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.

A Crab-tastic Painting Process

This week I wanted to take you through the planning and painting process of my most recent painting. It all started with an idea - *cue dream sequence music and slow fade*...

CONCEPT ART

Pom Pom Crab Concept Art Sketch

Specifically with THIS idea. I've wanted to put a Pom Pom Crab in a painting for a while because they amuse me. If you're unfamiliar with them, Pom Pom Crabs are a tiny creb that snip pieces off of poisonous sea anemones and either bandy them about like short swords in their crab hands, or attach them to the back of their crab bods as a means of warding off predators. So I took the idea of a crab waving an anemone at me and mentally connected it to the archetype of a grumpy old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. Crab was now defending his turf, so I needed to give him turf. For his home I used a Red Fox Skull as a base because I think they look cool and I wanted to draw one. Then I filled the skull with an impossible combination of sea and forest dwelling plants because it's my painting and I do what I want. Then I wanted to emphasize the oblivious personality of the crab so I added some fish trespassers hiding out in the nose of the skull, and some octopus eggs attached to skull which would inevitably come with an octo-mom hiding behind them. Octo-mom's presence is felt but never seen because I wanted the crab to be the focal point. After the hit it and quit it sketch you see above I drew all the elements I wanted in the piece separately and then combined them into this final sketch.

Painting Process

Concept Art Ink Drawing

I scanned this line drawing in and played around with some color palette ideas, as well as painting some tiny little watercolor color comps traditionally until I thought I'd found the right vibe. I also digitally added the lines in the background and the circles near the crab as ways to include a background that emphasized the movement of things in the piece as well as to create additional depth. After all these things were done I printed out my sketch and transferred it using graphite transfer paper to a prepared wood panel that I planned to paint the crab on. Then I started painting.

Acrylic Gouache Painting Process

Using Holbein Acryla-Gouache I started with background elements including the lines behind the skull and circles near the crab, as well as some paint splatter and scribbly bits to even out the space and add some crab chi to the piece. Then I did the skull since it takes up so much surface area and I wanted to get the colors on it right.

crab-painting-process

Next I painted the ferns in the background and for some unknown reason I then painted the succulent and moss, but that was silly and I should have painted the things behind them first.

Aoede Pando Painting

Then I painted and painted for what seemed years until I'd gotten most things added. In a choice I will regret until my death, I waited until last to paint the mushrooms in the front of the skull and completely botched the colors on them. I asked my non-artist husband what he'd do to fix them and he said to "sparkle them up with some purple shit". Taking this sage advice to heart I made them purple and covered them in gold. I repainted the shrooms several times before eventually deciding they had reached an acceptable level and I couldn't look at them anymore.

crab-painting-process-pic

The scan of the final piece is below. This painting is titled "It's Only Good If It's A Weapon" and is currently hanging at Fresh Pot on Washington in downtown Portland. It'll be there for the whole month of March along with a lot of other original pieces and stickers for sale, so I encourage you to stop by if you're in the neighborhood.

acrylic-gouache-painting-process_crab_the-curious-wild_aoede-pando.jpg

Before signing off I wanted to announce I've been accepted to participate in Crafty Wonderland this May 5th at the Oregon Convention Center. I''ll be making lots on fun new things for the event so follow me on Instagram to stay up to date on those. If you're local and plan on stopping by Crafty Wonderland, please come by and introduce yourself, I'd love to meet you!