Yes, References Are Important and I Will Rant About Them

It’s ironic that the last topic was to be proactive. What is not ironic is that I was working my wings off making deadlines for school. Rest assured, it paid off, because I put in the necessary time. Notice the time stamp here!

I was working on numerous pieces by doing prep work.

Which brings me to the topic I’d like to rant about tonight: Reference images. If you are a student in this industry, you’re probably really sick of hearing some variation of this advice (i.e. the rules of our cult)…

References are important. Nothing is more important than taking good references. Reference, reference, reference. Get a model that is good at acting. Be a good actor/actress. Don’t settle for the first photo. Get good lighting and a good camera. Writhe around on the ground to try and comprehend what your character is experiencing, then photograph yourself (no, they are not selfies). If you plan on shooting outside, you should probably warn your neighbors first. References make the world go ‘round.

All illustration professors swear by this mantra. That much is obvious. We know the drill here. And why is that?

Because having access to good reference images can make or break a piece, depending on how closely you tend to follow them. I’ll repeat that. Depending on how closely you tend to follow your references, their quality can make or break a piece. Notice that I didn't say you always need them no matter what.

It’s a big beautiful DEPENDS.

So should you, or should you not, depend heavily on your reference images?

I know professors that would say that while they do help give an artist information to work with, they should not be copied directly. This is not just for the sake of growing your imagination, but also because photos aren't the end-all-be-all.

Photographs leave much to be desired when it comes to what we want. 

For example, they rarely have the ideal shadows that artists need in their work; indoors, they come in colors of black, green, and puke. Their shapes are always distracting and need to be tweaked in order to get the desired effect.

And you can’t force exactly what you want to happen without putting your model in an uncomfortable pose. (I've tried!) Instead, it is best to let what is natural dictate the reference.

Then the trouble is what you want versus what nature wants. And that can get tricky if you don’t really know what you’re looking at.

If I want to foreshorten someone’s arm a certain way because I like what it adds to the silhouette, I have to make a decision of whether or not to follow the reference closely. Following too close would take away the effect, but not following it at all would make the figure unreadable. See what I mean?

This is just one scale that all of an illustrator’s aesthetic decisions must be weighed on. This decision making is a big chunk of the battles that we fight. The other chunk is satisfying people other than ourselves (which I will not cover right now).

So yeah. References.

The image included is a screenshot of my reference, next to a piece I am working on for a studio class. I would show you what it looked like before the reference, but you probably wouldn't be able to distinguish much. It was a hot mess.

Guess where I got the reference? It is a shot of my sister opening a Christmas gift. Is the lighting perfect? No. But I needed the shape of a face from that angle, so it worked.

It is natural because I never asked her to pose for a painting. It was taken in media res (in the middle of action), so there is no stiffness. The sweetest part is that it was stored away in my computer, which means less work for me this time around. I knew I had a bunch of photos of family, so through the archive I fluttered, hit in the face with nostalgia, until I found the right image.

Just goes to show you that it pays to take pictures during holidays! The next time you’re all gathered together, snap pictures like there’s no tomorrow. You’ll thank yourself tomorrow. Or next year.

Alright, reference rant over. It's time for this blue butterfly to catch her four hours of snooze time.

Share your love (or hate) for references by dropping a comment, I'd love to hear your input.