Toucan Blog Banner

Carousel 005: Photo Reference: When To Use It

Suppose you're nearing the end of a day drawing comics. You've only got one panel left to draw: a panel featuring a llama. You've never drawn a llama before, but you might be able to wing it. Or not. Do you have time to look up a photo, for reference? You check the clock and the bus schedule. If you pause to search for reference, you may miss the next bus, and be here for an extra hour. If you forgo reference and fake the llama, you will catch the next bus...but your llama might end up looking like a furry horse. What do you do?

When pondering dilemmas like this, it's useful to identify your two most extreme options. These will define the opposite ends of your option spectrum; perceiving that entire spectrum will help you make an informed choice.

First, we identify the easiest option: work without reference! This is a choice favored by such art luminaries as Frank Frazetta, Alex Toth, and John F. Carlson. Their reason was that photographs tend to lock us into seeing objects a certain way, which inhibits us from pursuing our innate creative vision. Obviously, we have to see everything at least once before drawing it, but by this method we would study objects long before drawing them for print, then put the photos away and rely thereafter on our memories to guide us.

The trouble with this approach is that it only pushes our initial problem back a step: instead of referencing my llama now, when drawing this panel, I should have drawn studies of llamas earlier, when I first received the script. So, either way, the llama must be photo-sourced at some point, placing demands on my time. What's more: even very familiar objects can grow vague in the memory. I recall Peter David lampooning a Captain America comic in which a telephone was drawn with only nine buttons. (Hopefully, Cap never needed to call any numbers that have zeroes!) The artist had drawn too few buttons, despite having seen phones probably every week of his life. Gaffs like that seem to make photo reference necessary.

So we arrive at the opposite option: use reference for everything! If drawings based on reference look more authentic, why not reference every object on every page?

Here we run into the time constraints I alluded to earlier. Cartoonists must draw a thousand things from a thousand angles; finding (or snapping) photos of everything we draw would take forever. I once spent an hour finding a photo of the right Lamborghini, shot from the right angle, for a panel in which the car ended up appearing smaller than my thumb, and mostly in shadow. Never again! It would have looked the same had I drawn it from my head.

Further, if accuracy is paramount, then it isn't enough to find a photo of the object; you must also understand the object's backstory. I once heard an editor criticize an artist for including flowers in a medieval scene that weren't bred until centuries later. The flowers were drawn correctly ... but they were anachronistic! (And don't get me started on the complaints you'll hear from doctors or soldiers over inaccuracies in comics about those fields.) So, chalk up another hour or more studying the history of all your photo reference.

A final problem with referencing everything is that it gives the timid creator a place to hide from creating. "I'll just do a BIT more research ...," say the artists who draw five pages for every five hundred pages of research.

Clearly the solution lies somewhere between these two extremes. But where? How will you decide whether or not to photo-source that llama?

The solution most artists favor is, "I use reference when I have the time." But this is really a non-solution, because "when I have time" tends to play to one's weaknesses. If we're lazy, "when I have time" turns into "hardly ever." But if we're inclined to hide from our work behind photo-searches, "when I have time" turns into "all the time." And in either case, the time we spend on reference—whether a lot or a little—might be ill-considered, and be spent on things that need it least (such as my tiny Lamborghini).

Foggy questions like these lead back to art's Big Question: what is my art for in the first place? I find it easiest to ponder that question by removing art's parts, and asking whether it still works. If I removed my drawings, and replaced them entirely with photo reference, would my comics still work? They'd still be understandable ... but they would lack a human touch that I deem crucial. How about if my drawings bore no resemblance to any objects: would my comics still work? No; then there would be no common ground by which readers could understand my meaning. For my comics to work, then, they must include recognizable objects, rendered with a human touch. I think most comics work along similar lines. Cartoonists are like birds feeding other birds: We take parts of the visual world into ourselves, make them their own—with our own scent and our own temperature—and regurgitate those self-scented images into the minds of readers.

Just as birds return to the nest with the foods they favor, so we share with readers the images we favor. In any comic story, there will be a gamut of such images, from our very favorites to the most trivial. Our favorites, the primary images, are the main reason we draw the story; the rest are included to support the primary images.

This offers a clue as to how to budget the time we spend sourcing reference photos. If my main reason for drawing a story is to celebrate Captain America, for example, then I should prioritize the accuracy of my drawings of Cap himself. Should there be a phone in the background that has too few buttons, so be it—phone buttons are not the star! The background probably only needs a phone-shaped object there, to help set the scene. If, however, Cap makes a call on that phone, thereby drawing attention to it, its inaccuracy could hamper the story's realism, and undermine the celebration of Cap himself.

We arrive, then, at a priority list:

  • 1. Primary: Cap, and his friends and enemies (MOST ACCURACY NEEDED)
  • 2. Secondary: objects that characters use, or that otherwise attract attention (SECOND MOST ACCURACY NEEDED)
  • 3. Trivial: objects or people in the environment that attract no special attention (LEAST ACCURACY NEEDED)

Armed with this list, we can judge where best to spend our time sourcing reference photos.

Tiny Lamborghini? Category 3; wing it.

Cap's personal telephone? Category 2; you should probably find reference, and draw it right.

The llama? Well, that depends on which category it occupies. If it appears in the background of a petting zoo: skip the photos and wing it. Your time is precious. But if you're drawing an issue of Louie the Llama ... prepare to miss your bus!

We’ll be back in August!

Jesse Hamm's Carousel appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!