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My Long-term, Committed Relationship with Reference Material

When I was in second grade, my teacher, knowing that I loved to draw, asked me if I would be willing to draw a Pinocchio on a large sheet of paper for a bulletin board. I was honored and excited for an opportunity to really show what I could do. I said I'd bring some reference material from home and start the next day. She shook her head and said something like, "well, I just need you to do it right quick." That's Southern for "now." (We had just moved to Florida from the Northwest and I can still hear her nearly unintelligible southern drawl pronouncing words like "soh-wel" (soil), "tole-lit" (toilet) and "puheenk coo-up" (pink cup).) In my memory, we both stared at each other momentarily in mutual speechless incredulity. I was mortified at the prospect of working without reference material and she was irritated and confused by a 7-year-old who didn't seem to know how to draw from her imagination. I wish I could remember how it turned out.

That little girl is still alive and well inside me today. I take a lot of reference photos. I think that inclination is a distributary of the deep and wide river of Poindexter Perfectionist that flows through me. Every new illustration I undertake inevitably turns into multiple mini research projects at various stages of the drawing and painting. Last week, I deleted hundreds of reference photos from my phone and desktop that I accumulated over the coarse of the animal joyride illustration I recently completed. I also finally closed multiple tabs in my phone browser that contained articles about sunsets and atmosphere and why/how the sunset is different colors on different days. I referenced multiple Pinterest pins that I store to remind myself how light bounces off or wraps around various surfaces. Its always satisfying to see something that just wasn't working in an illustration finally fall into place after a little research and tweaking. And its especially gratifying when people notice those little details. I even take a little bit of pleasure in cleaning out all of that reference material when I'm done, because it gives me a chance to appreciate the mass of what I've learned from that piece.

I have a work in progress whose awkward beginning is a good, simple example of what a little reference material can do. My reference photos for this one were deleted along with the Joyride photos (an unfortunate lack of forethought on my part), otherwise I would have included them. But you can see how the first attempt at this girl's gesture was just not landing. The second attempt, with the help of some photos, much more clearly captured the energy and posture I was looking for.

Exhibit A

The final pencil drawing is the result of probably about a dozen references of hands, feet, hair, posture, etc. (That's just the number of photos I used. I took closer to 40.)

Now, some (like my second grade teacher) might surmise that the use of reference material could inhibit the creativity or imagination that goes into children's illustration. I suppose that could be true for some since the creative process is as individual as fingerprints, but my experience has been quite the opposite. Consider Exhibit B here:

Exhibit B: Cringe. Snore. (Spoiler alert: It gets better.)

I worked on this ridiculous piece for almost 2 years. It started as a 3rd Thursday prompt from in 2015. This first draft was entirely from my imagination. I liked the drawing well enough, but I didn't love what was happening with the paint. I couldn't put my finger on why it seemed so flat and boring, but I forced myself to finish because Master Jedi Jake Parker tells us that finished is more important than perfect. So I "finished" and submitted it, but I couldn't leave it alone because I loved the characters and wanted to figure out what I was doing wrong so that my bears could realize their full potential. I tried changing the girl's expression and gesture and coiffure. I tried multiple different color palettes and lighting scenarios. (See Exhibit C--a rough color test.) But it wasn't until a friend called me out on my lack of reference materials for the background of the Joyride piece, that it occurred to me that reference material might be helpful for more than just the characters.

Exhibit C: Not better yet. Possibly worse.

So I googled cabins, cottages, lake houses, decor, and furniture until I felt like I'd caught a better vision of the ambience and environment I wanted to create. And that clarified vision ended up informing some of the story contained in the final piece. (See Exhibit D--and then never look at Exhibits B-C again. Ugh.) Some of the objects I added to the walls created more depth, texture, and interest. The fact that it became, not just a vacation cottage, but specifically a lakehouse, influenced my decision to put a fishing pole in her hand and have her coming home from a long day on the lake, which consequently influenced my decision to have the setting sun spill into a darkened room, creating a fun contrast of deep shadows and various light sources. The use of a little environmental reference material inspired me and jump started my imagination. It breathed life into a limp story which was the source of a limp illustration. By the time I was done revising the line work, the prospect of painting it again felt like an exciting challenge.

Exhibit D: More! Show me more!

This ended up being one of the most complex illustrations I've done in my sprawling 2? 3? years at this, but it was one of the most rewarding. Its far from perfect, but man, it was a hard fought victory and a big step forward.

Exhibit E: the hard-fought victory at the Battle of the Bears

Turns out Master Jedi Will Terry is right. A good illustration starts with a good drawing. And, for me, a good drawing is heavily influenced by good reference material. So, thanks Will! Thanks Jake! And thanks Reference Material!!

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