Reference as it finds you


I’ll post some more of my favourite reference objects soon. But while it is great to have them, and they can save a lot of time, a great deal still relies upon being able to make do.

Above is a perspex trophy and the creek at the end of my street standing in for reflections on the glass coffin in my illustration for The Darkest Part of the Forest.

Below are dominos and a tube of Hydralite standing in for a gallery above an alcove, and a spiral staircase.


And here is a small part of the haul of objects unearthed from around my house to use for the illustrations for Clockwork Angel: a paper parasol (fortunately discovered in the bottom of the linen cupboard, because I’d mislaid the cocktail ones), a lovely book, my Year 12 formal gown, my grandmother’s black gloves, my embroidery scissors, assorted buttons (in lieu of cogs), and of course, Mortimer.


Reference skulls


For one reason or another, there always seem to have been skulls around the house. Cattle skulls (since we were graziers), bird and wallaby skulls in the Interesting Things Basket on top of the microwave (this collection, and its eventual demise, made it into Flyaway). Then at college there was an anatomical model that would show up clothed and posed in dorm rooms from time to time. After that, my housemate was a vet student and kept a reference dog skull on top of the television (this, combined with preg-testing gloves draped over the back of a door, explained the awkward atmosphere during a visit payed by some police after my car was stolen).

And then, one day, I was skull-less (or rather, all the skulls in the house were in active daily use), at which point I realised how much skulls show up in my line of work — and how useful reference really is, even for my typically very stylised approach.

There are plenty of references online, of course, and handy adjustable skeleton apps (I think I used one for the Illustration Master Class paintings), but they aren’t the same as being able to turn an example to the light, or glance across idly to confirm a suspicion about particular bones — and a too-adjustable, over-detailed option (especially one which, as in an image search, shows up at the scale I’m working at) tends to make me want to copy it exactly, which isn’t at all my style. In art as in prose, I prefer to hit a point somewhere between allusion and plausible deniability.

I bought a replica anatomy chart, but my then-housemate (not a vet student) disapproved of it hanging in the common areas, so now it gives my room a far more Gothic aura than it would otherwise have. I used a tiny vodka bottle for a while, in a pinch, but it had its drawbacks.

Finally I bought Mortimer, who now lurks on top of a bookcase behind my desk and features — more or less — in many, many illustrations.

(There are also a few skeletons up in the Halloween collection on Redbubble.)

And since the era of Zoom, it comes in handy for other things, too.

Art imitating life imitating art imitating

This is not a re-enactment of a painting. This is me getting reference for an illustration (more on which soon, but between this and needing impromptu video-conferencing backgrounds, my undergrad collection of shawls is getting a workout).


(Photos by Liz McKewin)

Not least because they remind me of illustrators’ awkward reference photos, I am enjoying all the recreating of paintings lately. It’s like a 21st-century reinvention of an Edwardian novel, with all those tableaux.

(The link above is to Muddy Colors’ Artist Selfies: Everybody’s Doing It post).

Art/writing exercises:

  • For writers, as well as readers, here’s a great deal to be said for dressing up. Knowing that certain hats cut off your peripheral vision, or the noise of heels on a hardwood floor, or how harsh embroidery can be on the skin is wonderful for sensory detail, while catching the detail of where a seam actually rips or how striped fabrics chevron, or what angle of light causes the shadow of a hat to obscure a face can also add beautiful texture and accuracy to a story. 
  • For writers, learning to really see into a painting can help with visual descriptions. Dorothy Dunnett (who was also a portrait artist) does this magnificently, and in her historical novels describes scenes with visuals that are not only rich but also in the style of painters of the relevant era.
  • For illustrators, the applications are obvious (for more on using reference more rigorously than I do, I recommend Muddy Colours and Gurney Journey), but I am waiting for someone to start a trend of drawing a photo of someone’s re-enactment of a painting that was based on a photo of someone dressed up (Alphonse Mucha and Norman Rockwell both used photo reference heavily and very well).