Reference: Tool or Trap?
As a teacher, I tell my students what my professors told me: “Don’t be a slave to your reference!” As an illustrator, I tell myself the same thing. We learn early on to take strong reference photos; how to use and even manipulate lighting to get desired effects; and to play with perspective (bird’s-eye, worm’s eye, macro, etc.) for more dynamic compositions. Top-notch illustrators like Bill Thompson and Dennis Nolan go so far as to build models of animals or architecture if the real subjects aren’t readily available to photograph. During our master’s program, they taught us to do the same thing. Strong reference imagery can make or break your resulting illustration. However, even the best reference is merely that – something to refer to while working. Use your photos as tools, paying attention to the details you need without feeling that you must copy an image in its entirety. There may be foreshortening issues created by the camera lens that you need to adjust in your painting. Background elements, props, clothing patterns may (and perhaps should) be simplified or left out altogether. Colors can be changed or adjusted to better fit your design.
The photo above was taken several years ago for an illustration of the Dionne quintuplets. My best friend’s baby posed for the five body positions. I then found photos of the quints’ faces, and photos of an antique Donald Duck doll, to finish off my reference imagery. You can see the resulting illustration in my post Christmas 1934. Recently, I pulled out the old reference photos, wanting to do a portrait of my friend’s daughter. While the outfit and toys didn’t fit what I wanted to paint, the baby’s expression grabbed my attention. It was a moment of innocent concentration caught on camera, as Claire, distracted from the toy in-hand, was more interested in trying to pull off her knitted sock. It was a moment between the lines of action, between moments of play. Those are the visual stories I like to tell.
For the sake of design and composition, I veered from the reference in several areas. First off, I needed an element to divide ground from “sky.” I moved the blanket beneath her, creating soft abstract shadows to give her a feeling of being grounded. The pink knitted sock and shorts became blue to simplify color scheme. As for props/toys, odd numbers are preferable in design. There are three toy balls in the original photo, but I’ve made them solid red instead of clear plastic. And I moved their positions to form a triangular balance. All other props were eliminated. I’d originally painted a pale yellow background. During critique it was suggested that I brighten and deepen the color to a yellow-orange. This brought life to the piece, creating a complementary contrast to the blues. The underpainting layers were completed at school last spring as an oil demo for my Painting 2 class. The painting then traveled to Virginia with me, where I worked on it over vacation in my grandmother’s oil painting studio. A few weeks later, the finished piece flew with me to California for delivery to my best friend. Let’s just say it’s a well-traveled portrait!
Note: oils can take weeks or months to dry. To speed the drying process, I placed the wet painting near a fan, blowing several hours for a couple of days. Once it was almost dry, I placed it outside in the sunshine for a few hours, where the sun’s heat could basically bake it, finishing the process. If doing this, watch out for bugs! Mosquitos or gnats could become a permanent part of the painting, if you place it outside while still too wet. And, of course forgetting to bring the piece in before evening dew or rain would also spell trouble.