How I pick a reference for Portraits and Caricatures

In this weeks entry I’m going to talk about how I choose a reference photo when I am doing a caricature or portrait. This applies to drawing painting and tattooing. I want to start by saying this doesn’t mean its the right way to choose a reference, but if you like my stuff then this is how I do it.


Once I have my subject picked I decide on what it is about that person that makes them who they are. Are they a comedian, a monster, a tough guy, etc. I then start the process by finding the reference that captures what it is that I think of when I picture that person in my head. Usually its an expression they are known for or a feature. Once I have compiled a bunch of pics, in large resolution, I can begin to look for the factors I believe allow me to make a strong piece.


1: Black

I try to find an image that is at the very least 1/3 black. People will always comment on how strong or vibrant my colors look in my pieces. I believe, along with a few other things, having a large area of black makes everything around it look much brighter. I remember back in grade school our art teacher had us draw on a sheet of paper with a blue marker. On a separate sheet we did it again, only this time with a black line next to it. Sure enough the blue seemed brighter. I carry that memory and apply it to every piece I do. A lot of times I’ll black out areas that may just be in deep shadow just to strengthen the contrast of the overall piece.


2: Shadow vs Highlight


One of main things I see people do when selecting a piece is shy away from both strong shadows or strong highlights. Not only do the two of these things make turning the form way easier, but they also allow excuses for using crazy colors. When a piece has subtle shadows, highlights, or both I feel you are really setting yourself up for a harder workload than needed. Think of any basic shape, a cube, a sphere, whatever. If one side of that shape has a strong light source, and thus causing a strong shadow on the other, how much easier is it to make the shape look 3d? On the other hand if said shape has a very weak light and shadow how much harder is your job to “sell” that form to the viewer? The same principle applies to your reference. Then use the darks and lights to your advantage. Add colors you don’t see, or that even wouldn’t naturally be there. As long as the values are correct and you make the colors make sense by incorporating them into the backgrounds and reflective colors, have fun. An easy way to start is to imagine a highlight as a colored light, and the shadow as its complimentary color. Once you have a feel for that you can start experimenting with multiple lights and shadows, thats when the real fun begins. I will cover these things more in a future blog about how I use color.


3: Hands and objects


Sometimes you can only do a head, it is a portrait after all. Most of the time however the client will be open to you incorporating other elements into the piece, if it makes it stronger. Hands are that tool. You can make a mad face appear furious by adding clenched hands near it. A person can go from scared to terrified when shielding there eyes and recoiling back. How do you sell “cocky” add a hand gesturing nonchalantly with a cigarette in hand. I can’t express how strong a statement a hand can make. Tell a story and you can captivate the viewer. A pissed off face, doesn’t tell much of a story. Add a clenched hand pointing, now you can picture him arguing with someone. Add a gun now he’s going to shoot someone. Two completely different situations all from adding a hand. That little bit of information didn’t just exaggerate the emotion, it also told a different story. Find a hand similar to that of the reference, use it to sell the piece. Not only will it make your piece look better and more impressive, it will also allow the viewer to create a story. When someone looks at a piece that allows them to invent a story and draws them into the narrative, they usually like the piece more. One more note on this, don’t be afraid to use anybody’s hand to do this. Cant find BB King holding Lucille in a way you need for the composition to work? Easy find some hands holding a guitar that look like they could be his and use them. No one will know, or care. The ability to make a piece much better, always matters more to me in a case like this.


4: Use multiple pieces


This will be the last thing I touch on in this entry, but I think its just as important or maybe even more important, than some of the other points. When you can’t find what you consider to be the best reference, make your own. It bothers me to see people take the lazy route and do a sub par or uninspired piece only because they didn’t fabricate a reference that coulda been better. I’m not saying draw a portrait of a person that isn’t in existence, I sure couldn’t. What I am saying is piece one together. Many many times I have taken the hair from this shot, the eyes from this one, lips from that one & made one image that was way better than any I could find or screen-capture. I’ve also many a time used cosplayers bodies, clothes, even hair (or in most cases wigs) to create a dynamic piece to work from. In the case of something reflective like Vader’s helmet I could use a model, cosplay, or even shoot my own reflective surface with a custom reflection in it, and photoshop it onto an existing reference. I did this once to make Leia appear scared in a reflection. Using a few references to make the best Leia. Then photoshopping it into a reflection I made using a piece of tinted plastic. This let me customize the reflection buy adjusting lights so as to enhance the Leia not obscure her. Then I photoshopped that onto a Vader helmet replica. I had pretty easily created a custom image that told a story and looked way better than I could ever find online. My point is never think you only have what you can find on the movie or stills. Most of the time a much better reference exist in your head, and with a few steps you can bring it to life.


This is not the only steps I take to choose a reference, but I feel they are the most important aside from the obvious high res, large DPI everyone already knows (I hope). If you are like me your likeness and overall piece rely heavily on a good reference, be sure to have the right one for you. Until next week, Stay True.


Below are some references and finished work based off of them.



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