Thoughts & Process: Analyzing Art References

Today, let’s talk about references, the what, the why, and the how. Art references are useful tools for artists to create more refined and studied artwork by analyzing elements of resource images. Before we get started, let’s dispel any stigma about references right now: no one’s brain should be strained so far to remember absolutely every detail on an object or living being. That’s simply asking too much out of our minds. As long as you are using your own tools to create and eyes to analyze, there is nothing wrong with using references for your work. References are also extremely useful for visual learners, and can help illustrate different elements in drawing that might not be clear to conceptualize just from thought process or study alone.

One thing to get out of the way real quick: there is a very large difference between using references and tracing an image. Using a reference means you have an image of something near by, and you are eyeballing it as you create in order to make something that looks like what’s in the image. Tracing is using another image as a blueprint for what you would be making, and just…copying lines, shading, colors, and/or lighting underneath instead of forming your own actual work. Because of this, referencing doesn’t mean any originality is lost in the process as it’s not a straight replication, while tracing is, just with a possible new coat of paint. Public reception to tracing seems to vary from different artist communities as to how much of a no-no it is, whether it’s something to have your career destroyed over, or just receive a verbal warning, but it is a practice that is most definitely not widely celebrated. My personal rule of thumb is that if you must trace something, just do it as practice for whatever you need, and never share it. Frankly, the trouble, both publicly and possibly legally, is just not worth it.

Why should you use art references?

The biggest reason for this would be realism accuracy. As I mentioned before, we’d be asking a lot of our brains to remember everything about every object we’ve ever seen, and if we are only using our imaginations to dictate how we draw certain pieces, then it’s only natural some information gets lost along the way. Say, for example, you were to draw a dog from memory alone. It would be easy to draw the longer snout and maybe floppy ears off the top of your head, but would you remember to draw the whiskers on their cheeks and on their brows? After all, cats are more known for having whiskers than dogs, but you’ll find quickly in any image search that dogs do have them. If you were to try and draw someone who’s a different race from yourself, would you keep in mind lighter colored palms or same hue palms depending on the character, or how eye lids can be thicker or thinner? There are simply too many factors in play here that would get easily lost in translation.

A big reasons to use references, at least for me, is poses. Sometimes you want to draw your character in a particular pose, and you don’t have anyone nearby to model for you, or maybe you don’t know anyone of the body type you are looking for. References are wonderful in this instance, and can also help artists learn anatomy through practice when they see how legs and arms can fold into the body, especially if, like me, learning anatomy through a book and study can be a daunting task. References can also illustrate body folds and how clothing rests on the human form in a way that makes sense to the creator.

Using references is also a great way to remove or reconsider your initial biases about how something might look or work. For example, you might being trying to draw a tree, and you’re sure trees usually stand straight, so then you forget to draw them asymmetrically and with no shifts in direction up the tree. Or maybe you would be drawing something underwater, and assume that the water should be blue. This could cause you to forget how water’s color changes depending on the time of day and light sources. References provide insight into lighting and colors in these types of scenarios as well. It’s always worth asking when you’re using a reference “what do I see” as opposed to “what do I think this looks like?”

A photograph of a fox walking on a wet dirt road.
A logo design by Mike Bruner of a red-orange fox, done in a minimalist style.

Even if you are creating work in a more stylized format, it’s still handy to have references. It’s worth analyzing these images in order to realize how much information you can simplify or erase, while still having the element you’re creating be recognizable. To understand this concept better, let’s take a look at this above fox logo by Mike Bruner, in comparison with a photo of an actual fox. This logo is extremely simplified, there’s no eyes or legs on this fox at all, but how does the audience read such a simple logo as an actual fox? Obviously, the logo is a dark red orange, but the artist kept in mind that foxes have longer, almost dog-like snouts, and made the ears very prominent in the silhouette. The fox logo also displays the white belly more commonly associate with foxes, and we have a single swish of a tail to finish the entire look. The artist gave us just the right amount of information to tell the audience this was a fox, without complicating the look with elements like a black nose, whiskers, darker paws, yellow eyes, and a different color tip on the tail, that we see on the reference. It is because we can lose all this information, however, that makes it all the more important to use references. Knowing that all the information we need to identify a fox is orange fur, long snout, pointy upright ears, a white belly, and a long tail, means that if we tried to draw a realistic fox from memory, we would lose all that other information that was discarded by the original logo artist. This might seem like a stretch, but popular media biases and communication methods, through visual or audio means, do reflect on our daily thought processes, so it’s worth challenging yourself in this manner.

How to use art references:

The first solution is simply to Google search what you’re looking for, and keep the image nearby while you create your project. This allows you to eyeball anything you might be unsure of without leaving your project. However, if you’re making something more complicated and you need a bunch of reference images for one particular art piece, it might make more sense to create a matte painting of references. Matte paintings are representations of sets or landscapes, typically used in film projects in order to make fantastical environments. However, in these instances, matte paintings can be made for reference use by using a photo editing program, such as Photoshop, and combining your various reference images together in a setting you’re trying to recreate. Simply inport each image as its own layer, resize and edit as you need to fit into your composition. If you’re worried about making lighting and hues consistent, you can use hue and tone curves on each layer to make everything match. These reference matte paintings don’t have to be perfectly seamless or anything, they just have to be the building blocks for your ideas.

A combination of images that were photoshopped together to create one cohesive idea. An image of a sunset, a man standing on his porch, and a shot of a city, were combined to make an image of a man looking out into a city sunset landscape.
An example of a matte painting. Image credit to artist Raavi Bhatia.

Things to be cautious of when using references:

Edited Photographs

Whether it’s because of Photoshop, Face tune, or another editing software program, it’s worth being extremely cautious when using references of people that come from fashion media, and websites like Instagram and Tik Tok that allow body features to be warped or filtered. While the media that comes from these places can be very inspiring, these sources are rampant with body and facial edits that can mislead artists into drawing disproportional characters. Features like noses, eye size, jawlines, and hips are features prone to be edited in these types of sources, but editing can happen from head to toe. Some of this editing can be very subtle, but you can find some more egregious examples anywhere, such as long legs that break the head-ratio rule. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use these sources for inspiration or ideas, but it’s worth remembering the basics of anatomy structure when viewing these types of references, so your work isn’t misled.

A photograph of a model in a floral dress. A glass window behind her shows that her waist was edited to look skinnier than it actually is.
The editing in this image can seem subtle, but if you look in the window behind the woman, you can see her waist is not as skinny as the model in front.

Perspective

If you’re creating something along the lines of a tall building or setting, it’s worth challenging how perspective might have distorted the initial image. I would also consider camera angles to be something to be aware of in your reference images. Even if the camera is angled in a single digit rotation, it could cause a complete perspective change that causes you to revisit any basic anatomy rules or structural measurements. Not to mention camera depth can be extremely misleading when it comes to distance between objects, as shown below. So it’s good to at least be aware of how distorted the view of the image could actually be.

A composition of five shots of the same man taken at different camera depths. First few images make his face look flat, the ones on the right make his features recede wildly.
An example of how camera depth and perspective can warp an image.

That’s all I have to say about art references today. References are extremely helpful tools I think every and all artists should have, no matter their medium or style, as I think they can only serve to help rather than hinder the creator. Thank you all for reading this far, I’m very grateful for your attention and hope I’m able to be informative. I wish you the best, until we meet again.

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