Four Tips For Adding Pop Culture References To Your Story

Well, I thought that I’d talk about adding pop culture references to stories today. After all, referencing the surrounding culture is something that writers have been doing for many years and it’s basically the modern equivalent of all those references to classical mythology that you see in older 19th/early-mid 20th century novels.

1) Make sure that it’s relevant: This one almost goes without saying but, if you’re going to include pop culture references in your novel or short story then they have to be relevant to what you are writing about. In other words, they actually have to add something to the story in some way or another. You can’t just drop in references purely for the sake of doing so.

In other words, your references should emerge organically from the events of your story and not the other way round. For example, if your story includes a shark attack, then a brief reference to “Jaws” would probably work well. However, adding a random shark to your story just so you can reference “Jaws” will seem a bit random and will probably lower the quality of your story.

A good reference should either help to illustrate something, to tell the reader more about the events of the story, to enhance your characters and/or to make the reader laugh. In other words, they tend to work best when used as similes or parodies. But, whatever they are, they need to feel like an organic part of the story.

2) Explain it: Another thing to remember about adding references is that not all of your readers will understand them, so a brief explanation is sometimes a good idea. This doesn’t have to be a long essay or anything like that, but a very brief description is usually a good idea.

For example: ‘The neon lights and pouring rain made her think about “Blade Runner”. The only things missing were the flying cars.‘. Even if you haven’t seen “Blade Runner”, then these sentences still give you some clue about what the film looks like.

Although you don’t have to do this for super-quick or extremely well-known references, it is still worth doing for references to slightly older, ultra-modern and/or more obscure things. After all, your readers might have different interests to you and/or might be older or younger than you are.

Although your reader seeing a reference that they don’t understand is easier to deal with these days than it was a couple of decades ago (since it just requires a quick internet search), it will still break your reader’s immersion in the story. So, to avoid this, be sure to include a brief description or explanation whenever possible.

3) Music, lyrics and coypright: Although I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, it is important to be careful about using song lyrics in any musical references in your story. In short, you can only directly use/quote song lyrics if you or your publisher is rich enough to afford the expensive royalty payments that the music industry demands for such things.

Fortunately, there seem to be ways around this that don’t involve quoting copyrighted lyrics. In short, either describe the general sound of the song, briefly mention the song’s name and band, or briefly mention the subject matter of the song. For example: ‘The opening riff of Iron Maiden’s “The Wicker Man” sliced through the air like a chainsaw‘ or ‘And, on the radio, Celine Dion sang about everlasting love.

Again, I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, so do your own research here. But, as a general rule, it’s usually a good idea to avoid directly quoting song lyrics in your story.

4) Time and date: If you’re setting your story in the past, then referencing films, music, books etc… from the time can be a good way to add an extra level of realism to your story. However, not only do you have to do your research here (to avoid anachronistic references) but you also need to remember that “less is more”.

After all, unless your novel is very specifically a nostalgia-based novel rather than a piece of historical fiction, then too many references is usually a fairly clear sign of a modern writer trying too hard to evoke the past (and can break your reader’s immersion in the historical setting).

Likewise, if you include lots of up-to-date, modern pop culture references in your story, then this will date it when readers look at it in the future. If done well, then this can add extra nostalgia to your story when it is read in 10-30 years time. On the downside, there’s also a chance that future readers might not understand all of the references and/or that it will make your story seem “out of date”. So, if you want your story to be a bit more timeless, then keep pop culture references to a minimum.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Quick Tips For Adding Symbolism To Realistic Photo-Based Art

Well, although most of my recent photo-based paintings don’t really include that much in the way of hidden depths (since I often don’t have time to include them), I dabbled with adding some to one of my upcoming paintings.

This was mostly because I was going through a bit of an “Ancient Egypt” phase at the time and because, when I made a previous painting of this area, I was reading Robert Sheckley’s “Alien Harvest” at the time. Here’s a chart showing all of the references and the original source photo:


So, how can you add some hidden symbolism to your realistic photo-based art? Here are a couple of quick tips.

1) Look for what is already there: Simply put, the best symbolism in realistic art will simply just place emphasis on things that are originally there. In other words, your choice of what to paint matters a lot.

The best way to find the right image is simply to think about the themes/symbolism you want to include and, whilst in the mood for making a painting based on this stuff, look at your photos until something jumps out at you.

For example, I originally hadn’t planned to add any ancient Egypt symbolism to this painting but, when looking through my photos for one to paint (after reading part of an ancient Egypt-themed novel), I noticed that one of them had a pyramid-shaped arch in it… and then I noticed that a tree in the background looked like an ankh.

So, once you’ve noticed something vaguely related to the themes/symbolism you want to include, then just subtly emphasise it slightly in your finished painting. For example, the ankh-shaped tree in the painting is slightly larger/thicker than the tree in the original photo.

2) Know where to use artistic licence: If you have to change something in order to add some symbolism to your painting, then try to make sure that the change looks at least vaguely realistic. In other words, go for “subtly evokes…” rather than “obviously states…”.

The thing to remember is that, as much as you want to add symbolism to your painting, it still has to work well as a realistic painting. In other words, your changes shouldn’t be too obviously noticeable at first glance and/or should just look like “ordinary” artistic licence to someone who isn’t looking for symbolism.

For example, when I decided to add some “ancient Egypt” symbolism to my painting of the pharmacy, I shortened the name on the sign to just “Pharmacy”. In part, this was because I had a smaller space to work with, because I wanted the sign to look striking and because I didn’t want to include branding etc.. in my paintings (since this gives them more of a general/timeless quality).

But, at the same time, I realised that the word “pharmacy” shares four letters with the word “pharaoh”. So, I deliberately made the first four letters of the word slightly more noticeable, whilst also writing the letter “M” in such a way that it looked a little bit like the letter “A” at a glance. So, the sign almost reads “Phara- cy” at first glance. This is the kind of thing I mean when I talk about using artistic licence in subtle ways. The sign still tells the viewer that they’re looking at a pharmacy, but it is also a sneaky ancient Egypt reference too.


Sorry for the short article, but I hope that it 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 🙂

Three Quick Tips For Including Obscure In-Jokes And References In Your Webcomic (With A Comic Preview)

2017 Artwork Obscure In jokes

If you’re making a webcomic, it can be very tempting to include all sorts of obscure/nerdy references and in-jokes in your comic. After all, it’s a really fun thing to do. However, if you aren’t careful, you can end up confusing and bewildering a large portion of your audience.

So, how can you avoid this? Here are three quick tips:

1) Mention it: This won’t work in every context, but sometimes a good way to avoid confusing people with an obscure reference is to mention what the reference is.

This works best during dialogue, where another character can comment about the reference. Like in this scene from yet another upcoming webcomic mini series of mine that I was busy making at the time of writing:

The full comic update will appear here on the 7th April

The full comic update will appear here on the 7th April

The dialogue is a parody of “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg (or the one part of it that I can remember at least). But, since many people haven’t heard of “Howl”, I thought that I’d briefly mention Allen Ginsberg in the dialogue (in case anyone wanted to look him up on Wikipedia or whatever).

You can also do something similar to this in your dialogue by having your characters say something like “This is just like that one time in ‘Star Trek’ when…” or something like that before making a reference and/or in-joke.

Obviously, it isn’t practical to do this kind of thing for all of your in-jokes and references, but try to do it for at least a few of them.

2) Independence: Ideally, if you’re making an obscure in-joke or a reference, then try to make sure that the humour doesn’t rely entirely on the audience understanding the reference.

In other words, either surround the in-joke with lots of “ordinary” jokes or tell the joke in such a way that the audience can still find it funny from the context (regardless of whether they’ve read or seen the thing you’re referencing).

For example, the scene immediately before the comic panel I included earlier shows Roz (the beatnik character) offering Harvey (the detective) a joint. If you’ve read “Howl”, then the dialogue in the example is a funny parody of the poem.

If you haven’t read “Howl” – it’s also an amusingly cynical, if strangely-phrased, description of how people sometimes act when they’re stoned.

So, try to include at least a few “dual-purpose” references in your comic, which are funny regardless of whether your audience gets the reference or not.

3) Background details: This one is fairly obvious but, in comics, the best place for super-obscure references and in-jokes is often in the background details.

Since precise background details aren’t often essential to the plot, the references will probably be ignored by people who don’t get them – but noticed by people who do. So, you can add a lot of obscure humour for people with the same interests as you, but without ruining the experience for people who haven’t read the same books, played the same games etc… as you have.


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 🙂