Thank you to every amazing artist who dug into their files for me and sussed out these little gems for public consumption. I appreciate you all risking the threat of public ridicule in the service of convincing new artists of the worth of getting in front of the camera.
I review a lot of portfolios. I tried to guesstimate and I probably reviewed about 750 portfolios in person alone last year, and that’s leaving out all the samples I get mailed or websites I review. A lot of those reviews are from very green artists and students. When I’m reviewing a portfolio of someone who isn’t ready to work for me yet, I still like to give them some feedback, some things to work on in the future. And one of the most frequent things I recommend is to start using better photo reference. The internet is a great resource, but often I can tell when someone used separate images for say, a figure’s face, then a different one for hands, and another one for clothing. The angles don’t quite match up, the lighting is hard to match up, there’s little cues throughout.
Starting to shoot reference very often brings a huge leap forward in the work of young artists, yet it’s also the piece of advice I hear the most excuses about. I hear “My friends don’t like to pose.” “I’m not a good photographer.” “I don’t have money to hire a model.” “I don’t have good props.” “I don’t have a good camera.” and I say the best artists in the world use themselves for reference all the time. With rulers standing in for swords, with any kind of camera or webcam, and without even cleaning their studios, if these guys are shooting themselves, you can too. You, yourself, are the most reliable model. You know what you want, you are always available, and you work cheap.
Since this is crazy deadline week at Orbit, I asked around for some help in getting this week’s post together. I reached out to some fabulous artists I know that use self-reference all the time, and asked them to share. Enjoy, but also look at how these shots really served the final work.
So get over your embarrassment, break out your camera, camera phone, or even webcam, and get shooting! I’ve included some helpful tips where they were included. And for further reading, a ton of artists have done great process posts that involve self-reference both here on Muddy Colors and across the internet, go check them out. I’ve started a list at the end of this post, feel free to share your favorite links in the comments!
First off, fearless leader of Muddy Colors Dan Dos Santos as fearless leader Captain Mal from Firefly
Dave’s process: I chose this example because it is probably my personal record for number of self-references in one image (14). My submitted sketch on the left established the basic concept, composition, and overall blueprint for the final image. Once this was approved I set my camera and lights up. The lighting in this image is subtle to describe an overcast snowy day but it was still deliberately planned and executed.
I operate my camera for self-reference images using a digital shutter timer controller set to fire every four seconds until I turn it off. This allows me to get into position and act out the scene comfortably without having to be distracted by a remote control or running back and forth to reset the in-camera timer. I simulated hanging bodies by jumping in the air timed to the four-second shutter release to capture me in midair descent. I also did some digital manipulations of the secondary foreground figure to alter my proportions ever so slightly so that he might represent the father of the younger figure next to him.
In the process of shooting refs, I also fine-tuned my sketch in slight details, the most significant being the hanging feet being barefoot rather than wearing shoes as in the sketch. I shot photos both ways and preferred the bare feet. Good ideas often happen in the moment when shooting reference, so I try to keep a flexible mind.
Dave wrote:Originally, I was using a long cable release, and prefocusing on about the right spot, and using a small aperture for max depth of focus (which gives up some sharpness). Lots of back and forth to the cam… Now my camera finds the right focal point with great automatics, and I use an intervelometer, which is a cable release with timer. I find that about an 8 second interval is plenty of time to change my pose for the next shot… and do a series before checking them out. You can also use usb, or wireless to view shots on a nearby laptop screen or iPad… and adjust your pose accordingly.
Randy wrote: 1) Discovering the GorillaPod tripod for my camera was a Godsend. Get the right size to support the weight of your camera. For this illustration, requiring a slightly high perspective, I mounted the camera to the top of a closet door in vertical orientation. A camera with a swivel LCD screen that you can point towards you when facing the lens (as the Canon G12 has) is also really helpful for seeing yourself–however tiny–while shooting self-ref photos.
2) The composite reference was done in 3 stages: 1.)720HD video of me posing without “cape” (actually a cloak), 2.)720 video of my wife flopping the cape around to simulate movement and air. I composited frames from both of these to make one photo. 3.) a self-ref taken another day of the foreground character. He was going to be covered mostly in furs so wearing a T-shirt was no problem. I suggest holding something in your hand, but if you’re in a pinch at least don’t tighten your fist–leave a “hole” for a handle to go through (an alternate shot that I apparently didn’t use has me holding a lint pic-up roller!). Though I had a hand with the cloak, it didn’t require a third party to pose or a model to pay; you could invite a friend to help like this and not require a third person to snap photos with this setup. You have a friend at least, right?
3) The lighting was approximate, and I worked entirely from a black-and-white image since none of my lighting or clothing was color-matched anyway.
Sara says:I’ve only been out of school a few years, but what I can say for students is to invest in a quality camera and light set. You can find models in other students that you bribe with pizza (or like me, family members) but if you don’t have a good light source or a good camera, usually it doesn’t matter what model you have.
Tony wrote: As far as tips are concerned, I would just say try shooting outdoors. If you can muster it, outdoor sunlight will give the most clearly defined shapes and boundaries. Also, any quality camera phone can be a lot of help, because they’re so small. The size of the camera determines how much of the image it blocks (when shooting selfless), and heavier machines require most pose adjustment to keep them level and steady. When the camera is small, it’s much easier to work into the pose.
Oh, and having mirrored closet doors is a godsend.
Extra credit when you use the AD’s Selfies: Magali Villeneuve using Zoe Robinson for Asha Greyjoy
Kristina’s notes:This card was an experiment in light for me. I wanted to get really specific with the time of day and I actually got up before sunrise so I could set up and try to replicate the light as close as possible. I tapped Scott to man the shutter for me as I tried out a few different versions of the pose. That random sequin shirt has stood in for armor on several occasions.
Kristina’s notes:The great gender swap illustration is always a learning experience. I was looking for shadow shapes and textures that I could transfer to my drawing (which was loosely based of Robert Carlysle). Spray bottle gun is not nearly as funny as banana gun- but does the trick!
And vying for SFF underwear model award, we have Noah Bradley…
And last, but not least, a Selfie-with-James Gurney tribute by Lucas Durham! (and if you’re any kind of artists and not reading Gurney Journey, then stop whatever you are doing and set aside at least 12hrs to read every post.)
Whew. Ok, no more updating, you all had your chance. Thank you for everyone who submitted! So this year, when I review your portfolio, no excuses about not using photo-reference, ok? See you at Spectrum in May to kick off my con season!
…..and I know, there’s no finals in this, but it’s too hilarious not to post—thanks Michael Marsicano!
The Self-Reference Shimmy! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWlif7e3qLo
After 17 years designing and art directing book covers, Lauren Panepinto has worked in every publishing genre and collaborated with artists of all disciplines. As the Creative Director & Vice President of Orbit Books for the past ten years, she has been trying to merge the worlds of genre and commercial publishing and figure out what SFF publishing looks like in the present world of mainstream "geek" media.
After an amateur career in punk rock show posters and 'zines, Lauren received a B.A. in Graphic Design from The School of Visual Arts. She has worked in fashion (Perry Ellis), television (MTV), and for boutique design firms, but found her calling in book publishing. She has worked at St. Martin's Press/Picador Books, at Doubleday/Random House, and now at Hachette Book Group, the parent company of Orbit.
In addition to traveling all over the place giving portfolio reviews at conventions and writing for Muddy Colors, you can also find her art business education projects at www.DrawnandDrafted.com, and www.MakeYourArtWork.com, and all of her many projects and www.LaurenPanepinto.com.