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.

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“And their eyes met” – Tuor and Idril

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“And their eyes met”

Tuor and Idril in Gondolin.
Watercolour on Legion Stonehenge cold-pressed paper, 31×19 cm.

Prints available!

Where do Unicorns go?

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In the sea the fish have learnt to fly
on a moonlit night
on wings of silver
as the enchanted stars sail serenely by
Do they know
Where do unicorns go
Where winged horses fly
narwhals lost at sea
and never seen again
Go, go and ask the magpie
where do unicorns go

Watercolour and white gouache on Canson Aquarelle cold-pressed paper, 20×20 cm

Original sold!
Prints are available in my Etsy shop.

Ice and Fire

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Watercolour and gouache on Canson Héritage torchon paper, 38×26 cm.
Prints here!

Original available – note me if interested!

A few words of explanation on the style/character choices:
I discovered A Song of Ice and Fire in 2003 and devoured the first three books (which was all there was back then) in one go. I totally fell in love with Jon Snow, and I remember loving how realistically written the teenage characters were. I had fun trying to picture them in my school classes I was teaching at the time. It was easy for all of them, except Dany. All the others I could place in any odd Year Seven, Year Eight, Year Nine, easily, but Dany totally eluded me. I didn’t like her, and she didn’t have a face while I read.

The show rectified that, and admirably, which I’m sure has to do with the choice of aging everyone up five years, but my Jon will always remain my Jon.

The Passing of Arwen

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The Passing of Arwen
Watercolour on cold-pressed Waterford paper, 19×27 cm.

“I shall not go with him now when he departs to the Havens; for mine is the choice of Lúthien, and as she so I have chosen, both the sweet and the bitter.”

Prints here!

Original available.

“You’ll stand with me”

We went to see “The Last Jedi” twice during opening weekend, and I absolutely loved it. The plot problems didn’t bother me much; I loved what was being done with the characters – particularly Rey and Kylo Ren.

I confess that I didn’t trust the movies to develop in a way that would feel satisfying to me – psychological depth had never been the strong suit of Star Wars. I certainly didn’t expect for the movie to go the route it did, but I was delighted to see it.

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“You’ll stand with me”
Watercolour and gouache on Saunders Waterford cold-pressed paper, 15×25 cm

Prints

I had managed to stay almost completely spoiler free, and I really didn’t see this scene coming. I confess I yelped aloud in the cinema when it played on the screen. And all the while, hanging on the edge of my seat, watching Rey and Kylo Ren dissecting Snoke’s guards and cheering for them, I had a little voice at the back of my head: “But I don’t want it to be that easy. Don’t let them ride into the sunset together now.” I loved the way my wish was granted. I can’t wait to see what happens in IX.

Something that really impressed me was the handling of the “fear” theme in the plot. It was fear (however contrived…) that made Anakin turn to the dark side, it was fear that made Luke break off his training, it was fear that drove him to almost kill his own nephew, and it was that fear that fully turned Kylo Ren to the Dark Side.

I love the way they spun this plotline further, and I love the way how Rey turns it upside down. She isn’t afraid, not in the sense those others were, insecure, afraid to lose someone. She grew up depending solely on herself, and while she is cautious and brave and sympathetic towards others, she lacks that desperate streak that those other Force-others had which spoke to the Dark Side in themselves. How I would love for the end to be a true balance, with the Dark being a necessary part of the Light that needs to be understood and worked with rather than feared and avoided!

Yoda understood that; he had some of the best lines – about failure being the greatest teacher, and this truly remarkable line that resonated with me as a teacher and as a parent: “We are what they grow beyond.”

 

 

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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