Sunday Mailbag

February 10th, 2008 | Posted in Freelancing

Q: After years of doing what you do, how often do you find you need to refer to reference photos? I’d expect it with celebrities or well know figures, but do you have to pull out reference for rather ordinary things from time to time (vehicles, houses, interiors, etc.)? Or can you can usually work mostly from your imagination (mental picture)? Your illustrations are often so detailed (even backgrounds). I’ve never been able to (nor really worked on) drawing from memory. I would hope with repetition and practice that it’s possible, but just wondered during a typical assignment how much reference you might need to use.

A: When I was going to art school, illustrators were often looked down on by the fine artists as “wrists”, meaning they couldn’t draw or paint anything unless they were looking at a picture of it. Sometimes that was true, but most often not.

Reference is something an artist can use as a tool, or as a crutch. Lean too heavily on reference and you are limiting yourself creatively and stunting your ability to draw things from your own experience. Ignore it and you may struggle to draw something convincingly or as recognizable as it needs to be to get the message across.

I’ve always considered reference pictures for artists to be like a dictionary, thesaurus or other reference books are to writers… tools to help you find the right elements to help realize whatever message or vision you’ve conceived. Like a writer, an artist builds a vocabulary of visual images and knowledge which he or she uses to create their artwork. If I have to draw a jet airliner and I don’t know what one looks like I will get some pictures and use them to learn what it looks like… just like a writer will learn the definition of a word before he uses it in this work. If I draw an airliner enough times I will no longer need the reference, just like I don’t need to look at a picture of a chair or kitchen table anymore.

Still, there is using reference as a way to help you or to overuse it and be dependent on it.

I like detail, and looking at pictures of buildings or objects or people help me to see details I may not remember exist, and then I can use those details to breath more life into my drawings. I may not remember exactly how the soffet and facia of a house roof looks, but a quick look at a picture of one and I can include those details. I don’t need more than some additional information and understanding of how a house roof looks to then be able to draw one convincingly. I don’t need to see a picture of a house at the exact angle I intend to draw it in order to be able to draw it at all. If I did I would be using the reference as a crutch and be helpless without it.

I have a number of model and stock photo books in my studio full of pictures of models varyng in age, race and gender. Many of these are the ‘ordinary people’ type models that would be used in product shots or similar as opposed to the super-model types. I page through these to get ideas for hair styles, basic looks and feature types, etc. Then I draw background people keeping these things in mind, as opposed to setting up a photo shoot and posing people in the exact manner they need to be drawn at.

Every once and awhile I am struggling with a figure or angle for a figure that I just can’t pull off… then I will get The Lovely Anna to pose me and take a quick digital reference picture that I can use to understand where I was going wrong. Even then, however, I use the picture just for figuring out what I need to do as opposed to using it for exactly what I want to do. The figure I actually draw will might be a skinny little bookworm or a big, fat biker or a lady for that matter.

Reference is a big part of doing solid illustration work… it needs to be used as an assist to the foundation of the art, rather than the entire foundation itself.

Thanks to Howard Wright from Grand Rapids, MI for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


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New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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