Thursday, May 19, 2011

My Preference for Reference

When you set out to do a painting of a scene from fantasy or history, you have a range of choices for reference.

There’s an argument for using no reference at all. If you train your memory, you can work entirely from your imagination, which helps particularly in the development stages of the idea.


And there are pros and cons of using traditional drawn studies of a model. Above is a charcoal mirror study of me posing in a pirate costume and the resulting painting.

There are also benefits of working from photo reference, especially when you’re dealing with kids, animals, or anything in movement. When I needed to paint a picture of a kid playing tug-of-war with a dinosaur, the first drawing I did from my head didn’t have the conviction that came later when I actually staged and photographed the action.


Photography has its benefits, but also its pitfalls. Copying a photo too much can drain the mythic magic from your painting. Photographic effects such as depth of field and motion blur belong in some images, but not in others.

Everyone has to develop a reference strategy that suits their goals. I’m a pragmatist on this issue: the desired results govern the choices, and I’ve used every kind of reference.


This meaty topic is the subject of a six page workshop that I wrote for the June, 2011 issue of ImagineFX magazine. You can pick up a copy at the local newsstand, or visit their website. The accompanying DVD has a couple of my short videos and lots of examples.

ImagineFX magazine

This topic is also explored in Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist.
Tug-of-war image from Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara
Pirate image is from Dinotopia Lost by Alan Dean Foster

Previous posts on GurneyJourney
Acting it Out: (Tug of War)
Rackham on Photo Reference
Using Photo Reference (32 comments)
Model to Mermaid

P.S. I've just received word that the painter Jeffrey Catherine Jones passed away this morning from emphysema. R.I.P. There's more information at the blog Muddy Colors . Jeff was an acquaintance and fellow artist I had known for twenty years or so, and I'll miss Jeff's unique perspective.

14 comments:

My Pen Name said...

side note
Ray Harryhausen models shown in Bradford (the jason and the argonaughts skeletons are pretty cool)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-13427576

Tom Hart said...
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Scorchfield said...

"Photography has its benefits" [...]

to stimulate imagination, reality overwhelms us!

:)

Michael Oxley said...

I never knew Jones except through artwork I've seen, but one could argue that through that, I've known Jones a bit. Today I'm sad about the news.

As for reference, I'll be picking up the ImagineFX because in my recent painting I used reference photos that I followed too closely. I lost all the magic of my sketches. But as someone starting out on this journey of illustration, there are still many things to learn.

Learning illustration is like mountain climbing, it's hard to see the next hand-hold. Thanks for your books, blog and articles, James. With each one, you show me another hand-hold.

Chris Dunn said...

Finding the right reference and deciding what to use from it can be tough. Eric Fortune regularly quotes his old tutor's advice - "don't be a slave to your reference."

@My Pen Name
I leave my hometown and Ray Harryhausen's models move in - GUTTED!

Tom Hart said...

James, my condolences to you on the loss of your friend and collegue, J.C.Jones, and of course to her loved ones. She was a magnificent artist. Thanks for the link to that site. Do you happen to know anything about the film that is mentioned there?

Tom Hart said...
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Jobot said...

Your pirate looks like he may have a history of being *marooned*.

Wacka wacka wacka.

Jon Hrubesch said...

I look forward to reading it. I just got my magazine in the mail the other day. Your insight on this subject from earlier posts has helped me to improve my work. Thanks for all the help.

Christian said...

R.I.P., Jeff Jones...

Mary Bullock said...

So sorry to hear of the passing of Jeff Jones. One of my favorite artists - she will be missed.

Max West said...

Thanks for doing that article for IFX. I got that in the mail a few days ago.

I like your method of using a variety of photos for reference and not copying directly, James. I've used those myself for my comics.

Zubin Erik said...

And I shall be buying that issue... ASAP! =D

Max West said...

Thanks for the advice in your book and the IFX article. I gave both of them a mention in my own blog post on using reference.

http://sunnyvillestories.com/2011/05/a-photo-opportunity/