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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Back for good and with truer content

Hey everyone, I know its been a long time. I'm back to do regular blog posts. I will post at least once a week on Sunday. I will also try to load up extra posts as well but you can always check back on Sunday for a guaranteed post. I'm going to be talking about my art, my book, school, and even my tattoos. I've always kept the two worlds of illustration and tattooing separate, but I feel in order to be true to you ,the reader, I think I need to talk about everything I do in the world of art, including tattoos. So content will vary between which projects, techniques and stories I have to tell ,but there will always be something to hopefully interest you all. I'm going to throw a few pics in here of just some random art I've been up to while I was away. Until next time stay true.
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Elvis Costello Progress (#2)

Been away for a bit, I know. But I have been jamming on a few new pieces and went on a little vacation. So here are the finished pencils and my first step in the painting. I take the pencils and set them to multiply, then move them to the top of my layers. Then I'll drop in my background color.

More often than not its a darker tone as I find it easier to see the lights and shadows that way. I'll then select the background color set my brush to multiply and start dropping in the shadows. Once I have the majority of the shadows in the clothes and another elements that will have much of the background showing through I move to skin.

I grab what ever my base skin tone is for the piece and basically fill in all the skin with that color over the background color with my brush back to normal. Then I grab a basic shadow color, not too concerned with that really because it will all be painted over, this just lays out a map of sorts for the actual painting. I then make a new layer, set it to soft light, select white, and start to drop in the lighter flesh tones.

Once thats all done I can move on to the actual painting (when it gets fun). Tune in next time for some of the fun stuff!

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Elvis Costello Caricature

 Ok so here we go, gonna try to do a good progress this time. I'm really feeling this piece so I'm taking the pencils a lot further than usual. I tend to do pretty finished pencils anyways but not to this degree. I'm just really having fun with the shapes and angles on this one so I don't mind taking it to a more finished look. It's coming along pretty fast this time, I'm not finding the struggle I had with the Cash on this one. I got fed up with the pencils not looking right on the cash and got rid of the face completely. I then went straight to paint and kinda sculpted it in, instead of relying on the pencils. I don't usually do that but for that piece it worked. On this one the pencils will be a great guide and I should fly through the painting. Stay tuned for more updates and as always keep drawing.
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Johnny Cash Progress (#2) ... Finished

Johnny Cash is now finished. Yeah I know, not much of a progress right? Let me explain what happened.

From the get go I was struggling with this piece I started with a profile shot and though I liked it, I just didn't think it captured Cash. I wanted a shot of him playing music, but couldn't find a view I was happy with. So I went to a piece that I felt showed a little bit of his pain in his eyes. Now to me the older he got the more pain I can see, but I didn't want to paint him white-haired either.

I wanted him in that tradition from rockabilly to country, so I settled on this picture. And there was the problem.... I settled. Normally it just clicks and I know, bam, that's the one for me. With Johnny, all of the images that clicked were of him all zoot suited and skinny as a rail. I was concerned that if I did one of those pieces many people wouldn't recognize him. So I had to walk the line (pun intended) of recognizable and still fun to caricature.

I did the sketch, but I didn't see Johnny at all and it sure didn't look like it was going to be a successful caricature, at least not to me. 

I walked away for a couple days. I didn't have any kind of deadline on this piece so luckily I could do that. As corny as it sounds when I came back I put on the legend of Johnny Cash and just listened to it over and over again as I figured him out.

So why no progress shots you say? Well I'll tell ya. What I realized was my sketch sucked, not all of it but most of it, so I cut out the entire face and just went straight to paint, no sketching, just the brush.

All of a sudden he was there! Every stroke, I could see him more and more so I kept going and 9 hrs later BOOM he was there. I was sort of free styling a bit and I had no concept of how much time had passed, I just got that excitement you get when you can see a piece take shape so I didn't save along the way.

This would have been terrible if Photoshop froze or crashed, but luckily it didn't. That of course also led to no progress shots for you guys. So here is the finished piece. I wanted a loose, painterly look that still captured a detailed caricature.

I think I got it and for my 3rd digital painting I'm happy with my progress in the medium. Let me know what you guys think about it and as always...... keep drawing!!!!

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Why go back to Illustration now?

So a lot of people want to know why I've decided to put so much energy into my illustration. Well to be honest I've been illustrating all along, I just don't talk about that to most my clients. I'm starting to take on more work now however for a few reasons. I've always seen myself as an artist and every field I've worked in has just been a way to become better. Though some of these fields have utilized different mediums the have all helped to improve my skill set along the way. I haven't illustrated full time for about 10 yrs. but have stayed active in illustration. Only now I look at my current medium and I just want to reach a larger audience. The art I love to do makes me happy and I feel like I want to reach a larger number of people than I do now in the hopes that they might enjoy it also. I love doing my exaggerated version of realism and caricature and have spent the last 10 years coming up with a style that I feel reflects on me. Loads of detail and a large range of color, and of course features done the way I see them in my head. Sometimes this means subtle exaggeration and others its almost cartoony. I just know that I love being an artist and this is fun for me and I hope its as fun for you to see.
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