A Frame of Reference


Let’s talk a bit about reference. I’ve encountered many artists who insist on dreaming things up wholesale from the contents of their own head. That’s fine if you’re the owner, or it’s stylised completely or it’s a pure flight of fancy. For comic books, the quantity of abdominal muscles need not necessarily relate to normal human physiology. However…

…I do a lot of illustrative work for educational media and games. Over the years I’ve found that for client work, it’s vitally important that the metaphorical spade is a spade. It has to look like what it’s supposed to be, or an iconic representation the end viewer or client has to recognise.

Take a seat and let’s draw a…chair for example.

Before you leap into action and start drawing the chair you’re thinking of in your mind, just consider for a moment. What type of chair is it?

We all bring our unique mixture of knowledge and perspective into everything we create. Did you grow up with wooden chairs in your home? Stylised? Antique? Plastic? IKEA? Armchairs? Stools? High Back? Is it a school chair? What do school chairs look like these days? Suddenly a simple ‘chair’ is not so clear cut.

We need some context. Who does the chair belong to? Where’s the illustration set? Who is the illustration for? When is it? Is it new or worn? What’s the style?

These are the things a professional illustrator needs to think about unless they want a slew of revisions after drawing a beautiful but ‘wrong’ image.

There’s absolutely no shame in collecting as much reference as you think you’ll need. It’s not copying (don’t do that, btw). It’s not cheating! You need to know what something looks like or people will spot straight away that ‘something’ isn’t quite right. Don’t assume the visual is waiting all perfectly formed in your memory. We’re not encyclopaedia’s, after all.

I’ve had to art direct teams in other countries and the problem of context was an everyday challenge. You can’t presume people will apply the same frame of reference to a description or even be familiar with the object in question. Cue ‘Dogs that look a bit like bears’, ‘Dolphins with Shark tails’ or ‘vehicles that can’t move.’

I’ve had to nail down exacting specifics and send reference material for the desired context every time. And reference is in abundance. Everything has been done, somewhere and by someone. They’ve already thought about it. Look at what they did. Examine it. Collect it. Then make it your own and better.

So, what’s my point? Well…the job of a good illustrator is to select from an incredibly wide array of choices and find the one that best suits the brief, the client, the composition and their own style. Google is your friend here, as is finding the keywords to get what you need. Browse through some books and try to find what makes a ‘Sun Fish’ look like a ‘Sun Fish’ for example. Have you seen one of those? Google it – it’s quite incredible!

It takes a bit of practise. Get a heap of reference images and collate them all on a digital mood board. Find and distil from all of it the essence of the image you need – be it as simple as an everyday household object (A kettle? Y’know how many different types of kettle there are?!) to something far more complex. (e.g. Combine Harvester, an Apatosaurus, a street scene in 1876 or even a fictional world of toys with evil technogrowth?)

So go digging for that reference and become skilled at unearthing it. It takes a little time, but it’ll save you revisiting work. And you’ll learn some interesting things about, well, whatever it is you’re about to recreate.


Brief – an attacking vine with electric/tech properties.

Technovine Sketches

Using the reference…

Final Technogrowth

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