With 9 weeks at Smart school for Illustration there is one thing that is unanimously done and it seems for all Illustrators it is the same - the use of light boxing/tracing to get a nicely rendered piece. Without fail every professional Illustrator I have meet, talked with or just listened to admits to taking some very well set up photographic reference and then using them to quickly copy the image to their canvas and referencing them especially for lighting and several other things. The basic workflow then becomes something like this:
1. Quickly layout some thumbnails to develop an idea. These are for you so can be as messy or clean as you want them to be and only need to be a couple inches squared. The big reason for them really at this point is to make sure that your painting (image) has a nice composition in large shapes and a quick abstract read you don’t need details at all here. Andrew Loomis and others recommend working in no more than 4 shades of black & white being – white, light grey, a darker grey and black to establish foreground, middle ground (second middle ground) and background. You can use the colours in any order to get the feel and depth you want usually though it is accepted that the foreground is the darkest with the strongest contrast and the background is the lightest with the least amount of contrast.
2. In a professional Illustrator setting you will develop 3 of these into more worked out sketches, in Concept Design it may be closer to 5 or 6 but you will also probably be showing a lot of your thumbnails as well for that. These don’t have to be very big but do need to be big enough to show the client what the idea is, potentially about postcard size 4”x 6” or so. You don’t want to waste too much time on this stage doing elaborate drawings before the client picks one they like.
3. Then once an image is decided upon then go shoot some reference images. I say shoot your own as you then have all rights to use it as much or little as you want. Get costumes, dress up as the characters you want in your piece so you know how the fabric folds and the lighting falls on them. Set up the lighting you want to make sure this happens. Take multiple photos. Dan Dos Santos takes 100s of photos for a single piece as do others. I get about 4 or 5 shots for each possible pose I may use and should probably do more. One of the reasons for this is your final image is probably going to be a cut and paste mesh-up of all the other photographs typically called “frankenstining”. When I was in college and taking a design class the instructor had us go through magazines cut out images that we wanted to use from the background to the foreground and all the characters in it. Now with computers you can arrange them in Photoshop, cut and paste, change the colour to match and develop a clean looking image already.
4. Which brings us to the next step. We’d lay them out and match our sketch. Then we would go to a copier and make at least 2 copies, one black and white and one in colour. If you do this in Photoshop print out both copies of the image corrected to being as close to what you want your final image to look like as possible. This is where using something like Photoshop, Painter, Gimp (which is free and just like Photoshop) or Pixia (also free), ArtRage or any of the other photo/art software really shines. You can develop a complete colour comp of your image so if you are working traditionally you have exactly what you want to paint laid out and thought out already.
5. We would put charcoal, graphite or transfer paper to rub on the back of the image copied to the right size that we wanted to paint it and trace over the image to layout everything in place. Or use a lightbox to trace the image on to your paper if it is thin enough.
A quick word about lightboxes. I never understood why people pay large sums for them. There are windows everywhere. All you have to do to have an instant lightbox is tape up your image and the paper over it with the light behind it and voila instant lightbox no matter where you are. You can also lay down some glass and shine a light from underneath if you want a flat one or are working at night. No real cost to you just as good as paying $100s for it.
Then clean up the line work you now have on your “canvas” (Illustration board and stiffer painting surfaces are easier to do this on than an actual canvas.) and possibly lighten up any areas that you may not want to show through depending on what type of medium you work in and how thick you paint. In Photoshop you can basically trace/light box the image by lightening the layer with the photo reference and drawing your line work on a normal layer on top of it.
6. You can then start painting, basically copying and using the colour copy to match the paint colours. We would mix the paint and then apply a small amount to the colour copy to see if it blended or stood out from the colours there.
As I write this out I am presented with the all time question from a contest that I have entered with this piece: If you just paint what you have laid out in your reference photos the are you copying? This is a big on going debate and has been and will be from generations past to generations to come: Tracing and duplicating your reference image colours is why you lay them out in the 1st place. We are just saving ourselves painstaking time (money) and making sure our images are as technically correct as possible. It should not stifle your creativity to have them or make up for your lack of technical ability to draw freehand and mix your own paints. Picasso and every other famous abstract artist once upon a time were extremely talented at what they were doing. Which I firmly believe you have to understand the rules of art and be able to create it on your own before you can break them and be successful at it.
So is it a bad thing? That’s for you to decide. I do heavily suggest you actually learn to draw and don’t just do simple photo manipulation as is popular today. I personally will put my drawing skills up against anyone. If there is one thing I have gotten compliments for from every professional I have meet including Iain McCaig is that I can definitely draw. And a good drawing is the foundation to a good painting as painting can be looked at as being nothing more than drawing with a brush. But if you want to compete with the pros, in the allotted time frame they have, working on multiple projects at once you are going to have to learn to make good solid use of references.
As a closing recommendation on the subject check out James Gurney’s book “Imaginative Realism” about using references to make your image believable.