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

Tolkien fan Donato Giancola as the man himself

Another appearance of Donato Giancola in his piece, Progeny
Greg Manchess appearing on a recent bookcover

Greg Manchess defending A Princess of Mars

And my favorite submission: Greg Manchess as Captain Morgan! Liquor stores will never be the same, right?
Treefulls of Dave Palumbos
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. 

Jeffrey Alan Love appearing in New Yorker magazine (using the ruler-as-sword trick)
Dave Seeley shooting himself

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.

Zelda Devon with a foam stand-in for a Big Fish

Kurt Huggins and an evil cereal bowl

Marc Scheff making pretty hands

Marc Scheff also using the infamous ruler-as-sword trick

Marc Scheff getting the arm just right

Randy Gallegos as a Red Knight
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.

Sam Wolfe Connelly as The Butcher

Scott Brundage‘s Oscar attempt

More of Scott Brundage‘s great facial expressions

Scott gives a ton of advice at his own blog, see links below.

Rebecca Yanovskaya and a dangerous banana

Sara K. Diesel and a lovely salad bowl helmet

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 Foti’s Jedi meditation

Toni Foti as a Drow

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

Another AD Selfie: Henning Ludvigsen painting Zoe Robinson as a Lovecraftian Cook

And here’s a bunch of further reading:
I’m not sure which half is more beautiful—Rebecca Guay or Rebecca’s painting.

Kristina Carroll as an Elven Warrior

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 Carroll gets the award for most creative weapon stand-in

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 Andrew Cefalu. Extra points for cat photobombing.

Aaron Miller with a John Stanko cameo

Allen Douglas riding a chicken. Nice armor!

I love this one by Christopher Burdett so much. Most creative use of household miscellanea.

Milivoj Ceran as a convincing skeleton

I already loved this piece by David Seidman, but now I love it more, seeing behind the scenes

Eric Wilkerson, slaughtered by Martians (I’m starting to feel very Edward Gorey)
Greg Titus going the extra mile – photo-manipulating his selfie to make monster reference

Bruno Cerkvenik in the town square

Moar tentacles for Byron Winton

Carla Secco astride the furniture – and great dramatic lighting

Ed Watson as Ninja Turtles

Jon Hunt gets extra credit for the best action pose

Twice the Kelly McKernan

Lindsey Look makes a great pirate

Nick Benson with Banjo

Ralph Horsley, points for epic sneer

So the moral of the story is, if you don’t feel ridiculous you’re not trying hard enough. Thanks everybody for contributing!

And another round of additions…because they’re just too fun to stop…

Kirbi Fagan makes a great Powerpuff Girl

Preston Peter Jackson actually using a blade instead of a ruler stand-in

Levon Jihanian uses VIDEO capture then pulls stills…taking selfless to the next level

Nick Russell using the the old camera-gun swap

Craig Wilson as a whole pack of ninjas

And, for reals now….LAST UPDATE:

Bastien Lecouffe Deharme proving that you need reference no matter how much you’re going to abstract it.

Matthew Warlick balancing atop a tortoise

Claudio Pozas with….a rolled up magazine sword? Guess he didn’t have his ruler handy.

Stewart M. Craig turning himself into a goblin
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!