Make reference work for you!

Here’s a little tutorial on how to make reference photos work in your art, by making them subject to the idea and an overall composition, not the other way round.

Mental thumbnailing

All my paintings begin with an idea of a scene I want to paint. Reference always comes in a second or even third step. I’d decided to paint the scene in the Silmarillion where Fingon’s mounted archers take on a young Glaurung. I had wanted to do this scene for a while. 

Working from a photo from the get go never works for me, and certainly not in a complex, multi-character scene. Photos tend to be much less dynamic than the compositions I want to achieve (since I’m an artist, not a photographer), so working from photo without a lot of change often results in boring paintings.

Once I have a picture idea, my mind starts thumbnailing. I try out different compositions in my head, and find where the snags are. 

Whenever I do a battle scene, I want to portray both combatants in some way, so it’s very obvious from the start that my camera angle needs some thought. If I want to show Fingon’s face, I can’t have Glaurung (left). If I want to show Glaurung, I’ll have a few Elves from behind, and Fingon somewhere off in the distance (centre). So I decided to show Fingon charging past and shooting behind him (right) – quite obviously, that meant some extremely good reference. 

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Refining an idea and finding (or shooting) specific reference

At this stage, the scene is still only in my head. I know Glaurung will be in the middle ground, so if Fingon is galloping towards us, he’s closer to us, and needs to shoot behind him. Riders further back will need to shoot straight to the side. This is the reference I need. 

Very often, for complicated poses, I shoot reference myself. I know exactly what I want, and I avoid copyright issues. For riders, I often take photos of my daughter at her riding lessons. In this case, I came up blank. None of the hundreds of reenactment photos I’ve shot at events had any mounted archers, and I needed photos of people who knew what they were doing – because I don’t know a lot about archery. So that ruled out family members posing with a bow while sitting astride a sofa.

A Patreon supporter of mine then pointed me to several great mounted archers with Instagram accounts – and there were such an incredible lot of great photos! I immediately reached out to Erin Jardine and Freja Trulsdotter, who gave me permission to use their photos. 

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I started filing away those photos that were the angle and poses I needed. At this point, the photos and my idea start bouncing off each other in my head, as my idea is defined. 

Making your reference work in perspective

A lot can go wrong when you combine several reference photos in one image. Ask yourself: Were the photos all shot from roughly the same height? Look at the horizon line for clues – it’s where the camera was, and your viewer’s eye will be. If the photographer was standing, chances are that the photos will work together. If you have one extreme bird’s or worm’s eye view in there, it won’t work with the others.

Here’s a trick to keep several people standing at different distances to the viewer in perspective: Assume the viewer is standing in the same room. If he is the same height as the characters, align all the eyes at the same level. Unless they’re a king on a dais. Or Maedhros. You can indicate different heights that way, too.

(I haven’t seen this lineart in years, and I apparently changed Celegorm’s expression before finalising this – he cracks me up!)

If you want to put characters into a bird’s eye view, you need to find another converging point by adding invisible heads to them. Or by handing each one a seven-foot lance and having their tips converge. The horizon line has to move up there, too.

If you align the eyes of people on horseback, it will look as if the viewer is also sitting on a horse. (Plus, eye-alignment can sometimes look a bit like differently sized people all dangling from a washing line.) Here, I wanted to put the viewer in the middle of the action, but not on a horse, to add a sense of “Gosh, I’ll be trampled!” to the scene. So what you do is align not the characters’ eyes, but a point that is level with the (standing) viewer’s eye. When you stand next to a charger, your eyes are barely above its rump. So this is where I aligned my riders. I chose their saddlebows, allowing for some unevenness for the movement and uneven terrain.

Plus, the fact that the characters’ heads are all at different levels adds a lot of movement again, forcing the viewer’s eye into an up and down movement, like a gallop.

Swarming effect

Instead of choosing three poses that were roughly the same, I decided to use three slightly different ones for the main riders, two slightly from the right, one slightly from the left side. Fingon would be passing us on the right; the one to his left would thunder past us on our left side, while the one to his right is already swerving to cut right across us and vanish off to the right. That way, pressing a mental “play” button on the scene, we see ourselves standing right there as the cavalry passes us left and right. This is a very effective way to thrust the viewer into the middle of the action. It works with any movement.

Compositional rules – distance, crumping, overlap, line of action

I did my best here to adhere to the rules of composition. Putting figures at several distances is a great way to add a sense of space. Having elements or character overlapping each other adds to the sense of space. “Crumping” means clumping several elements together in uneven numbers – here. the three main riders. The line of action is very much defined by the horses’ movement, and I added several elements to the piece that lead the viewers eye – the dragon’s tail, the eyes of the riders and the dragon, all converging in the middle of the piece; the tree trunks that lead the viewer’s eye back into the image in places where other elements threaten to lead it out.

Roast rabbit – and an art revelation

I had a clear “where have you been all my life” moment yesterday. After using gouache quite satisfactorily on Gil-galad, not just for highlights but also for some rendering, I decided it was time for another stab at gouache.

Gouache is often described as opaque watercolour (and indeed, many languages use no separate word for it), and can either be applied thickly and even paste-like, much like oils, or in thinner washes, much like watercolour. I’d often thought about trying around with the former, mainly because I’d been using only the most transparent of watercolours in recent years and felt that going opaque was just the opposite of what I wanted. One and a half years ago, roughly, I bought a book on painting animals in gouache, and faithfully copied the examples. It worked, but I didn’t like it. My gouache tubes went to the bottom of my art cupboard again.

I’d been thinking about the medium again and wanted to take another shot at it, when I looked at some paintings in my “inspiration” folder whose technique had always baffled me and it hit me: They weren’t watercolours. They were thinly glazed gouache paintings.

Gouache has a pastelly, fuzzy quality to it that I’d never really given much thought.

I immediately decided to try that. My mother had asked for a picture of Sam Gamgee roasting a rabbit, and it looked like just the thing to try in gouache.

I painted very much the way I always do, except that I mixed in white instead of relying on the white of the paper. The white gouache made for a fuzziness that just turned blending colours into an absolute dream. The greenery in the background also just fell onto the paper effortlessly. The only thing I’ll do differently next time is that, instead of a thin blue shadow map, I’ll do a bolder, more neutral shadow line the last time, and drop in the blues later, while it’s still wet.

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I recorded the painting process and uploaded it as a timelapse here.

The original painting is available in my Etsy shop!

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Tutorial: Painting with Acrylic Inks

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The latest huge new discovery of 2013 were acrylic inks (used to paint “Fog over Trasimene“). They’re quite similar to watercolours in many ways, but more versatile. They come in little bottles with eyedropper lids, just like the liquid watercolours I love to work with.

I’m working with three different brands here: FW Daler/Rowney Acrylic Artists Ink; Rohrer/Klingner Zeichentusche (drawing ink); and Liquitex Ink. The handling is almost identical to watercolours: I use them with my normal watercolour brushes, thinned down with water or undiluted. No changes there.

All the brands I use come in different opacity levels: from transparent like actual watercolours to opaque, and in this case, opaque is really opaque. I work with a selection of mainly transparent ones, to preserve my watercolour look, but have a few opaque ones, mainly light tones like white, for highlights. In order to keep them apart, I used small blue self-adhesive dots to paste on the opaque ones, so I don’t accidentally grab the wrong bottle. Like watercolours, different pigments have different lightfastness ratings. I’ve made sure only to buy lightfast paints. tut_acr1 The other huge difference is: when acrylic dries, it’s completely insoluble. When you add layers in watercolour, you will always slightly dissolve bottom layers. In acrylics, you can use completely transparent layers that leave all the detail work in place underneath. Whether you add dark shadows or light fog – I did both in the “Trasimene” pic linked above – it opens a world of opportunities.

With watercolour, you have to work from light to dark, for several reasons. You can’t paint light skin next to black hair; the black hair will run into your light skin. And you can’t add light colours atop dark ones. In acrylic, you have no limitations. You can put dark hair down and later add a light yellow across the whole image – nothing will run. You can add light highlights to dark areas – just use opaque paint.

The downside of that is: your palette. With watercolours, you can reuse, rewet, and clean palettes without problems. Liquid acrylics are pretty much there to stay. With tube acrylics, that’s bad enough; with liquid ones, you have the additional problem that you need a palette with small “pots”. My solution is a lucky one – in Germany, we have outrageously yummy sweets called “Toffifee”, which come in little blister packs. They’re perfect for liquid acrylic palettes. When I’ve completely mucked them up, I can just throw them away. So now I have a great excuse to keep buying Toffifees. Yay.

The picture is a commission for the wonderful Paul, for whom I’ve already done “A Sorrowful Meeting“. It’s his character Laerminuial, a Noldo jewel smith from Rivendell.

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I haven’t arrived at the definitive paper for acrylic inks yet. I’ve tried around with Canson Montval and Schoellershammer – Montval tends to cake ever so slightly, but Schoellershammer has some really unfortunate speckling qualities, so Montval it is. Generally, I’m still working with watercolour papers, as I still want the overall feel to be more watercolour than acrylic.

In the photo below, the first light yellow wash is already in place.

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I had one huge “PANIC!” moment connected to liquid acrylics: They speckle when wet. Dramatically. Most dramatically: Rohrer/Klingner Antique Gold Green.

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When this happened for the first time – in the face, of all places – I did panic, and ripped up the whole thing. Later, after the ripped-up painting had sufficiently dried in the dustbin, I saw that the face was perfectly smooth again. And that even works with Rohrer/Klingner Antique Gold Green.

Lesson learned.

When the background wash had dried, I applied some basic wet-into-wet washes for the columns and shrubs, allowing the colours to mix on the paper. I did the skin in the same soft rosy wash.

This works pretty much like watercolour. Overall, the following steps all mimic my usual watercolour techniques.

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I then proceeded to put down the basic colours for the dress and hair. For the dress, I worked around the ornaments the way I usually do – I can always go darker later, or lighter, to pull everything together. Right now, I just wanted to have the basic colours down. And watercolourist that I am, I still feel that leaving something light looks better than painting it light. :D

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Now comes one of the wonders of ink.

In order to give a colour to the ornaments on her dress, I can just lay a wash over the whole thing. I can tint, I can darken – all in transparent ink; the paint underneath is left untouched and crisp. If I tried the same thing in watercolour, the layer underneath would blur.

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More detailing to the shrubs, skin, lamp, and dress.

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Below: More detailing (lamps, shrubs), deepening of shadows (background, columns, shrubs, dress) and tinting. Tinting is one of the greatest assets of acrylic ink. If a colour isn’t as you want it – add a wash of what you want. Acrylic ink, like watercolour, lightens as it dries, and also “deadens” a little. Overall, that’s like an inbuilt safety net, with unlimited correction possibilities, as you can always just add another layer as you find you need them. You can see I work in a sort of island hopping approach – deepening shadows in different areas of the painting as I feel necessary, to keep the overall thing coherent.

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Lastly, a bit of more detail work – the leaves, and some highlights on the figure.

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Crossing the Alps

Across the wild alps

Across the wild alps

This piece really gave me a hard time, but it’s probably very fitting that, in mid-October, I struggle with a piece depicting Hannibal struggling with the Alps in mid-October. My losses were in paper and pencils rather than mules and men, but it seems crossing the Alps isn’t meant to be easy.

The lineart stage alone took me a week and four pieces of paper as I redrew this bit and that and put the pieces back together again. The colour was even tougher. I don’t think I’ve ever painted anything as complex as this. I’d say I mostly succeeded. Another parallel there.

Before I started, I made myself a greyscale sketch in Photoshop, so I knew where to get how dark in the final piece.

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Then I mixed some Phtalo Blue, Indigo and Shadow Violet in one compartment of my palette, some Ochre in another, and then some reddish brown from leftovers I had in my palette (probably mainly Burnt Sienna, Piemontite Red, and Sepia).  I sprayed my entire canvas with water and added a very light blue wash, then going into all the bits that are exposed to the light with extremely thin Ochre.

Then, when this had dried, I painte a rather uniform pale blue sky. The picture is going to be busy enough; when everything else is done, I’ll decide how many clouds this piece can handle.

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Next, I started painting the mountains in the back of the image. I used a pale Blue, mainly Phtalo, and painted the “negative space” around the snow. I mixed in some green to suggest a few trees further away.

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Then I went about detailing the rock-faces closer to us, with mixes of different blues (more Pthalo here, more Indigo and Shadow Violet there), intermingled in the shadows and rockier parts with different, toned-down browns I mixed above.

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I make sure never to get too dark, but more and more detailed towards the front.

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More details and deeper shadows to the rocky bits.

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I painted a thin brownish/bluish wash across the army and the space below them, to tie them in with the surroundings. The group of three men, immediately behind Hannibal and the soldier he’s pulling to his feet, is overlaid with a muddy wash so they won’t distract from the two later on.

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I then decided the empty triangle of sky could well use another mountain, plus a few bluer shadows on the other mountains, which I painted in with Phtalo and Indigo.

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Next, I set out to paint the mountainside to the left. It’s completely in shadow, and I mixed some more reddish tones into the blue.

Down there, you can already see me detailing out the rocks with a brownish wash. The colour consists of everything I have on my palette at this point. 
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Finished detailing. Not too much – I want the detail to be almost lost in the rock face later on, enough to look finished and non-monotonous, but nothing to distract from the figures.

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Next, some skin, bronze and leather.

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Outfitting Hannibal’s Libyans with warm winter clothes. Quiet there in the back, I’ll get to you eventually. The elephants go first.

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More detailing of the figures in back. Simultaneously, I determined how dark my darkest spots would be in this image – Hannibal’s hair – to set off the rest against it, and to have something to check the column against, to keep myself from getting too dark in the background.

And well, after fiddling with hundreds of little figures for hours that don’t look like anything, I needed something rewarding to paint.

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In this painting, my approach is very un-classical. Instead of going strictly from light to dark, I made sure to lay done some guidelines, shapes through the painting, forcing myself to keep an overview rather than getting lost in the details.

Like the fact that Hannibal’s sword is four inches long. >_<

So this is where the mixed media part comes in, and I mixed some dark burgundy with gouache and fixed that sword thing. Next, I added some bright colours (not gouache this time, still sticking mainly to the colours I’ve previously used) for Hannibal’s clothes. They’re too bright as of now, but I plan to make generous use of dark shadows and liquid watercolours to tone them down and add that extra punch that liquid watercolours excel at.

The shields of the men in the back have also been detailed with a mix of ochre/Burnt Sienna/violet mixes already in use. No new colours have been introduced here.

I also painted over the entire army in the back again with a good brushful of dirty water. That got rid of the little white flashes of unpainted whites everywhere, and tied them together neatly. I’ll go in later to pick out some bronze helmet highlights.

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Liquid watercolours in action, picking out shadows.
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Some gouache too, for lighter highlights, which I rarely do, but which are needed here.

The colours look off in the photograph; the original looks much better.

As gouache palettes, I always keep the plastic lids of Chipsletten crisps (Pringles-like,but Chipsletten taste better). They’re the perfect size and quality for palettes on an overcrowded desk like mine.

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The epiphany of the week came with the realisation that a watercolour that looks off is ruined, and a gouache painting that looks of may just not be done yet. That’s a concept I never really grasped. The next step will be to understand how to go on. I manage well enough with gouache in metal and clothes, but skin is not very successful yet. A part of me refuses to paint skin with anything opaque, which seems to be my problem.

Last details of the Celt’s helmet…

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And the clothes of the men in front.

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Gandalf walkthrough

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My first step, as usual, is a pale wash over the entire canvas – here, a cool blue. I brush it off with a dry, clean brush over the mountaintops, the smoke, Gandalf’s beard and face where the light hits.

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Then I start painting the face. When everything around it is still so light, the reddish tones around eyes and nose often look totally overdone, but in the end, when everything else is painted as well, it’s hardly noticeable any more, so I often end up darkening it again after all.

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I paint the robe and hat with a mix of Prussian Blue and Shadow Violet, my favourite granulating colour, which results in nice, rough effects here.tut_gan03

Next, some subtle and well-placed darker shades on the mountains.tut_gan04

The blue scarf…. and look how pale that face suddenly seems again.tut_gan05

Let’s have some more red. He looks drunk? Not for long. In the end, it’ll be just right.

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Shading on the fine tips of hair and beard.

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Shading and texturing on the scarf and cloak. I’ve brought out the eyebrows with a bit of gouache.

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Texturing wood works best painting around the highlights of the wooden structure, and deepening the shades in and around the knotholes.

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A sorrowful meeting

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Sorrowful was their meeting in Tasarinan; for Finrod was lost and Angrod too, and never more would Aegnor walk beside Andreth Saelind beneath the green leaves of spring.  ~(Paul Leone, the commissioner of this piece)

You’ll remember this one of Finarfin being reunited with his daughter Galadriel around the War of Wrath. I redid it as a commission – as you know, the old version was coffee, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to hang it on a wall! :)

On my latest workshop, so many people were doing terrific things with masking fluid, so that I decided to give that another go as well. I used it for a layered look of negative space throughout; here you can see how:

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First Workshop 2013

I’ve held my first of two workshop this weekend, and we’ve had two fantastic days with interesting people, heaps of creativity, loads of fun, and of course gorgeous art!  Take a look!

I did a demonstration of skin and clothes again, and Hannibal acted as my new demonstration model.

It seems that the skin-shading there caught the only sunlight in the only ten minutes today that we had any sunshine. Otherwise I can’t explain where all the orange came from – I definitely didn’t make it so orange. The last shot reflects the actual colours (when the sky over Aachen was back to grey). Or possibly because the direction I took the final photo from was different (frontal instead of sideways) and that did something with  the light.

The final Hannibal piece:

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