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.

Then Fingon rode against him

“Again after a hundred years Glaurung, the first of the Urulóki, the fire-drakes of the North, issued from Angband’s gates by night. He was yet young and scarce half-grown, for long and slow is the life of the dragons, but the Elves fled before him to Ered Wethrin and Dorthonion in dismay; and he defiled the fields of Ard-galen. Then Fingon prince of Hithlum rode against him with archers on horseback, and hemmed him round with a ring of swift riders; and Glaurung could not endure their darts, being not yet come to his full armoury, and he fled back to Angband, and came not forth again for many years. Fingon won great praise, and the Noldor rejoiced; for few foresaw the full meaning and threat of this new thing.”

Watercolour and gouache on Bockingford cold-pressed paper, 29×39 cm. See my shop for prints! Original is sold. :)

Huge thanks to Erin Jardine (@eyesoferin) and Freja Trulsdotter (@artofliberty) for permission to use their mounted archery photos as reference for Fingon’s archers!

For Maglor slew Uldor the Accursed

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Watercolour on Bockingford cold-pressed paper, 36×26 cm.

I recently asked my Patrons for suggestions for Maglor scenes, and his slaying Uldor came up several times. It’s such an unusual moment for the gentlest son of Fëanor, to be showing that he, like this brothers, was also a warrior.

Prints available!

Here’s a video about the background texture.

Wardens of the North

Wardens of the North. Watercolour and coloured pencil on Canson Vidalon cold-pressed paper, 16×26 cm.

Prints of this are available here! Or you can try to win one in a giveaway on my Patreon. The original piece will be available in my shop soon! Contact me if you’re interested.

I’m currently on a two-week sick leave after my eye-related headaches got less and less manageable. I’m trying to rest loads, avoid any driving if I can, and training my left eye to take over without protesting too much. It’ll take a lot longer than two weeks to get there (my ophthalmologist is thinking in years), but I hope to give myself a bit of a head start under less stressful conditions. Switching between near and far is the worst. Surprisingly, working on tiny paintings for hours works really well. Which gives me the added recreational experience of doing something that really recharges my mental battery.

“Catch me if you can!”

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Éowyn and Faramir. Watercolour on Legion Stonehenge cold pressed paper, 21×31 cm.

By coincidence, I found that I owned an American cent, and realised that it was way larger than the Euro cents I’m used to – here they are side by side.

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Doing any sort of small detail is still incredibly hard for me, and I pay for it with headaches and having to paint in little half-hour instalments over several days and weeks.

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Prints available! 

Now that my art time has become even more limited than before, I’m doubly (and triply) grateful for the support of my wonderful patrons! If you’ve been thinking about supporting me, glean first glimpses at new art and take part in giveaways, now’s a great time!

https://www.patreon.com/jennydolfen

The Hunt

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The Hunt. Watercolour on Canson Vidalon paper, 19×39 cm.
Finrod Felagund joins Fëanoreans Maedhros and Maglor on a hunt in Eastern Beleriand. (Click to enlarge!)

After slowly easing back into art again with Inktober and the smallish and whimsical Newt Scamander piece this month, I felt ready to tackle a larger piece again. At first, I actually started it with gathering tons of reference, pasting and lightboxing horses and riders I’d photographed at reenactment events – and then I scrapped all of that and started the first stages loose, without reference, without correct anatomy, just to make sure it flowed the way I wanted it. (Much as I admire reenactors, they don’t flow. At least I can’t photograph them that way.) And suddenly everything just clicked into place again, the way it already had with the Newt piece. I then checked reference and reworked the figures and horses, but I’d once again found what truly makes me happy with my art.

Canson Vidalon paper proved a great choice for this. Its cottony texture allows very soft washes and keeps everything rather light; you really have to work hard for your darks and be very deliberate where you want them. The magnifying glass made another appearance, too. The detail shot below tells you just how small those faces are.

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Matted prints of these will soon be available in my Etsy shop – watch social media for more info.

A lot has been happening on Patreon recently! Ten new people have joined us, there’s been a giveaway for calendars and Inktober art, a livestream of painting this one with a Q&A, and the timelapse video for this one is available for my Patrons as well. Ever thought of joining, too? Take a peek!

Ser Loras Tyrell (More experiments: acrylic gouache)

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The Knight of Flowers.
Turner acrylic gouache on Etival cold-pressed paper, 20×30 cm. 

This piece was done for a scholarly work titled “The Heroic and Chivalric Codes of Westeros”, by Dr. Carol Jamison.

It’s also another media experiment. This time, I gave acrylic gouache a go. It’s something that a lot of people have never heard about (and that a lot of stores don’t stock), but it’s actually really, really cool as it combines several features that I like about both watercolours, and acrylics, and gouache.

  • When applied thinly and with much water, it looks like watercolour.
  • It dries to be water-resistant, so it allows glazing (unlike gouache). That also means it dries on your palette, so you need to work with porcelain palettes rather than plastic. Fortunately, a little drop of paint goes a long way, so it’s not much of a waste.
  • In thicker layers, it becomes opaque, but you have a lot of control over how opaque you want it.
  • Even in thicker layers, you don’t get the flaky stuff you tend to get with gouache, unless you want to get very, very thick.
  • When dry, the pant looks matte, like gouache, but unlike acrylics (which is why I don’t like thin acrylics – just don’t like it shiny).

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Left: I did a lot of detail and shadows first (unlike with watercolour, where you’d do those last) and then glazed over the detailing with thinly diluted colour washes; the detailing remains intact.