So I was chatting with the lovely Justin Oaksford yesterday, and he casually asked if I used photo reference for my recent Rolemodels piece- not as a bad thing, but because the pose and the camera angle read well. Pretty sure I grinned like an idiot when he brought it up because, goddammit, I’m proud that the work shows! I’ve felt like my work has been somewhat stilted as of late- I could feel myself subconsciously trending towards easier angles, easier poses, easier expressions just because it’s slightly less frustrating for my brain to process- so getting that confirmation from a colleague was pretty damn satisfying.
I think there’s a tendency for artists to take pride in being able to draw out of your head, and, while that’s an admittedly important skill, what’s actually important is what that skill implies- it implies that you’ve internalized reference. That you’ve spent so much time looking at the world around you, studying it, drawing from it, breaking it down, that you’ve amassed an extensive mental library that you can draw from. You are Google reborn in the shallow husk of a human being.
But heck, the world’s a big place- what are the chances that you ever get to a point that you’ve internalized all of it? Internalized it AND ALSO are never going to forget it ever? Probably no chance at all. Sorry buddy. So rather than bemoaning the fact that we don’t have impenetrable search engine cyborg brains- yet- you sure as hell better still be using reference to fill in/refresh those empty shelves in your mental library. You shouldn’t have worm-ridden books about dinosaur anatomy from the 60’s in there. Stegosauruses with brains in their tails? CLEAN THAT SHIT OUT.
So my general process for using reference of any sort is:
loose thumbnails and brainstorming. If you have an idea, get that raw thing- unadulterated in it’s potential shittiness- onto paper. Good art is a combination of both instinct and discipline, so you don’t want to entirely discount those lightning strikes of brilliance. Or idiocy. Happens to all of us.
research and reference. Start gathering and internalizing whatever reference is pertinent to your piece- could be diagrams, art, photos, good old-fashioned READIN’, whathaveyou. Please note that this doesn’t mean find one picture of a giraffe- this means find tons of photos of giraffes, read about giraffes, understand giraffes, and learn how to incorporate that knowledge into your art with purpose and intent (Justin uses the word “intent” a lot so I’m stealing it). Don’t blindly copy what you see, but understand how to integrate it in an interesting and informed manner.
studies and practice. Could be lumped in with the previous step, granted, but it’s worth reiterating- if you’re drawing something new, it’s worth doing some studies. You discover things that you wouldn’t otherwise by just staring at them. It’s weird how I’m still learning this- “Gee golly, six-shooters are way easier to draw now that I’ve drawn a ton of them!” Yes wow Claire BRILLIANT. Gold star.
go for the gold. Finally, I’m sure it goes without saying, you integrate all of that research and knowledge into your initial thumbnails. If you learned something about anatomy, or fashion, or color, or butts, now you can drastically improve your original idea with this newfound knowledge. Also, per the images above, this is also your chance to improve on the reference- photos are a fantastic tool, but trust your instincts. Cameras can’t make informed decisions.
…So that’s my soapbox- it’s pretty easy, and it’s totally worth it. Research and reference lets you stand on the shoulders of giants- it lends legitimacy, specificity, and allure to your work that wouldn’t be there if you were just drawing out of your head 100% of the time. To put it simply- it makes your work ownable. It makes you stand out.
This past Friday my closest friends and I lost a true mentor to brain cancer. Though we all had him as a professor at different times and graduated from different classes, he was able to instill a deep passion for comics and storytelling in all of us. That same passion and interest became the very catalyst that brought my friends and I together late one night, coincidentally sketching at the same coffee shop.
Immediately, we realized we were all the same. Equal in almost every way except skill (I was the worst) and bonded quickly over a healthy dose of competition and love for writing and art. The name Kerry P. Talbott was always coming up in conversation, especially when my friends would offer advice on which classes and professors I needed to experience. I was still in school at the time and they had since graduated. I didn’t make many good decisions at that age but thankfully, I made one then and I took their advice. I emailed Kerry. I told him who my new friends were and that they couldn’t have recommended another professor more for someone so eager to learn how to tell stories through comics. He graciously allowed me into his already overfilled class. I must have thanked him a hundred times for that.
Since then I could not be closer with this group of guys and we’ve all since launched our own respectful careers in illustration, comics and animation. Some of us needed him more than others at times and were able to reach out to him on a more intimate level. He was always there for them, never hesitating to step in and fill whichever temporary, empty space needed a quick patch.
Thankfully, we were able to visit Kerry in his last days. And as we huddled in a circle around his bed in his beautiful home, I realized that Kerry, you were the Splinter to these teenagers in half shells. Your memory will live forever in those of us that continue to create, living among the panels and brush strokes of every student you ever taught.
Cowabunga dude. We’re really gonna miss you.
Note: Pictured above is a poster I created for Kerry a year ago when we were raising funds for his medical bills. The middle picture is a photo of him teaching at VCU and below that is a photo of my friends and I enjoying coffee and donuts after having spent our morning visiting with Kerry. Stephen was hugging himself while wearing one of Kerry’s shirts. It should be noted that Stephen literally took his shirt off his back, a shirt that Kerry had designed and gave it to Kerry’s wife so that she could have one with his artwork on it. Stephen stood shirtless in the door as she ran upstairs to grab Shirtless Steve something to wear.
A page from The Black Sheep. This one was among the first batch of pages made for the comic. I wanted to have some page where I incorporated photos, and having found in my hard disk some pics (which I had taken way back in 2006), I gave it a shot at making a collage (in photoshop) using drawings and photos. I really liked when Jim Steranko would do that in some of his “Nick Fury” pages, so that was another reason that made me want to try this.
As soon as I finished this page, it gave me an idea for an scene, but since I was working without a script, just improvising as I went along, by the time I was about to develop that particular scene (a few weeks after having made this collage), I realized that it would take me many pages to make it as I wanted to, and with a deadline coming, and still having more important parts of the story left to draw, I figured it was wiser to discard it, and follow the course that the story had taken in the weeks that went since finishing this collage.
In the last week before having to wrap up the comic, I still had not found a way to incorporate this page into the story. As I was ready to completely discard it, realizing that late into the process that I was not going to have the time that I would need to draw all the stuff that I wanted to include, pushed me to use whatever I had already drawn, and find a way to incorporate these elements (this page is just one of many examples), in a way that would make sense.
In more ways than one, by the time I was done, I kind of felt that the story wrote itself, which in my experience made the process much more fun than trying to control every single aspect, as I had made with other comics that I wrote, or whenever I would draw a script developed by a writer, where my goal usually becomes trying to be as loyal as possible (within my limitations) to the source material.
I would need to refine the approach used in this comic, but all in all, it was the finest learning experience I’ve had so far, when it comes to making a comic, and starting out with a vague idea of what’s going to happen, and leaving enough blanks left to fill as you go along is a process that I’ll most likely use again in another comics project. Besides the important fact of having fun while making the work (otherwise, making comics can be one of the most tedious jobs ever, in my opinion), I felt that the intuitive factor that goes along with not knowing what you will get after the work is done just brings ideas that otherwise one would not have thought of, which I see as another advantage.