Monday, August 27, 2012

Tutorial # 11 - Using References

To Use References or not

As always, I’d like to start this off by saying, these tips and thoughts are reflective of how I like to work. If they help you in your artwork, that’s great! It's the reason I do these. However, they are meant for you to use in order to enhance your own work. All of my ideas and techniques may not work for you. So, take what works best for you and apply it!

Here we go!

Referencing in comic book art has been one of those topics that has sparked heated debate. Some think that referencing from life, photography, etc. is a cheat and a way to steal art. On the other hand, there are artists who use referencing as a tool to enhance their pieces. So, do I use reference? Yes. However, that doesn’t take away from my creativity or my drive to create kinetic artwork. Using reference as a tool should not be confused with tracing art.

Referencing is not tracing

There are countless forums and topics where readers take an existing piece of art and overlay it with a page from their favorite book in an effort to show how the art from the comic book was traced. Here is where the confusion between tracing and referencing lay. In using reference, an artist is constantly looking to enhance the storytelling of their own work while keeping the illustration grounded in a reality that makes sense for the project. Referencing helps an artist figure out proportion, perspective, and purpose. (Remember those 3 P’s I talked about in Tutorial 7? If not, read it!) When I look at references, what I am looking for is the emotion or “performance” of that piece to help energize my artwork. I like to think of it as how animators referenced the action of the human body while they drew cell after cell. So, referencing (in my mind) is not tracing. 

How I use references

While I was surfing Facebook, I ran across a photo of Power Girl that I loved. Maybe it was because I love drawing Power Girl or maybe because it was the smile, but at any rate, it automatically made me want to sketch Power Girl. So I used a picture from Vegas Power Girl as a reference for my sketch. Check her cosplay photos out at

What I enjoyed about the reference was the heroic yet relaxed way Power Girl was standing. I loved the weight the model held and the twisting of her body in space. Those where the things I wanted to keep in my sketch. I’m not much of a portrait artist, so, I knew going in that this would not be a direct portrait of Vegas Power Girl. Rather, it would be my interpretation of her mixed with my idea of Power Girl. With that in mind, I started sketching. 

I quickly found out that I didn’t want to place both hands on her hips like the reference. I wanted one hand to be up as if she was thinking. It originally was going to be joke. Her wondering if she would wear the old costume or the new one. The joke fell short when I realized that I was already sketching her with her old costume on. Oh well. I redrew the far arm and gave her head a slight tilt to show she was thinking.

After I got my general pose down, I used elements from past Power Girl illustrations I'd done with details, attitude shading and weight of Vegas Power Girl to finish out my pencils for the sketch. Moving onto the inks, I found that, because the photograph is taken at a slight angle (and since I was sketching my Power Girl straight on) the legs and hips of my drawing had to be lengthened to offset the curve of the photographers lens. (See! Reference is not tracing.) I corrected that in the inking process and took out some of the shading I added in during the penciling process so I could have cleaner lines. 

And there you have it. I use references to inform my eye and make my pieces stronger. Use your reference to explore the world around you and infuse your work! 

Here is the fun part of this tutorial. Download a copy of the finished, inked illustration of Power Girl and color her. I want to see what you guys and gals can do and, this ties into the next tutorial which will be huge! Once you are finished, upload your piece to our facebook page and let us have a look!! So, warm up photoshop, get that wacom working and get to coloring! 

Also, if you are looking for help referencing for fight sequencing and action poses, look no further! Check out our Martial Arts Pose File Book! What you will find that sets this one apart is our emphasis on correct fighting and technique. In this book, you will find many different techniques that will be presented in three different ways. The first set of photographs will show you a posed version of the technique. The second set will show you an in action version of the same technique. The third section will show you these techniques in a combat one on one situation. It does not matter if you are a martial artist . If you are an artist, this book is for you.
Order your book here!

Be sure to check out our next tutorial! And now I leave you with your reference moment of zen!


  1. Thanks! I try to make the piece different from the reference but stil embody the essence of the performance of the reference. If that makes sense. Do you use ref in your own work?