Three Reasons Why Sketches Are More Useful Artistic References Than Photos When Painting From Life


The night before I originally wrote this article, I made a painting from life. Or, rather, I saw my reflection in part of a beer bottle and thought that it would make an interesting painting. Since I didn’t have a digital camera or my full art materials with me there and then, I made a quick sketch of it with the nearest pen, pencil and scrap of paper I could find, before turning it into a proper painting a while later.

Here’s a chart showing the sketch and the painting it turned into:

[CLICK IMAGE TO SEE A LARGER VERSION] The full-size painting will be posted here on the 8th December.

[CLICK IMAGE TO SEE A LARGER VERSION] The full-size painting will be posted here on the 8th December.

But, you might ask, why should any artist make sketches these days? After all, most people have digital cameras these days. Well, yes, photo references can be fairly useful for painting from life (not to mention that photos are very quick to take too). Likewise, even learning how to memorise images can be a good quick way to “save” something you see in order to paint it a while later.

But, why are good old-fashioned sketches even more useful than photos? Here are three reasons:

1) It forces you to think like an artist: When you take a photo of something, you point a camera (or phone) at it and press a button. When you take a sketch of something, you literally have to work out how to turn it into a drawing there and then.

What this means is that you have to focus on only sketching all of the really important details (this allows you to see the focal points of your painting, and to leave room for artistic licence in your final painting). It also means that you have to work out how to fit everything into your sketch (which helps you to plan things like perspective and composition for your final painting).

Likewise, it also makes you think about the palette that you will be using in your final painting. If you look again at the rough sketch at the beginning of this article, you’ll see that I’ve written down what colour various parts of the painting will be. Having to write down the colours you will use is good practice at recognising realistic colours and it also allows you to simplify your palette if you want to do this too (for example, I only used something like 5-7 watercolour pencils for the final painting).

But, most of all, it gives you some practice for your final painting. It gives you a quick “trial run” that helps you to see if the painting that you’ll make later is as easy to make as you think or whether it’s even worth making at all.

2) It allows you to record things that cameras can’t: The painting that I showed you at the beginning of the article is a perfect example of an image that couldn’t be taken easily with a camera. This is for two reasons – the reflection in the bottle was really small (in real life) and because I didn’t want a photo of myself holding a camera. In addition to this, a camera flash would have messed up the lighting slightly too.

Here’s a totally unscientific mock-up of what the painting would probably look like if I’d used a digital camera to record the image, compared to the painting that is based on a traditional sketch:



For things like very fine detail, lighting, poses in reflections etc… sketching from sight will often give you far better results than taking a quick photo often will. Likewise, using a pen and paper to record an image means that you aren’t pointing a camera around – which may not be appropriate in some situations (eg: if you’re in a cinema, a museum, a theatre etc..).

3) It’s a memory aid: A sketch isn’t supposed to be a 100% accurate recording of something that you’ve seen. Instead, it’s meant to be a tool that helps you to memorise something. Although I can’t remember where I read this, I remember reading somewhere that physically writing information down (with a pen or pencil) helps you to remember it a lot better than merely tapping it into a phone or memorising it does.

By physically making a sketch, you create a much clearer and more vivid memory of what you want to paint than you will if you just point a camera at it for two seconds. Whilst you’re making the sketch, you’ll also be focusing on recording the most important parts of what you see, which will also help you to memorise the image too.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For Including Popular Culture In Your Webcomic


Well, since I’m busy making a webcomic mini series (that will appear here in early October) at the time of writing this article, I thought that I’d talk about webcomics again. In particular, I’ll be looking at including things from popular culture in your webcomic.

After all, webcomics are often reactive things. If your webcomic is set in the present day and/or in something resembling the real world, then pop culture is probably going to appear every now and then. After all, it appears in everyday life every now and then.

So, how should you (and when should you) include it in your webcomic? Here are a few tips:

1) Copyright: First of all, I’m not a copyright lawyer and none of what I am about to say should be taken as legal advice.

That said, you’d be surprised at how much leeway, both officially and unofficially, there is for including visual references to popular culture in your webcomic. Just remember, if you are including highly-specific visual references to copyrighted things (eg: detailed drawings of copyrighted characters from movies, games etc…) in a webcomic update – then don’t release that webcomic update under any kind of Creative Commons licence.

Generally, most copyright laws (eg: US and European laws, amongst others) make an official exemption for parodies and/or critical review or commentary. So, if you’re making a satirical point about something, then you can probably include it in your webcomic. Likewise, if you are comparing different elements of popular culture, then this possibly also falls under “fair use” or “fair dealing” exemptions found in many copyright laws.

For example, here’s a panel from an upcoming comic update of mine which is about changes in the media since the 1990s. It features a drawing/painting of one version of the poster art from Robert Rodriguez’s “Desperado” (1995), as an example of how mid-budget films (which are a lot less common these days) made popular culture much more interesting during the 1990s. The cool-looking poster art is contrasted with a cynical comment about modern Hollywood below it, so it almost certainly falls into the realm of critical commentary and/or parody.

 The full comic update will be posted here on the 7th October.

The full comic update will be posted here on the 7th October.

Likewise, non-commercial fan art (as long as it is tasteful. Unless it is a parody, in which case you can possibly be a bit tasteless) is usually tolerated by most major media companies even if it goes against the letter of copyright law. After all, it generally isn’t in their interest to alienate their fans (by censoring fan art) or to miss out on something that strengthens the loyalties of existing fans and could possibly also serve as free advertising.

So, yes, occasional parodies, visual references etc… to popular culture are usually ok in webcomics. Just make sure that you actually have a good reason for including them though.

2) Copy by sight: Yes, if you’re making all or part of your webcomic digitally, then it might be tempting to just copy and paste parts of screenshots, posters etc.. directly into your comic. Don’t do this!

Not only can this often look visually jarring (eg: realistic images contrasted with cartoons), but it also means that both you and your audience will miss out on one of the coolest things about including visual pop-culture references in your webcomic.

I’m talking about the opportunity to see what parts of the surrounding culture look like when they are rendered in your own art style.

Yes, learning how to copy by sight can take a bit of effort and you might find certain things easier to draw than others, but it’s worth persevering with. Not only will your pop culture references fit seamlessly into your comic, but you’ll also get to see what your favourite characters, actors etc… look like when they’re drawn in your own style.

3) Have a reason: I know I mentioned this earlier when I was talking about copyright, but it’s worth discussing purely in creative terms. Have a good reason to include visual pop culture references in your comic!

In other words, don’t include pop culture references as a lazy substitute for actually coming up with good jokes, developing interesting characters etc…. The amount of original stuff in your webcomic (as a whole) should outweigh the amount of references to other stuff in there.

A good attitude to take is to actually be reluctant to include pop culture references in your comics. Taking this attitude means that they’ll only appear when they are absolutely essential to the comic update that you’re making. In other words, they’ll be funny, distinctive, thought-provoking and/or interesting every time they appear.

Likewise, another good reason for including visual pop culture references is that they can also help you to illustrate elements of your original characters’ personalities (eg: their perspective on the culture around them). But, if references appear too often, then your comic can end up being less about your own characters and more about your own perspective on popular culture.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Using Reference Photos For Your Drawings (With Examples… and zombies)

2013 Artwork References article sketch

If you’re learning how to draw or if you’re trying to draw something you haven’t really drawn before, then you might end up using references as a tool to help you learn.

Basically, a reference is a picture (usually a photograph) of something, someone or somewhere which you use as a guide to help you to draw whatever it is you want to draw. Now, you’ve probably also heard some saying or other along the lines of “use a reference as a starting point, not a template” or something like that.

If you’re puzzled by this saying, then it basically means that, whilst it’s ok to use your reference as a guide to help you draw things, you should remember to use your own imagination and not to be afraid of changing things.

In other words, you should use your reference as the “skeleton” which supports your own individual drawing rather than just copying the reference picture as closely as possible.

I’m not an expert on the subject of copyright and references but, to my understanding, it’s ok to use reference images to learn how to draw things which can’t, in themselves, be copyrighted (eg: positioning, lighting, perspective etc…). However you should at the very least substantially change the content of what you are drawing if you are using a reference and don’t have the relevant permissions.

For example: you can use a photo of someone sitting on a chair as a reference for your drawing – but the person and the chair in your finished drawing should look very different to the person and the chair in the photo etc….

Usually it’s a good idea to take reference photos yourself or to draw things which you can see. But, since this isn’t always practical, you may end up using other things as references. But, copyright aside, it’s a good idea to only use reference images as a starting point for your drawings in order to ensure that you produce something unique and to ensure that your imagination and creativity isn’t limited by your choice of reference images.

Ok, so how do you use a reference photo?

In this article, the reference photo will be an uncopyrighted photo from Wikipedia of a member of the American Navy doing some target practice on the deck of a ship.

From Wikipedia: "PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 4, 2008) A member of the visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) security force aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) fires his weapon on the firing range during a target practice drill. The VBSS team is training on various weapons and boarding procedures to enhance their proficiency skills when boarding and searching vessels. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua J. Wahl (Released)"

From Wikipedia: “PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 4, 2008) A member of the visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) security force aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) fires his weapon on the firing range during a target practice drill. The VBSS team is training on various weapons and boarding procedures to enhance their proficiency skills when boarding and searching vessels. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua J. Wahl (Released)”

Now, the first thing to do with this reference image is to draw a sketch of it in pencil.

If you’re new to sketching, then remember to focus only on the important details of the picture (eg: the sailor, the outline of his rifle and the target) rather than every tiny detail of the picture (eg: all the various straps on his backpack, every part of his rifle etc..).

Be sure to pay attention to the lighting in the image too (eg: if any parts of the photo are lighter than the other parts). For example, the edge of the side panel on the sailor’s helmet is slightly lighter than the rest of his helmet or the side of the panel.

Whilst you can add a little bit of detail to your sketch, you should focus on drawing the outlines of everything important in the drawing and try to copy it as closely as possible.

Once you’ve done that, you should end up with something like this:

A sketch of the photograph.

A sketch of the photograph.

Congratulations! You now know how to draw someone firing a rifle. Well, unless you go over this sketch in pen, add colour and more detail.

If you do that, then you will have only learnt how to draw one particular sailor firing a rifle. You will also have lost your reference sketch and you will end up with something like this (albeit without the digital effects):

An unimaginative, and slightly simplistic, copy of the reference photograph.

An unimaginative, and slightly simplistic, copy of the reference photograph.

Yes, it looks like a fairly reasonable (if somewhat simple) copy of the original photo. But where is the imagination? Where is the creativity?

Whilst you may have picked up a few pointers about drawing techniques, you won’t really have created anything new. And, if you used a copyrighted photo as your reference, you probably wouldn’t be able to publish it without permission either.

But, since you didn’t make that mistake, you will still have your original pencil sketch. Now, let’s think of what else we can draw which involves someone firing a rifle. I know! How about something involving zombies?

So, for a drawing involving zombies, the only part of our sketch that we will need is the person firing a rifle, so we can get rid of the rest….

The only part of the reference sketch we will need for the final drawing.

The only part of the reference sketch we will need for the final drawing.

Ok, what can we change about this person? Well, since it’s only drawn in pencil, we can change pretty much everything (apart from the perspective and positioning).

For example, we can turn the backpack into an ordinary backpack rather than a military style one, we can change the military helmet into a bicycle helmet, we can change the person’s military uniform into civilian clothes, we can give the person long hair, we can make their rifle look slightly different, we can change the person in the drawing into a woman, we can add a dramatic muzzle flare to the rifle etc….

As long as the person in your drawing is standing in roughly the same position as the person in your sketch, then you can change anything that you want to. Once you’ve done that, then turn your sketch into a proper drawing and just add the zombies and the background (and any digital effects you want to add too). You should end up with something like this:

See! Much more imaginative!

See! Much more imaginative!

Of course, this is just one example. But I hope that it helped to show you how to use a reference image in an imaginative and innovative way 🙂