Updated: Apr 26, 2021
The first step to getting good reference is to start by drawing from imagination. "Wait, what? Didn't you just say in Part I how important it was to use reference?" Yes, I did say that. But it's valuable to start from your head because if you use photos too soon, you will become married to whatever pose/orientation/ideas you see in your photos. Using your noggin allows you to come up with creative visual solutions, maybe even some that wouldn't be possible in real life. Consider this: what did you do yesterday? Was it exciting or mundane? Now, what was the last dream you remember? It might have been complete and utter nonsense, especially when you begin analyzing the structure, but I bet it was interesting! That's what we're going for: out-of-the-box interesting: deciding what you want to say before you try to say it.
In this post, I will discuss:
4 Steps to turn amorphous thoughts into a painting idea
Demo the 4 Steps with my painting "Therein To Be Content"
Step 1: Doodle
Have you ever been daunted by the thought of filling a blank canvas with a masterpiece? I have. So, what's the solution? Sketch. In a book, on some scrap paper, on a napkin-- whatever you need to take away the pressure of being brilliant. If you've got a sketchbook, try starting in the middle of the book, not on the scary first page. If a bound book is too nerve-wracking, draw on loose sheets or scraps of paper. That way you can throw out anything that's unfit to be seen by humankind. Remember, no one need see your sketchbook at all if you don't want them to. So be free to jot down whatever nonsense comes into your head.
Step 2: Ideation
Once you've got all your thoughts out in your sketchbook, you're ready to do some ideation. What has been going through your mind lately? What did you doodle? Do you want to develop Mr. Orange with his mustache more? Is your page filled only with cats, signaling the need for a kitty painting? What are you worrying about? Will doing a painting about it help you work through your problem? Pick anything that stands out to you, and do a few more pages evolving these ideas more. Start thinking about how you would turn these ideas into a painting.
Step 3: Thumbnail
Thumbnails are little tiny comp sketches. They are so named because they are traditionally about the size of your thumbnail. According to Howard Pyle, the Golden Age Illustrator, you should do about 50 of these per painting. I find I dry up at about 20-30, so I'd say you should strive for 25, if you can't do the full 50. The more thumbnails you do, the more you will be forced to come up with even more interesting out-of-the-box compositions. It will give you lots of options to choose from when it's time to get critical and pick the best one for your finished painting.
If you can't think what should go in the first box, start by just drawing out the boxes. Use a ruler to get them even, or freehand them in a variety of shapes. Have you done a lot of portrait-oriented thumbnails? Try doing some landscape ones or square ones or round ones. Do a box within a box. Try drawing some with just line. Create some from abstract shapes. Get out a marker, and make tonal studies. Try doing some with a pink pencil. Don't worry about how you will execute the painting yet; just have fun and try anything and everything you can think of.
Step 4: Tie up Loose Ends
Once you've done as many thumbnails as you can possibly do, look through them. Pick 3 or 4 that look promising. Now draw them bigger. Start to work through any ambiguous areas. Do you know what each squiggle represents? Keep working in your sketchbook until you have a good idea of what you want your finished painting to look like. You needn't have every little leaf in place, but you do need to know if you will need leaves. Solve the lighting/time of day. Pick a setting. Decide if you need people or robots or frog monsters. Some questions to ask yourself might be:
Are there figures in the painting? How are they posed? Could I direct a model how to stand based upon my drawings?
Where is the light coming from? Is it warm light or cool light? Green or natural? Diffused or direct?
Will I need props/costumes? Can I roughly tell what they need to look like based on my drawings?
What is the setting? Can I shoot indoors, or do I need to go location scouting?
Questions your Pre-Reference Drawings Should Answer:
What is the subject and how is it oriented in space?
What is the setting?
What is the light doing?
Note: Of course, these questions will be refined by the reference. Nevertheless it's a good rule of thumb to have at least a general idea of what you want first. That way your photoshoot will be purposeful and waste less time for both you and whatever models you use.
A Word on Burn-Out
Sometimes I find there's nothing at all interesting in my sketchbook, and I'm all dried up idea-wise. It's times like these that I have to go find something to draw. I'll look at flowers or other artists' work. I'll set up a bowl of oranges to quick sketch. I'll go to a figure drawing session. If you feel uncreative, don't fret; you're in good company. Go boot up a Youtube video of someone else working and draw right along. The drive to paint will come back again. And if it doesn't, that's okay too. Go pull some weeds in the garden. After just a few handfuls with the sun beating down on your neck, you'll be so brimful of ideas, you'll just have to put down the trowel to run back inside to sketch them out.
Time for a Demo!
Step 1: Doodle
I began my "Therein to be Content" painting doing some pretty ugly doodles. It started with a quick face (my doodles usually do), then clowns in teardrops. Then the teardrops turned into lantern spaceship things. I continued in this fashion until a concept emerged that I wanted to focus on.
Step 2: Ideation
The concept for my painting was remembering to be happy despite my immediate circumstances. I originally determined to do a character version of a self-portrait to make the painting personal. After a quick sketch, however, I decided a male character would fit the bill better.
Once I switched to a male character, I did some sketches to figure out who this person was, all without reference. I wanted my own imagination to shape him before settling on an image that would too easily influence my character decisions.
Once I had a rough idea of the figure that would inhabit the painting, I needed a setting. It was at this point that I began doing thumbnail sketches.
Step 3: Thumbnail Sketches
They aren't pretty, but they give me a sense of how my character would sit on the picture plane. Here are some thumbnails closer up to give you a sense of how loose they are (and yes, these are bigger than they are in real life):
Step 4: Loose Ends
Once I picked a thumbnail I liked, I worked a bit more on the pose I wanted my character in. This would guide my decisions during the photoshoot without letting the photos dictate the pose altogether. Because I wasn't tied to a photo, I was able to exaggerate the pose to best describe the feel I wanted without worrying about whether it was anatomically correct or not.
Through the process of preliminary sketches, I determined:
The Subject: young French Artist dude
The Pose: Holding groceries underneath umbrella
The Setting: Swamp
The Lighting: Indirect Sunlight (diffused through umbrella & trees)
Costuming/Props: Umbrella, bag of groceries, turtleneck, rain boots
The Painting Orientation: Landscape
Now I was ready to do the photoshoot.
In Part III we will discuss using a camera to gather your painting reference. Happy sketching!