Using photo reference for comic art

Lots of debate, discussion about photo realism, photo references etc. crossing through my Tumblr feed over the last while…  Was thinking about it a lot last night as I was colouring comics pages.

Ty does photo references for his super hero comics (occasionally, believe it or not, we even do them for Simpsons Comics—he’ll announce that yes, they have four fingers, but sometimes he just wants to see how a body would look doing something wacky, then he can go off and draw the Simpsons anatomy). He’s explained many a time to those who don’t understand that photo reference is REFERENCE. To refer to…to look at and say, “Oh! THAT’S what the arm muscles would do in that move.” If you’re tracing it, it ceases to be reference…

It’s not tracing, copying, and he happily tells me all the time, “Sometimes I don’t even use them!” (not understanding that when I’ve taken an hour out of my work day to take photos or pose for them, that might NOT be the thing I want to hear!). And although I try my best to pose him (I’m generally behind the camera) just like his sketches, sometimes what he discovers through the photo reference is that the problem he was having with the drawing is that it wasn’t natural—he was trying to draw the body doing something it just wouldn’t. Or just the opposite:  sometimes what is natural and real just looks wrong or awkward.

What I’m really aware of is the dichotomy between Ty telling me, “Get the pose just like it is in the drawing” and “I don’t need it exact—I need it natural”. Because sometimes the way something looks in life is just…wacky and strange. That if you were looking at a drawing of a pose you’d have a moment where your brain would be trying to decipher why the eyes look like that, doesn’t that nose look strange? Wha—why are the arms all akimbo like that? Or, in real life, there would be a big heavy black shadow across someone’s body—but an artist wouldn’t want to have that lying across a big portion of the art. It wouldn’t “read” right…so it gets altered.

So, sometimes, while I’m posing Ty, he’ll say, “no, no, not ‘real’—let’s cheat it. This is comics, not real life. I’m telling a story here.” And that’s what I notice as I colour someone who is using photo reference for everything—and who is using it not to see muscles or how the hands look, but using it to draw. They’re drawing exactly what they see—and sometimes, what they see doesn’t make sense in a static 2D comic book page. I especially notice it with faces—when Ty was doing the Dexter The Early Cuts animated series, Michael C. Hall looks completely different when he turns his face 1 centimetre to the left or right of dead-centre**. I would look at pictures Ty had drawn and be able to tell him which ones he would be asked to redraw because they didn’t look like Hall (he had final approval on his image). Ty would show me the reference shots he’d been sent, and that he’d compiled himself—and I would be surprised to discover that they were all of the same actor…but you just couldn’t tell. And with photo references that happens a lot—you might be drawing the same person, but from a different angle, it just doesn’t look it to someone not in the room with that person. Whereas, someone not wedded to the photo reference will tweak the drawing so that it looks more like the character—even if it’s not “real” or just like the reference.

(**I’m always amazed by Anna Paquin—straight on, she has an unusual face that one can decide if you think it handsome or plain. But in profile? I think she has the MOST gorgeous profile ever. Something Rossetti would have painted, very pre-Raphaelite)

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