Monday, January 17, 2011

Reference: Final Thoughts

Something I've noticed is that there are a lot of aspiring illustrators who want to work realistically, yet are reluctant to use reference.  I'm not entirely sure where this reluctance comes from.  Maybe it's that they feel it's cheating or find their work a little stagnant when they have used reference in the past.  Perhaps, for some, it's just more work than they want to do.  I don't know.  What I find ironic about this is that if you were to ask many of these same folks to name five working illustrators whose work they really dig, there'd be more than one on that list that uses reference.  I'd wager to say that at least three out of five on that list do.

Reference is one of those things where if you need to use it and don't, it is very obvious.  Conversely, it's also obvious when you are too dependent on reference.  To be sure, there are many potential traps, but learning to take reference and use it properly is something that each of us must figure out.  While there are fundamentals that are universal to all reference, there are still aspects that each of us will mold to our own needs.  How we take the reference, how we light it, and how we apply it once we've got it will undoubtedly be rather unique to each artist in some way, shape or form.  After all, the images you collect will go through a filter that is unlike any other filter.  That being your brain.  How you perceive what you see, how you manipulate it, and how you resolve certain issues will be your own.

Personally, my own reference use varies.  Some jobs require a lot, some require a little.  And, because of my use of reference over the many years I've been painting, I can say without a doubt that my reliance upon it has been reduced.  Reference breeds confidence — not just on the piece it was initially used for, but also in the long run.  I've learned to fib everything from folds in fabric, to faces, to clouds and landscapes, to weird lighting scenarios just based on things I saw years ago and mentally cataloged for later use.  In the long run, you may be able to begin doing certain things without reference.  Over time, you may become a better visual liar.

After all, isn't that what it's about?  Not only do we want to get it right, but we want it to be believable in some way.  Sure, it still looks like a painting of something.  But don't we all want that something to be bought into by the viewer?  I know I do.

One more bit food for thought.  This is "Transcendent Master":

©Wizards of the Coast

What reference did I use?  Believe it or not, none.  Arguably, it's one of the best pieces I did in all of 2009, and I never looked at a single image to put it together.  Sure, there'll be those of you who inevitably say that you can totally tell, or on the other hand will call me a liar.  That's cool.  But, I'm telling the truth.

However, while I didn't use reference on this painting, it would not have been possible without the years of sweat equity I put into reference before sitting down to paint it.  It is informed by every thing I've photographed — heck, everything I've ever seen

So, give it a try.  Have someone pose for you.  Take a picture or two.  Make the effort.  If you already do, then maybe something I've said in this series has helped you a bit.  Maybe not.  Either way, I thank you for reading.


  1. No fricken' way. I won't call you a liar, but damn man that's incredible. When I first saw that piece I thought you must have been jumping in the air all afternoon to get good reference.

  2. that's pretty much the way I think too.

    I am pretty much a guy who says: if you are good you paint everything without refs, but learning from reality is the only way to express everything from your fantasy.

    btw great painting. It really has a strong impact.

    this flare effect you built in is a very brave thing to do in my opinion. I wonder if you struggled with your decision to paint it in.


I welcome all comments, questions, and discussion so long as you keep it civil.