Digital Reference

December 27th, 2010 | Posted in Freelancing

As an illustrator, and especially one who does a lot of caricature work, I often spend a lot of time preparing reference for a given project. I’ve written before about how the internet and image searches like Google image have revolutionized that process in recent years. In the “old days”, illustrators had gigantic “morgue files” stuffed with clipped pictures of people, places and things where they went to find reference for some given subject they needed to draw. I used to have two file cabinets full of celebrity pictures clipped from entertainment magazines that I’d pull out when I needed to do caricatures of somebody. I threw all those files out years ago in favor of internet image searches and DVD image captures. MAD used to send me page after page of printed references for parodies I was assigned. They stopped doing that years ago as well, partly because their art department staff keeps getting smaller and smaller but also because it was just as easy for me to do it myself.

While that is certainly a lot easier than keeping a morgue file, there was still a lot of busy work involved. First, I had to wade through page after page of search results looking for different angles that would given me a nice mix of a subjects face, and if I got lucky some different expressions as well. Image capture from DVD or downloaded video was a problem for me being on a Mac, because Steve Jobs and his Apple gestapo have seen fit to prevent a Mac user from making simple screen captures from commercial DVDs or downloaded video for “copyright protection”, even though my purposes for making these screen captures are 100% legal under “fair use” exceptions to copyright. I had to work around this using a program like VLC to do screen captures, which is clumsy and far from ideal… and that doesn’t help for video I get through iTunes. Finally, I was still a slave to printing out physical references on my studio printer because it is too awkward to put a computer monitor next to my drawing board and use a mouse to bring up whatever picture I need to look at out of a hard to navigate folder full of different images, then look back and forth as I try to draw. So, I would download a bunch of pictures and open, resize and place them in a PhotoShop page, and then print them out. Here’s an example I printed out for the parody of “30 Rock” I did a few years ago:

Well, technology marches on. Thanks to advances in hardware and software, last week I went 100% digital on my illustration reference for a big MAD TV parody I am working on… no printing, easy captures from any video source and a convenient and easy to navigate collection of photos simple to organize and access right next to my drawing board like a printed reference. It worked great and I can’t imagine going back to the hours I spent creating reference pages like the one above.

Here are the elements that have enabled me to make this happen:

Capture It!- I found this little shareware program recently after doing a search to see if someone had finally created a capture program that worked around the stupid and pointless Apple rules about capturing video on a Mac. You can capture any window or selection on your screen, INCLUDING video windows from DVDs or iTunes video, and automatically saves them in the format of your choice to the folder of your choice. Whatever you are not capturing is darkened on the screen and active areas follow your cursor around the screen without interfering with whatever you are doing, and doing a capture is as easy as a keyboard shortcut. The program also captures screen movements as video, which would be great for doing computer tutorials… of course many other programs do that. However this is by far the best and easiest for doing video screen caps. Highly recommended.

Apple iPad– Combined with iPhoto, the iPad makes an ideal way to organize and view your references. I collect all my references, be they screen captures or internet search images, into folders split up into one for each character and things like environments, objects, etc. A simple drag and drop onto my iPhoto icon places those references into iPhoto and each folder becomes a separate “Event”, keeping them organized. Then a sync of my iPad transfers them to that device.

Organization and access to the references couldn’t be easier or faster. No more endless digging around the piles surrounding my drawing board for the one page of reference I can never seem to find when I need it. A simple touch of any “event/folder” brings up a screen of thumbnails that allows me to easily scan my reference collection for whatever picture I want, then a quick touch brings up that image. I can use the “pinch” and “spread” movements to zoom in or out as desired, and swiping across scans to the next or previous image instantly. Touching the back arrow goes back to the thumbnails or back to the list of folders again to find other images. Best of all with the iPad, it literally sits next to my drawing board like a piece of printed reference so it’s easy to draw from.

I’ve got to say, this was a breath of fresh air for me on this latest job, which is packed with different characters and lots of environments that demands a lot of specific reference to get right. Not only did it save maybe as much as a day of copying, pasting, resizing, organizing and printing, I saved a lot of paper and ink not printing out a bunch of pages I’m just going to throw out when the job is done.

I also discovered that Apple either forgot to place the same restrictions on it’s iPad or realizes the policy of preventing screen captures of video is dumb, because you can do screen captures from any video directly on the iPad by pausing the image, then pressing the “Home” and “Power” buttons at the same time for a second or so. You hear a “click” like a camera and the entire screen is saved to your iPad’s iPhoto program, even iTunes video stills. Using a simple image editor allows you to rotate the picture or crop it if you need to. Unfortunately there is no way to move these pictures into new or existing folders within iPhoto, but they will reside in your iPad’s photo folder, so they are still easy to access.

Finally, the images themselves are fantastically clear and bright… no muddy printing to get in the way.

The only drawbacks are that I can only view one picture at a time… which I have to admit I do miss as it makes doing caricatures of a given subject a little easier when you have to do multiple caricatures of the same person and do not rely on a separate reference for each unique caricature. The other drawback is that my iPad’s power charge will eventually run out after a lot of hours of using the screen and browsing pictures. We are talking many, many hours though, and hooking it up to a charger when I take a break usually keeps it charged up enough to keep me going. At worst I can plug it in while I am using it, although the cable limits your moving it about somewhat.

After so many years of having reference pictures or printed pages littered about me in piles, it’s odd to have such a concentrated source of reference and such an uncluttered work area. I loved it though, and won’t be going back. 21st century indeed!


  1. Chris Flick says:

    Hi Tom…
    Great tips on using the iPad – I just got mine a few months ago and never knew about the screen capture trick. I’m definitely going to try that trick when I get a chance.

    But regarding the recharging cord for the iPad – or any other electronic device you might like to keep near your drawing board… here’s something I did: I got a roll of industrial strength velcro that’s about two or three inches wide (about the same width as a roll of duct tape) and velcroed a surge protector/power strip to the side of my drawing table. Now, I have an easily accessible power strip for my iPad, iPod or any other electronic device that needs recharging.

    With the power strip right there on the side of my drawing table, it artificially extends the length of the iPad cord – and the best part about this whole set-up with the velcro is that it eliminates any need for drilling any holes or hammering any nails into your drawing board.


  2. Anton Emdin says:

    Nice tips… now I have a work-related excuse to buy an iPad!

    Perhaps a whole bunch of iPads taped to the drawing board would work nicely, too!

  3. Ronnie says:

    the iPad screen capture trick is new to me too, thanks for sharing that. I use mine all the time, it allows me to work on drawings in different places and all I need is the iPad and my sketchbook.

  4. nunz says:

    I’ve often wondered how caricaturists accumulated their reference photos before everything went digital. I’d imagine someone like Bill Gallo, who’s been doing sports caricatures in the Daily News for half a century, having a garage filled with rows of file cabinets stuffed with clippings. Ain’t technology grand (just remember to backup frequently to an external hard drive!)

  5. Patrick says:

    Thanks for this, Tom. I’ve been using the iPad for reference for live painting demos for awhile now, and you’re right…SO much better than printed reference. But like others have said, that screen capture trick is a new one, and one I will definitely use. Great tip!

  6. sharprm says:

    I use Capture Me ( ) which is freeware and sounds like it does the same thing as capture it.

  7. Russ says:

    Hey, nice tips, Tom–

    Question: I love Apple products, had an iPod Touch for a while, but I didn’t dig that I couldn’t transfer my writing from the iPod to computer without using wifi, which never seemed to work with the consistency I needed.

    Does the iPad similarly force you to wifi for transfer, text n’ pics?


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