In most fantasy or science fiction scenes, some elements are completely invented, but the majority of elements are no different from what we see around us every day. You can draw upon existing photos as source material for these effects whenever you need real-world texture in your picture.
Here’s the art for a paperback cover called Homecoming by John Dalmas. His novel, the sequel to Yngling, was set on a barbaric post-plague Earth. This scene shows neoviking horsemen challenging a low-flying spacecraft.
Of course I had to come up with the spacecraft design by sketching a lot of doodles like this out of my head.
Even though this is an imaginary scene, the sky presents the same kinds of clouds and light as it would today. Grass and dirt would have looked the same in this world as it would for the rest of us. Horses in all sorts of poses, armor, trees, stormy skies—all these effects can be adapted and inspired by existing photos.
At Art Center where I went to school, this was called "scrap," by others call it "clip art," "swipe," "morgue," or just "reference."
Existing photos are of great value for such visual details. You can get the photos from anywhere. I like to fish old magazines out of the bin at the recycling center or pick them up at yard sales. Nature magazine, old National Geographics, and architectural magazines are all treasure troves for light, color, and surface texture. Magazines of food and cuisine often have photos with interesting color schemes that can be turned upside down and used purely for their component colors.
I flip through stacks of magazines and blade out the photos that strike me as interesting. I also include photos that I’ve taken myself, particularly of things like stones and roots that are hard to find in magazine photos. I also have some individual drawings of zoo animals and other forms mixed in the file folders with the photos.
The images are stored in legal size manila folders inside a pair of strong filing cabinets. The folders include categories for particular forms like animals, architecture, and vehicles, but also more subjective categories like light conditions, color schemes, atmospheric conditions, and photograhic effects. The “people” category alone has 54 separate folders, including “Poses: pointing” and “Groupings: parades,” for example. You should divide your file according to the categories that are important to you.
Of course you may want to use the Web for finding your images. Internet-sourced images are really helpful, but consider the advantages of a traditional scrap file:
1. When you do a Google search for, say, “mountain stream,” you and everyone else get the same 50 photos first; in your own scrap file, you’ll have images no one else does.
2. Clipped photos are cheaper, better color, and higher resolution than images you print out from the Web or from your own digital photos.
3. If you surround your painting with scrap images, the images will be in the same light as your painting, so you can compare the colors to your paint mixtures more accurately.
4. With paper photos, you can draw on many influences at once, taking a small influence from each one.