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Working with Drawing References – A Tip For Digital Artists

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(Originally published on  6/17/2013)

Many artists are confused about the proper usage of references, especially for the digital painting artists out there. It is a delicate subject.Vampira-Morgana1-web

Since the digital age, more and more interest generates over the possibility that one can trace over an actual image or just use a “mixer-brush” or “smudge-tool” to make a photograph look like a painting.
The problem with this method is the visibility to viewers and peers alike that a photo is overpainted.
As an artist, you are better off asking the photographer first, getting the rights to do so and stating it in the image description to avoid confusion.

It is not forbidden, especially if you use your own photographs, but it can be misleading if it isn´t stated anywhere. Worst case scenario, people will commission you but may be weary to learn that your methods depend on a specific photograph.

If you are into drawing and illustration, sooner or later you will find that it isn’t beneficial to just trace. Your personal perception, stylistic handwriting, and decisions of “what” makes a painting cannot be achieved by simply painting over a photograph.
There is no general law applicable to where an original drawing begins and where a copy is made. However, some guidelines can be applied for when you are unsure whether you can publish a work as “your own”, or not:
  • You own the rights to a photographic reference
  •  Your work is only “based” on a photograph and you give credit where credit is due
  • You use a collection of photographs, one for the pose, another for coloring and another one for expression…
  • When your creation is a more stylized representation of the reference image
  • You use no photographs at all

The last option would be the most ideal. But except for in modern art, it can rarely be applied in practice.

Even if you create creatures out of your head you need, real-life, tangible references to make your work believable. What you depict visually will be seen by humans, not aliens, and therefore has to follow some general rules of perception such as gravity, proportions, anatomy, and other basic laws of physics.
If the reference is used in an appropriate and responsible manner, your work will benefit and avoid becoming a slave to the reference.
If you are able to work entirely from imagination, congratulations! You have left the real world and perceive life through the Matrix®. The mere mortal of us has to get through a number of visual guidelines and image references to follow, especially in commissioned work.

A Tip For Digital Artists

When desiring improvement in my work, I experiment with different tools and settings. Here are some tools that I can recommend.
First off, if you use the Windows or OSX -picture viewers, forget them. Download the nomacs – image lounge, a very useful, lightweight – free little tool (provided under the GNU General Public License v3)  that can also show your images frameless with many useful features: http://www.nomacs.org/
The only thing nomacs doesn´t have is the option to keep the images floating on top, but there´s deskPins for that. Together this is a really great combination.
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Above: This is my actual Cintiq screen with plenty of unused space. The framed version of nomacs does´t  have a big frame. If you opt for that, it can be zoomed, moved, rotated at any time.
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Above: Another great feature of nomacs is the PSD-decoder, capable of showing PSD-files, which makes searching a full folder of drawings much easier if you want to get to the “master-file” quickly.
Image credits: Lady Morgana: http://threnodyinvelvet.com | Warren Louw http://www.warrenlouw.com/

About the Author Arthur De Martino

The google wearing super hero know as "Wasp Eye Lad" has a secret identity: Arthur De Martino, a quiet Brazilian man who loves Digital Art a bit too much.

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