The Artists Reference

Creating a piece of Art, whether it is a painting, sculpture, drawing or collage, requires planning. As part of this planning, it is imperative that the Artist has reference to work from. It is a misconception that Artists also have a photographic memory and therefore create all their Artwork from memory. In times when cameras were not yet invented, Artists where relied on to create reference of an historical time by way of paintings. Even in those times, Artists sat sketching material to create reference that they used to paint or sculpt the painting. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci had tons of sketches that they used as reference to create the magnificent masterpieces that we value and love today. Many Artists in history used prostitutes or beggars, who would sit for hours while the Artist painted, or they were sketched over and over again in different poses and these sketches were then used later on to create a painting. All this for a meal or a few coins.

Sketch by Michelangelo

I have touched on this subject a few times before, but I cannot stress enough the importance of collecting reference. When I meet a new student or someone starting painting or drawing as a hobby the first thing I usually tell them is to start collecting reference material.

Today in this digital age, we are very fortunate to be able to acquire reference easily and inexpensively. As an Artist, never shy away from sketching, even if you prefer painting. Sketching is an easy way to capture your ideas on paper. As an idea, you should not be too concerned about sketching a beautiful framable piece of Art. These sketches are only for your eyes and should give only YOU a detailed idea as part of planning for your painting.

An Artist friend told me that he has a sketch pad lying on his desk, one in his studio, one in his car and one in his bedroom. This way, should an idea pop into his head, he has something close by so that he can quickly sketch his ideas or make notes to himself to use at a later date. This is a perfect solution.

sketch by Jax

How often do you find yourself sitting in a waiting room or stuck in traffic or waiting in queues? If you live in SA and definitely in JHB, you will find that this happens often. An A6 sketch pad is ideal for these times, small enough for a hand bag or pocket. Many times you will be lucky enough to actually see something to sketch or if you have had an idea, use this opportunity to sketch. This kind of reference can be invaluable. Many exquisite pieces of Art started this way. Often I have heard people say – “but I can’t draw! Sorry guys – but rubbish! If you can write or hold a pencil, you can draw. If you really feel that you are struggling, then take a drawing class; but seriously I am not talking beautifully executed sketches. If you can – then great, but planning a painting of a tree on a mountain for example, need just be a triangle on a cylinder with wavey lines in the background. It may not seem like much, but it is a start. You can add to it later.

sketch by Jax

As you practice, you will soon realize that you can draw. Copy! Copy! Copy! If you are sitting on a park bench and there are a bunch of kids kicking a ball, whip out your sketch book and do a 30 second sketch of what you see. Once you have all the little wobbly figures in place, take a look at where the shadows are and sketch in the dark areas, indicating to you where the light is. Pay attention to the surroundings. It does not matter if the composition is wrong or that the proportions are out. The point is that you are teaching yourself how to SEE! This is such a great exercise that one day you may consider using in a painting. As you practice and use your sketches later on to bring your ideas to fruition, you may want to capture a few photographs of the same or similar scene, providing you with the detail that you need.

Another Artist mentioned that she wanted to do a painting of a woman in a cage but she couldn’t get it right. My advice is that she takes her camera, set the timer, and get into the pose that she wants. Then go and photograph cages at a zoo or Google them. The point I want to make is that creating a painting takes work – not just painting. Research is of utmost importance.

This is my filing cabinet that I decorated with paintings on either side. It stands in my studio.

All my files are labelled in categories. I work in them nearly everyday so it is imperative that they stay organized .

I keep a reference library – well two in fact. One is digital, on my computer filed in categories – Animals, Fish, Birds, Plants, Flowers, Concepts, Sceneries, Landscapes, Buildings, Streets, Male Studies, Female studies, Kids, Babies, etc. Here I Google what I am looking for and I save pictures that I like into the categories. I also file my own photographs that I take into these same files. When I have a used magazine, pamphlet, newspaper, photograph or paper medium, I file them in the same categories in drop files in my filing cabinet. My reference library has grown over the years as I have been doing this for many years. Start with a box where you keep these references. As it grows, you can develop your own filing system. If I decide to use a digital reference, I sometime work on my canvas with the digital images on my computer screen, or I print it off and then use it. When I have used it, it gets filed in the filing cabinet too for future use should I care to use it again. There are times when I will paint a picture as it is in my reference, but more often than not, I may just use a piece of the photograph.

Just to give you an example of how I use reference in a painting, these are some photographs that I used to help me to create the painting below called Coffee and Cigarettes with an Archangel. The cover of a book that will soon be released by the Author Luis Falcao. The photo’s below this are of the Author who I used for the cover painting.

This is the final painting. I improvised a little, using a copy of a painting that is actually owned by the author of this book in this painting on the back wall of the painting. It is a painting of Angel Michael that I painted a few years back.

I do not have a photographic memory and chances are, neither do you, therefore you cannot expect to paint a painting from memory only. You may recall seeing a beautiful bunch of orchids overflowing in a rustic bucket, or a child chasing after a butterfly, but the moment you begin painting you will quickly realize that you are not so sure what angle the light was or where the child’s hands were and your proportion will be all wrong. That’s because you are an Artist with a vision, not a photographic memory. So often…too often in fact, I hear the same lament by students and Artists over and over. They complain that they have all these wonderful ideas, but the moment that they start painting, they run into problems and then give up, because they cannot get their ideas down on paper or canvas. I have even heard students say that “Artists are supposed to be able to do this out of their heads, and they can’t, therefore they cannot be an Artist!” This is the most incredible statement I have ever heard. What better way to learn than to study the Great Artists. A simple trip to the library or to an Art museum will teach you so much if you just make the effort. Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches are all over the internet as are many of the Great Artists. This was their reference material. In my blog about using Live Models, I talk about reference and acquiring good models or reference material. In this incredibly fast life that we live in today where everything is instant and no one has time for anything, it is not easy to find live models, but we do have camera’s, even on our cell-phones, so there is little excuse for not finding reference to work from. A sleeping child is so much fun to sketch (provided that they aren’t too restless) If you have a little one in your life, consider sketching them while they are asleep, or even your pets. It may not be your choice of subject for a painting, but it will give you the opportunity to learn and we are never too clever not to learn something. A good reference library can double up as a “mojo finder”. When you are feeling a little uninspired, go and page through your reference and find your mojo. It works!

An awesome example of a Reference file

My enthusiastic student Naomi found a wonderful way to store her reference material which she can update regularly and the container can hold tons of pages. This document holder costs under R200 at a stationery store.

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