort when you can simple take the photo and concentrate on creating your illustration with it's help.
© 2010 Christopher Burdett

Keep in mind that all the top illustrators in the field today use reference. Artist for hundreds of years have been using reference. We are only deluding ourselves and wasting time by not making an effort to use reference with every project we work on.

I hope this answers and addresses all of Anonymous' questions and concerns as well as being helpful or useful to everyone else. If you have any further questions just let me know and I will try to answer them in a timely manor.

That is all for today, see you back here on Friday! Until then...

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  1. Thank you VERY much!! I really appreciate you taking the time to come back and explain this. (and you're willingness to post your reference, which you were reluctant to, makes it all a lot more clear)

    Really interesting point about how having the reference opens up your mind to using depth more dynamicly, and not being afraid of foreshortened limbs.

    Patrick over at Ninja Mountain recommended Greg & Tim Hindelbrandt: Tolkein Years as a great example of professionals using reference.
    I need to track down my Imaginative Realism, he had a part about using your reference without your final image feeling like a snapshot.

    So at what point do you create the reference (for humanoids)? Do you thumb 1st, or reach for the camera first?

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. Many thanks for the explanation and examples! It emphasises the importance of reference nicely.

    Nice collection of weapons ;)

  3. @ Alonso: You are very welcome... it took awhile to get back to, but it was on my list. Imaginative Realism is a very important and informative book, there is no way Gurney could do his masterpieces without reference and only a fool would expect him to be able to.

    As far as when do I take photos I ALWAYS come up with an idea or ideas first. I plan things out with rough thumbnails or just spend some time getting my thoughts together and then get the camera out. I will shot what I planned out and any relevant variations as well as things that might occur to my wife (she is usually holding the camera) or myself once props are in hand and the lights are on. I talk about this a little in a post I did last week:
    Always have a plan first, it saves so much time and energy!

    @sirithduriel: You are very welcome! :) Glad you like my weapons, always looking for more!

  4. This is a great article! I hear all the time from amature and wana be artists how proud they are to never use references. They treat it like cheating! You explain well how much having some real life item to look at to get details and lighting right makes your work 1000% better and more real looking! Thank You! I will pass this on to others!

  5. @Tristan: Thanks! We all have made the same mistake thinking some how using every tool at our disposal is cheating. When it is really only yourself you are cheating by not using reference. It is not like the reference paints or draws for you, you still have to put the time and effort in. Live and learn! Glad you liked the post and feel to pass it along, I hope others can find it useful!