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. 

mental-thumbnailing

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. 

ref

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.

Advertisements

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!

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.

Inktober 2017

My first ever Inktober! Inktober’s rules are simple: Post a piece drawn in ink, every day of October.

Initially, I did try actual ink, pen nib, and brush. After day 2, however, I decided that my inking skills were so lacking that I was in danger of totally frustrating myself, especially after almost a year of hardly any art at all. So I decided to stick with what little comfort zone I had left, and do these pieces in ballpoint pen.

I also had the idea that sustained me throughout this month: I decided to dedicate Inktober to my personal heroes of page and screen – all the film and book characters that have fascinated me in my life.

A couple of days in, I had to ask myself: Do I want to have 31 top notch pieces at the end of October? That was my fuzzy mental idea when I started out, and I had to bury that as early as October 2nd. It was marking season; my desk was buried under a hundred exams. I thought about quitting. Then I decided to make this my personal “DO THIS” project. No matter how busy the day was. No matter how little time you have. No matter how crap the drawing is. Do it. Post it. Inktober is all about forming habits. I wanted to show myself that I could still art.

The only one I missed was 15 – we went to see Bayer Leverkusen play VfL Wolfsburg. In retrospect, I should just have done a scribble in the stadium. Today (Oct 31) I would. Two weeks ago, that prospect still felt daunting.

Here are the results, along with my thoughts and comments on each as I first posted them. You can navigate through them by just clicking on the image that’s open.

 

Inktober has been an incredibly valuable experience for me – over the last few years, with two small and then borderline teenage kids, a taxing day job and sky-high levels of exhaustion, I had a lot of excuses for not being creative. Those excuses had become so ironclad that they effectively kept me from creating for about a year. Even the things I did draw and paint were a huge effort. At times, over the summer, I felt that maybe it was time to stop being an artist. The most frightening thing about that thought was that it didn’t frighten me at the time.

I was totally sure I would never finish Inktober (as with the ill-fated Junicorn I tried one and a half years ago), so I hardly advertised it, and hardly prepared for it. Maybe that was good. It definitely took the pressure off me, and uploading even the pieces that were sub-par in my eyes proved unexpectedly cathartic.

A wonderful asset of Inktober has been the flow of positive vibes I’ve been getting through social media, talking to people about the films and books we love (and even encountering some of the authors – talking to Tamora Pierce and being shared by Guy Gavriel Kay and Tad Williams).

Thank you! <3

Speed now this feathered shaft

Maedhros therefore, being in anguish without hope, begged Fingon to shoot him with his bow; and Fingon strung an arrow, and bent his bow. And seeing no better hope he cried to Manwë, saying: ‘O King to whom all birds are dear, speed now this feathered shaft, and recall some pity for the Noldor in their need!’

wp_speed-now_col

J. R: R: Tolkien, The Silmarillion: Of the return of the Noldor

Watercolour and Ecoline on Canson Vidalon cold-pressed paper, 23×33 cm

Steps:

Fingon and Aredhel – mixed media experiment

I doodled a very nice Fingon and Aredhel into my sketchbook yesterday – with coloured pencil, which yielded some really charming results. I decided to try watercolour on top of those – only to realise that my coloured pencils were water soluble.

wp_brother-sister

So I printed the sketches out on watercolour paper again, and got to work, spraying the entire paper with water and then laying down a Quinachridone Gold wash.

tut_fa_1

A bit of flesh-tint with Burnt Sienna and Madder Red.

tut_fa_2

Some Ultramarine for the shadows.

tut_fa_3

More reddish and bluish tints. I really like this effect. Maybe next time I try this technique, I won’t do it on a character with dark hair.

tut_fa_4

Painting the hair with Ultramarine, Madder, and rather a lot of Shadow Violet.

tut_fa_5

Some final touches with paint, and later some more with Polychromos and white gel pen.

 

Finished:

wp_aredhel2_col

 

wp_fingon2_col