I wrote this blog post awhile back on using photos and reference in illustration and comic art, because a lot of people seem to think actually looking at stuff when you work is cheating. It’s not, it is how professional artists work. However, even though better than 90% of the time I do not use reference when I draw, now there are people who think I do nothing but, because reading comprehension is a dead skill.

Shortly after posting this, a notorious fan artist plagiarist plagiarized the article, rewriting it to favor their stance of their wholesale copying of photos they did not take or for which they did not secure rights. I thought that was pretty funny. I’d link, but they’d love the attention.

If I use a photo I did not take, I try to either be sufficiently transformative in my use, minimize the use, get permission, or buy permission. I don’t have a reputation as a copy artist, so I have to conclude I’m successful in my usage.

Anyway, I guess it’s a good time to post this article again…(EDIT It’s fairly rare for me to reference photos in my work, or use a lightbox, but on the Stan Lee memoir, I used a lot more photo ref than usual. Most of it was provided by Stan’s office: I had to draw a lot of celebrities. Sometimes there were location shots for which only one photo was available.)

In the never-ending battle between ethical use of reference and wholesale appropriation, I told a fan yesterday that I have used a pantograph to trace images, and he had no idea what that was. OK. This is a pantograph.

Now, whether or not you trace: up to you, in my opinion. Tracing can make you lazy, and it deadens your line. If all you do is trace, you will never learn to draw properly. But there are a number of successful illustrators who trace a lot. Who am I to argue with their method? How another artist makes legal use of his tools is none of my business.

When I was a tot, one of the things they taught you to do in that Famous Artists Course series of books you won after you took the Draw Winky test, was how to create a morgue/swipe file from magazine clippings. Illustration is not a memory contest, and you need reference on hand to create images like scenes from the Old West when you’ve never been to the Old West. You save files on animals, folds in clothing, etc. Here are clips from the Famous Artist Course Books about the use of “scrap”.

“Scrap”, “swipe” or the “morgue file” is not supposed to be a free pass for wholesale tracing of other people’s photos. That does not mean using a few faces you saw in a photograph in your 200 page graphic novel is going to get you sent to the hoosegow. But if your fans find dozens and dozens of shots you lifted off the internet throughout your portfolio, you’ve gone too far (duh). People are paying for original images, and clients don’t want to get sued.

If you use images that are out of copyright, then no worries. For example, in “Gone to Amerikay”, not only were the original reference images out of copyright, but at over 140 years old, we couldn’t even credit the artists. The only artist whose work I was able to track was that of photographer Jacob Riis, and I think I only referenced his work in one panel. So, thanks Jacob Riis.

Here is an example of how I used my own photo reference for “Gone to Amerikay”. This snap was taken by me at a folk festival exhibit in my home town. FYI, there are still people out here who live this way.

And here is portion of the panel for which I used this reference in the book. As you can see, there is a lot of difference between the photo and the final work.

Here is a deeply unflattering photograph of me posing for main character Ciara. What I won’t suffer for the cause of art.

And here is the final panel. Ciara is much younger and prettier than me, so I made use of my artistic license. And next time I take photos of myself, I’m putting on some slap first.

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Actor Jed Brophy modeling for the character Tim O’Shea.

And the final image.

Now that Jed has a juicy role in the upcoming The Hobbit film, my totally selfish worry is whether or not I can afford him to model for me again. Best. Model. Ever.

Some of my reference photos of Jed were taken by me and some by photographer Susi Knight. We shot him in the same session, so a lot of our snaps look almost exactly alike, and I’m not always sure which is which. But hers are usually this terrific high contrast black and white, and look so much nicer than my color snaps.

Anyway, I suppose every artist has what they consider to be their own boundaries for the ethical use of other people’s photos or art as a point of reference, and I know what mine are. I steer as far away as I can from the obvious, and if it’s obvious to a casual observer and is a primary feature of the finished work, then you have a problem. I worked on a piece the other day for which I used a hand from someone else’s photograph as reference for a hand in a drawing. A 1/2 square inch hand in a 17″ x20″ final work does not make for wholesale appropriation, in my humble opinion. I sleep at night.

Now that I have shown you a few of my figure reference snaps, the internet, which sometimes exhibits poor reasoning skills, will fail to comprehend what I am about to write next.

Even though I used figure reference for these shots, out of the more than 700 figure drawings I did for Gone to Amerikay, I used people photos only about 35 times. The rest were drawn without reference.

It’s pretty clear I tend to steer away from photorealism in my art. Obviously, it’s not traced wholesale.

So, why would I use an old fashioned doohickey like a pantograph? Normally I don’t, but then, normally I don’t lightbox, either. But I have used both.

However, a pantograph and calipers are old tools for taking the accurate measure of either a printed or live image for transfer. They are not particularly easy to use, and the only reason I still use either one is to keep some muscle on my chops. It’s not like riding a bike. You can forget how to use these old tools and few modern artists have a clue.

An elderly artist gave me the contents of their studio and some of the items are over 100 years old. Back in the day, artists got more education than medical doctors, and drawing accurately without modern technical goodies is not easy. The methods and tools used for accurate drawing are the same as those used for mapmaking and navigation. Some are expensive, made of brass and ivory. I don’t know anyone who uses them anymore or who knows how.
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A set of drawing tools from the 1940’s. Are you supposed to draw with these, or perform surgery?

I bet if artists still had to use this stuff, we’d have fewer Rob Granitos.

I used to belong to the American Society of Portrait Artists, an organization which encourages the use of old master art techniques, and actively discourages the use of any technical props such as photographs. Many classical portrait artists use old fashioned tools like calipers.

Here is a photograph of Jamie Wyeth using calipers to measure Rudolph Nureyev for a painting.

And here is an article on the sight size drawing method by the artist Ben Rathbone.

In this tutorial, you see how he is able to use a compass and some other simple tools to accurately measure an item to transfer to his paper or canvas. To scale this picture up or down, you’d use calipers. To scale a photograph up or down, you’d use a pantograph. They’re both kind of a pain in the ass, and lightboxing is easier, but this old school method teaches you to see and draw better. I only use it to stay in shape. Sight size has many limitations, the obvious one being that if you rely on it forever, you never truly learn to draw. You learn to copy.

The comparative method, of which I teach a simple step by step variation in my how-to books, encourages the student to see the figure’s baseline measure, and then to extrapolate from there. For example, the head is THIS BIG, and the body is THIS MANY HEADS WIDE. You compare their shapes and sizes with the base measure, and draw from these reference points.

Here is one of my portraits drawn from life using this method:

This is an accurate portrait, but I have glamorized the subject a bit by lengthening the lady’s already elegant neck. Because no one hires a portrait artist to take a snapshot.

This video by artist Vilppu, shows (pretty much) how I normally do figure work.

I use the comparative method to draw 95 times out of 100, but still use sight size on occasion, just to keep my hand in. I also use a pantograph or lightbox on roughly 1 panel per 8 pages of comic art. Sometimes more, sometimes less, and the use of a lightbox may simply be about reusing a background I already used to place the characters properly. In the old days, I would sight size EVERY reused background. I wouldn’t even use the copier to drop it in via cut and paste. Nowadays, I usually repeat a shot using the computer.

I just got finished tracing part of a photograph I took myself, because I really don’t need to prove, yet again, that I know how to draw bricks in perspective. There comes a point when it’s just labor for the sake of labor. I traced the lines on those bricks, then finished the art by hand without tracing.

Every digital artist I know uses the Photoshop perspective tool, yet one of them went ballistic when I told him I sometimes just skip drawing the orthogonal lines and use a good photo with clean perspective reference points as my start up when drawing a building. The building I end up with looks nothing like the building I started out with. It never occurred to him that the perspective tool on his computer is really no different, but he got the idea after I explained it.

You can call it cheating if you want, but the day I never have to draw another orthogonal line will be a happy day for me.

It doesn’t really seem to matter how well you draw, people can’t seem to believe you drew it. They’re always looking for the big secret, the cheat. I worked on a page from my upcoming GN Stealth Tribes (written by Warren Ellis) at a show, right in front of hundreds of people. A complicated scene with lots of background detail. Even though it was drawn right before their eyes, one guy asked me if I lightboxed it. At Wondercon a few years back, I did a demo with several other artists and drew a picture in front of a crowd straight in ink, and a lady from the crowd wanted to know if I’d drawn it all in pencil first. Once again, even though I drew it in front of her, she just could not understand how. I must have copied something, I must have worked it all out before.

The trick is, there is no trick. If you draw for 20 years, you develop skills.

For quick and easy reference, you can also subscribe to stock photo services which, for a monthly fee, will allow you to make commercial, uncredited use of their photos in your art. The drawback: many other artists use the same photos, so if you are too faithful to the original reference, then everyone is going to run around the internet calling you a plagiarist, even though you bought the commercial license. And, of course, a fan who sees you using that photo will call you out for swipe no matter how legal your use is.

Obviously, I reference photos I did not take, and I think I am very conscientious about transformative use. If I use a photo of a person, I reference it for no more than a couple of minutes, then toss it and draw the rest from imagination so that what I was trying to capture – the set of the eyes in the head, the tilt of the jaw – remains. But the photo is not slavishly copied. Once I’ve referenced the photo for no more than a few minutes, I destroy it so I can’t look again, and won’t repeat the shot anywhere else in another project. I often destroy my own photos as well.

I don’t do anything to anyone else’s work I wouldn’t want done with my work, and I don’t do anything I think will get me sued.

It’s really all about pride of craftsmanship.

There are some people who hoot and howl if you decide to *wink wink nudge nudge* slip in a Led Zeppelin poster in the back of a comics panel. “Golly gosh wizzer, look at that swipe!”

Lame. Transformative use ethics isn’t a gotcha contest. Think, people. It’s up to the copyright holder to decide if a small swipe is big damage to their copyright. Most people let it go. My work gets swiped, too. I have never taken legal action.

There are other people who claim if you use any photography at all in your work, you’re a big old stinky cheater. One of the funniest search terms I saw coming in to this site was “Does Alex Ross cheat using photographs”.

I don’t know what to do with those people. I don’t care.

I told you what my method is and what my limits are. Every artist has to own their own choices.

These are mine.