Using Reference Images Artistically

Using Reference Images Artistically

There seems to be some controversy on social media over whether "real artists" use reference images. I'm not going to attempt to convince you either way, but over time I've learned that there are many different ways and reasons to use reference. These ways all come with limitations and the need for creative thinking. But then, so does making art without reference! So I'd like to share what I've learned about using other people's images for reference, taking your own photos, and why in the world you'd want to paint something you already have a picture of. I'll also share some reasons I can imagine not using reference to be a valid choice because you do you boo.

Other People's Photos

I need to preface this by saying: It is SO IMPORTANT not to rip off a photographer's work - they're artists too and it would suck just as much for them to have their images used without compensation or permission as it would for you if someone stole your art so don't do it, it's not okay. If you simply must paint a replica of someone's photo, contact them and ask their permission to license the work. 

All that doesn't mean you can't use other's pics for reference at all though. I use other people's photos to see what animals look like that I've never seen in person, especially when I need to understand their anatomy, or what their markings look like, or how they look in some particularly obscure position. Since I don't own the rights to the photos I use for this, I look at many images by many people and compile bits and pieces together for my own sketch. This makes for my own original composition but also leaves some difficulties when it comes to painting things more realistically. It leaves questions like, "How would that fur look in a warm setting sunlight", or "How would the shadow lie over this leaf", etc... In this case the best you can do is use your artistic license and study of real life lighting and animals to imagine what seems appropriate. Also don't think you need to limit reference to photos. You can take stills from films or live camera feeds and use those too. 

Your Own Photo Reference

Taking my own reference photos is my favorite thing to do, and yet I absolutely never used to do it. I questioned why I would want to paint something that I already have a perfectly sound picture of. I just didn't see anything creative or self-expressive about the idea. But I believe that was a limited way of thinking, and I'd like to show you an example.

Here's a Blue Azureus Arrow Frog I painted this week.

reference image artist use frog

And here's the reference photo I took of this frog and made this painting from.

blue azureus frog reference image artist use

Obviously this photo is terrible, and seemingly useless as an image. BUT. There's a lot of great information in here about the way the frog's skin reflects lighting, the way his color mutes in shadow, and most importantly his personality (which is one of bravery and exploration in my humble opinion). I found this little dude in a local pet store that I specifically went to in order to take reference images, because I realized after ruining two paintings in as many hours that I'd forgotten how to paint and needed some inspiration to help me power through it. I've loved these beautiful frogs from afar for a long time, and had no idea I'd find one in a pet store so it was completely exciting and lovely to get the chance to see one. I went home to paint him immediately. I wanted to imagine him in his wild state so that's what I thought about while I was painting him. The painting process was effortless and helped me feel confident with painting again. Importantly for my point here, the painting isn't a copy of the photo and still required some creative leaps but was definitely informed by the picture I took.

So in summary what I'm saying is that if copying directly from a photo, even your own photo, isn't your thing then don't do it. There's still a lot of room for creative exploration. Taking your own reference is a perfect excuse to get out of the studio and spend time with the things you care about, go to new places, and find new things around you. It's also a great way to make art that's more personal to you, since the things you can take pictures of are quite literally in your life somewhere, however tangentially.

Reasons Not To Use Reference

  1. You don't want to. No explanation required.
  2. You struggle to let your imagination loose and feel constrained by images of reality.
  3. You don't have access to any reference at the same moment that you want to draw something. Draw anyway.
  4. You want to draw something the way that you remember it rather than the way it is. This can be a lot of fun, and for some people it's a huge part of their style.

Reasons To Use Reference

  1. You want to. Still no explanation required.
  2. You're trying to make something that looks "convincing" or more accurate to life.
  3. You have your own reference photo and would like to make the memory into a piece of your own artwork.
  4. You're doing a study to improve your physical drawing or painting skills and want a challenge.

If you do or don't want to use reference it's totally cool and completely valid. Everybody has their own process, which is great because otherwise art wouldn't be as diverse. Do "real artists" use reference? They do if you're making art and using reference. It turns out that real artists do exactly what you do when you're making art - what a crazy coincidence! I hope this has been helpful because it's been a lot of fun to talk about. Until next time, stay wild my lovelies.

Paint Da Sharks

As promised I'm back today with some painting process stuff. I'm painting a series of sharks to make a taxonomy of them to sell alongside my dolphin and crystal prints at Crafty Wonderland. Even though they aren't conceptual pieces, I'm trying out some different painting techniques than usual and thought I'd share the joy. Today I'll be focusing on a Thresher Shark I've painted. Here's the initial sketch I spent all of 5 minutes on.

Thresher Shark Sketch Painting Process

You can see I just focused on the form of the shark and made a couple lines to note the curves of the form, meaning that the top is lighter then the middle or bottom, etc. Okay, so now for the good stuff. I heard somewhere that if you tend to use desaturated color you should make your underpainting really saturated and have decided to start trying that. For this series I also decided to play with hue by using whatever color I felt like, reality be damned, and only concerning myself with the saturation of the color to make the shape of the shark make sense in space. So here is a pic of my first hideous layer of paint for this guy.

Thresher Shark Underpainting Painting Process

I know, it's like "shield your eyes" right? While I painted this layer I looked at shark reference photos to determine what colors I could find in their bods, and then threw in some hot pinks and lime greens because I felt like. As I layered more gouache over the shark, I continued to focus on making shark body parts that were farther away from me less saturated and maintaining a soft lighting scheme. A few layers later he looked like this.

Thresher Shark Painting Process Layering Gouache

So by this point the shark is starting to make a little more sense I think. I've already made a lot of notes with my colors and have pretty much stopped looking at any reference images by now. Now I'm just working on making my shark seem dimensional. So I paint paint paint until he looks like this.

Painting Thresher Shark in Gouache Process

By this point a lot of the work is done, but detailing becomes really important. For instance the eye and face of the shark needed more definition at this stage. And I wanted to be sure to add highlights to make him look more fishy. I also wanted to darken his belly a bit to make him seem rounder. So I addressed all the things and here's a pic of the finished shark as he actually looks, as well as a picture of him after I took him into photoshop and played with hue until I found out it would have been better if I'd made him red.

Gouache Painting Thresher Sharks Illustration

The above infographic is brought to you by The Curious Wild, proving once again that hindsight is 20/20 and that red is better. Thanks for stopping by and, until next time, stay wild my dudes.

Crabs, Fish, Turtles & Birds

This week I have lots of lil' bits to share, so let's get right to it. I hinted in my last blog post about a delusional crab I'm going to paint, and I can now share with you the concept sketch for the painting I'll be doing.

Boxer Crab and Fox Skull Painting Concept Ink Sketch

Why is this Pom Pom Crab delusional? Because he thinks he owns the little plot of skull-land he's standing on, and is vigorously preparing to defend it with his filched anemone Pom Poms. However, below him are some octopus eggs, evidence that a lady octopus is living beneath the skull, and there are some tiny fish hiding out in the skull's nose that call it home too. He's a deliciously inglorious crab, and once I thought of his oblivious character I knew I had to make this a painting. 

I've already done some color studies in Photoshop for this piece, and am currently waiting for the gesso to dry on my wood panel to start the actual painting process. I'll share the stages of this crab with you in an upcoming blog post as I complete it, which should happen next week. 

In the meantime I've been working on creating a series of notebooks that are dear to my heart. This is where "growing as an artist" comes in. For whatever reason I've always tended towards a degree of realism and felt compelled to put lots of detail into things. So I decided I wanted to see what it's like to draw the simplest versions of animals that I could, fighting my inherent tendencies for the sake of stylization.

I decided to do this experiment on a series of notebooks called Land, Sea & Sky with each notebook having an animal representative for their respective space on Earth. For Land I decided to draw turtles, for Sea I drew fish, and for Sky I'll be drawing birds. I wanted to have fun with shapes and colors, and to practice making simple things that have personalities. At first the struggle was real. So my mantra was "keep it simplest", and I tried to imagine each animal I drew in sunglasses for attitude. After I finished drawing the fish I felt like the turtles came along much easier, and now I'm really looking forward to giving the birds a go. Here are some of the fish and turtles.

Illustrated Fish Notebook
Illustrated Turtles Notebook

Aside from the fact that fish, turtles, and birds are uniquely important animals to me, these notebook designs are special for me because I learned that I can keep it simple and enjoy myself making something without obsessing over details. The notebooks themselves will be made available in my online shops at some point in the near future, so keep an eye out if you'd like to get one. Until next week, stay tuned and stay wild!

Show at Townshend's & More Nudibranchs!

I'm happy to say the show at Townshend's Tea House on Mississippi Ave. is finally up and available to be seen by the peoples. Here are a couple shots of one of the walls.

crystals_the-curious-wild-aoede.JPG
dolphins_the-curious-wild-aoede.JPG

At home, the painting continues. I have two more finished nudibranchs to share for now, with more still underway. Pictures will be below. But before I share them, I'm also excited to say that I've applied to be a part of my first art fair. If you read my list of goals for 2018 a couple blog posts back, you'll know that doing my first event was a goal I'd set for myself this year. I'd imagined that it would be farther in the future than this, but I suppose when the right opportunity presents itself it's better to hustle than miss it. So I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed that I get in to the one I've applied for. If not though it's okay - there's an entire year left ahead of me to keep trying. Alright, now on to the sluggos.

Cadlina Luteomarginata. This piece is titled "I've Become One With The Wallpaper".

Cadlina Luteomarginata. This piece is titled "I've Become One With The Wallpaper".

Acanthodoris Lutea. This piece is titled "Podcasts All Damn Day". Because that's my life.

Acanthodoris Lutea. This piece is titled "Podcasts All Damn Day". Because that's my life.

Baby Turtles and 2018 Goals

Hey everyone and happy new year! I'm off to a late start this year, having come down with the flu of death a few weeks ago and only recently recovered. But I'm better now and have recently finished my first painting of 2018, a little Burmese Star Tortoise that I'll be hanging in Townshend's Tea House on Mississippi next month along with some other originals and prints. If you're in the PDX area, please stop by and take a look!

burmese-tortoise

I made a process video showing the stages of painting this turtle that will be up on my Instagram later today if you'd like to see the steps I took. I painted this guy in acrylic gouache, a medium I have yet to comprehend and have much to learn about.

2018 Illustration Goals

I really appreciate hearing other artists share their goals for the year, so I thought I'd share mine with you.  These are just a few, but I'm sure that I'll be adding more to the list as the year kicks in!

  • Participate in my first Art Fair. I've never gone out and gotten a booth at a fair or convention before and this year is the year I want to take that step.
  • Start accepting commissions. I want to start accepting commissions from individuals as well as editorial work. 
  • Maintain a better work/life balance. I realized this last year that I wasn't making enough time for myself and my wellbeing in my schedule. So this year I'm trying to take weekends off, get back into some yoga classes, and make sure to get out into nature more.
  • Sketchbooks! I really want to up my sketchbooking game this year, and instead of only using sketch time to study anatomy, or practice values, etc...I want to just stop thinking and sketch for fun. I like to imagine it like stream-of-consciousness writing - I don't care if I understand why I'm drawing a pigeon, I want to just let myself draw that pigeon without caring if it's anatomically accurate. I can worry about those things later, I just want to get the sketch down and play with things for fun. Yay for self expression.
  • Requisite art goals. The ones we all have. Improve my color choices, push my gestures, emphasize values and relationships, get loose where I should be loose and tight where I should be tight. And so on and so forth - far too many things to mention that I want to improve in my craft.

So those are a few of the more important goals I have this year. I'd love to hear what goals you have for your creative life this year so please feel free to let me know in the comments. See you next time!