Have there been times when you've tried and tried to get down on paper the image that is in your brain and for some reason your hand just won't draw it? Or, have you ever needed to draw a scene or character from a specific time period but can't seem to get the look just right?
Well, stop making things harder for yourself - use photo references!
There are some artists who are reluctant to use photo references, especially those just starting out. This is the biggest mistake an illustrator can make. Using a photo reference doesn't mean that you don't know how to draw well or that you're using a "crutch." It means that you're trying to get your illustration right.
When I illustrated "The Hero in You" by Ellis Paul, I spent weeks at the library and online researching all the different historical figures talked about in the book. I needed to get not only the time periods right but also the clothing and look of many of the characters. The biggest challenge was that some of the people lived before color photography - or even photography itself - was used. So I had to base some of the images on things that I read about the figures rather than on what I could see. Luckily, the art director and editors at Albert Whitman & Co. helped to make sure that I was drawing things as accurate as they could be.
So how can you use photo references effectively?
Some artists take photos of exactly what they want to illustrate and render the photo. As long as you've taken the photo yourself (and gotten any models to sign a photo release for you) you should be fine with regard to copyright issues.
You can also pose for your own picture by looking at yourself in a mirror or using a camera on a tripod and setting the timer. Dress in a costume or clothing that is as close as possible to what you are trying to draw. And also set the lighting as accurate as you can. This way you can use the photo reference to draw the folds of the fabric, the shadows, etc. correctly. Don't worry - you don't have to look exactly like the character you're drawing. You can change your look to match whatever character you're trying to draw. Even the best of the best do this. Check out this video by the great Kadir Nelson explaining how he posed in an old baseball uniform to draw the figures in "We Are the Ship", the story of the Negro baseball leagues. Here are photos of him posing and then what the final art looked like. If someone as great as Kadir Nelson uses photo references, then I think I can too!
Other times, photo references are researched and gathered from a variety of sources to help you get the right character pose or lighting down. Here you can see how I used pictures of different dancers in dramatic poses to create this illustration for the Martha Graham spread in "The Hero in You."
A third way to use photo references is to make sure you have the right clothing or look to a character because of a specific historical event. Here are the photo references I used for the Rosa Parks and Chief Joseph spreads from "The Hero in You." It would have been a big no-no for me to have drawn people dressed differently than they did in the 1960's or the wrong kind of bus that Rosa Parks sat in. Or imagine if I had drawn Chief Joseph with different clothing than the Nez Pierce tribes wore, or different kinds of teepees that the Nez Pierce built. You can't be too careful with these kinds of illustrations.
If you're able to draw everything from your head perfectly, congratulations! You're one of the few out there that can. But my advice is - don't be lazy or prideful about using photo reference. It's better to be professional and get things right the first time.
Angela Padron is a published illustrator of two books, including "The Hero in You" by Ellis Paul, as well as a Star Wars geek and chocolate chip cookie connoisseur. She also writes and illustrates her own picture books, board books, and chapter books. When she's not teaching, Angela works as a freelance writer and editor for educational publishers and spends weekends enjoying walks along the beach with her family. View her online portfolio at www.angelapadron.com. You can also "like" her facebook page, follow her on Twitter @angela_padron, and follow her own blog called "Show and Tell" with weekly posts about teaching, writing and illustrating books for children.
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