By Lauren Panepinto  Zoë Robinson

Hey everyone, I’m very excited to step aside for a week and let Zoë Robinson, a fellow Art Director I consider the queen of reference, take the helm for a post I’ve been begging her to do for ages now. In fact, it should probably be a whole series, but let’s start here. 

One of the most important skills any creative can have is the ability to do internet searches. Whether it’s a hunt for reference images or an Art Director’s contact info, the web is your #1 research tool. It’s not infrequent that we can recognize what exact reference image an artist used from google — because we also saw it when we were collecting material for the project. That means you’re not trying hard enough. Don’t be a lazy internet ninja! Dig deeper for the good stuff. Learn to think more creatively. Come at concepts sideways. Do these things and the internet will be your oyster. 

Often, Art Directors refer to good internet research skills as “Google-Fu” — and it’s a great life skill in our day and age for lots of things, not just art references. People in portfolio reviews and at talks I give and on Dear AD have been asking exactly what we mean when we refer to Google-Fu, and I can think of no one better to explain it. Take it away, Zoë!

“Google-Fu” is a phrase that I throw around a lot.  Like Wire-Fu, but for Google. It’s a satisfyingly concise way to say “lateral thinking strategies as applied to using a search engine.” 

Lateral thinking ( is creative problem solving; a classic example being the 9 point puzzle: Connect all these points with 4 straight lines, without lifting your mark making tool

Because, you see, you can’t solve the puzzle unless you go outside the box.   Which is often what you need to do to make the internet spit out what you need; come at the issue sideways.

One place to apply this in the life of an illustrator is with referencing something you don’t have direct access to in reality. Say you need to create an Ice Shield. It’s a metal shield.  But covered in ice. Okay, what does that look like? Not the item itself, but what are you going to use for an ice reference?   If you pop “ice” into google image search, you end up with:
…which is not very useful.

If you google “ice shield”,  you get…well, you get how other people have solved the problem:

Which, it’s good to see how other people have solved the problem!  Still, avoid interpreting an interpretation.  Outside of using an approved original concept given to you by the client, using someone else’s art as reference is generally boring, stifles your own style, and can get you into sticky contractual situations (your contract is also a promise not to plagiarize).

“Ice on metal”:  better!  Some nice textures, some potential.  Not quite as dramatic as I was hoping for:

Other ice-esque searches… “Frost”?  “Winter ice” “Frozen ice”   Okay, it’s clear coming at this in a general way isn’t getting us what we need.

The tried and true method for me is a visual simile.  What in real life has the same qualities as what you are trying to illustrate? To do this, you’ll need to digest your subject into smaller functions.  We need something that is metal, manufactured or crafted, and it would help if the surface had some curvature to it, like something designed to absorb or deflect impact.  This something needs to be outside in winter, or in a situation where it would get covered in ice, so maybe doused in water, then flash-frozen….

It’s an open-ended visual riddle, really.  My brain solves this one with “Frozen car”:

Ah-HA! THIS seem more worth my time to burrow through and explore. And it’s broad enough to give you lots of different angles of similar shapes in similar situations. This is a very basic, purely visual example.  Here’s another one:

You get a card with the art brief:
Evil rocks!  Where the fel crystals breach the earth, the living ground is visibly harmed.

First of all, it seems like “crystals” is fairly concrete, here.  What is more nebulous is the idea of illustrating a “living ground be harmed”. Alright, lets jump right to the simile: What in real life has shapes with hard surfaces popping out of a horizontal-ish plane, producing something that looks like damage? This one I’m not going to give screenshots for, because my brain solves this as “open fracture” and “gingivitis”.  (You’re welcome.)

If you’ve got a strong stomach, go ahead and check it out.  Could make for some pretty great wounded ground.

A fun thing about this kind of preprocess research is that it gives you opportunities to deepen and broaden how you’re thinking about your piece.  Don’t just look at the image search; it’s important to know the context of the picture you’re referencing.  Besides, learning about gingivitis can take you to looking at periodontitis (a more advanced stage of it, which has the gums retreating away from the bone rather than swelling) and cool cut-away images of spongey, honeycombed jaw and gosh that gives you this idea….

Build yourself some riddles and use your Google-fu while you do reference image searches, and you’ll set yourself up for more original, more engaging approaches to your assignments. Go ahead and impress your Art Directors with your superb creative problem solving!
And if you are a lazy internet researcher, and have the bad judgement to complain that you can’t find good reference material, or can’t find something online your ADs know is easy to find, then know they are probably rolling their eyes at you. Or worse…