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  • Writer's pictureDiane deGroat

Finding and Using Reference Material For Your Art

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

Even the best artists use reference material sometimes. I’d have to be Michelangelo to be able to draw everything out of my head, especially when using a realistic style.

For your history lesson today, I'll tell you how artists used reference material in the "old" days. Not the Michelangelo days, but the before-the-computer-and-internet days. Artists kept files of pictures (or "clip files"), which was a collection of people, places, things—anything and everything we could find printed on paper. I have about 15 drawers full of thousands of pictures in my studio.

Where did they come from? I was always on the lookout for good, clear photos from magazines, old books, posters, ads, and even other artists' photo collections. Tag sales and flea markets were an invaluable resource. And once I started collecting National Geographic magazines, I couldn't stop. I carried a tiny piece of paper in my wallet listing any issues I was missing. As a result, I have almost every NG magazine from the 1920s to the 2000s. They were great for researching a culture or a specific geography that I wasn't familiar with. And all kinds of people.

PS—If you’ve ever seen a page missing from a magazine in the doctor’s waiting room, I may have quietly ripped out an advertisement with a cute kid doing Jello shots.

For filing these pictures, there was even a user-friendly system to follow, although each artist could customize it for their own work. You started with the general categories in the first column. As those files grew larger, you could break them down into smaller categories. Then smaller again to suit your needs.

The biggest category I have in my collection is for CHILDREN. My picture books and middle grade (realistic) fiction constituted a large part of my illustration work. I eventually made separate files for different age groups. Other files are for SCHOOLS, FAMILIES, CLASSROOMS, GROUPS, TEENS—all customized for my needs. Some of these pictures go back to the 1970’s, when I first started collecting, so it’s not unusual to find "vintage" fashion in my files. Big hair. White lipstick. Bellbottoms. I have it all. I lived it all.

Remember that I have all these files for reference only, not material to reuse for publication. At least not without the photographer’s permission or for a fee paid for a stock photo.

The photo below on the right is from a National Geographic story about Romania. I liked the girl's face and I filed it under CHILDREN AGES 4-9 FACING FORWARD. I used it as reference for the cover art of Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik on the left, but you can see how I changed it enough to make the girl unrecognizable. If I copied her exactly, and the art was spotted by the magazine or the photographer, I could be sued.

Besides using clip files, I would take my own photographs of kids for reference. If you use real people as models, be sure to get a model release. If the illustration resembles the person at all, this is essential for the model, the publisher, and the artist, in case liability issues pop up. Don't be surprised if the publisher wants a copy on file.

Here's the simple release I used, but a publisher may want you to use their own, which may be more detailed. You might have to negotiate with them if it goes beyond ridiculous. Like if the publisher says they are permitted to use that kid's photo for anything and everything for the rest of the universe's life.

I usually paid the child a model fee, maybe $20 - $50, depending on how many illustrations I needed to do. And they got a copy of the book once it was published. And then, of course, their parent went to the bookstore and turned their book's cover facing outward on the shelf, much to the dismay of the store managers.

Anyway, here's how I organized the photos I took of kids before digital storage was available. I've probably used a hundred different "models" over the non-digital years, which were just kids I found in local schools, or via friends. I kept them all, even after the book was published because you never know if the author might write a sequel later on. They might have the kids in the new story be the same age as in the first book, but in real life the models may look much older. I can't retake their photos for reference!

Sometimes I need a model to help me with a difficult pose without needing to show their face, like the photo below and the drawing I made from it. The character of Henry has a different face than the boy in the photo. I just needed his body as reference. A model release is usually not required in this case.

My second biggest file is for animals. This is just one of three drawers:

The magazine cover on the right was in my POSSUM folder. It’s what I used as reference for my character of Gilbert. But even if I painted the possum face exactly, it would be hard to prove I copied the magazine. Unlike people, most animal species look similar. But you wouldn’t be free to copy and republish that exact photo because it belongs to the photographer or the magazine.

If you are using actual photographs of someone’s pets, the publisher may require a release from the owner if the photographs are going to be published, and perhaps recognized. I'm not making this up. (See Dogs Don’t Brush Their Teeth in post #5.)

Zoos would, of course, be more flexible. But if you planned take photos and write a book about a special animal that lived there, you might need permission from the zoo before publishing the material.

Out of courtesy, I asked permission before taking photos of a possum at an animal shelter. It never hurts to ask. And I gave them a copy of the book. And I got a flea.

Oh, and taxidermy is good for reference too. They don’t move.

And they don't have fleas.

Now here's the important part again. If you are using random photos for reference, the idea is to NOT infringe on the photographer’s, the designer's, or the artist's copyrighted material. They own it. Repeat after me: ASSUME THAT ALL THE PHOTOS YOU FIND IN PRINTED MATERIAL AND ON THE INTERNET ARE COPYRIGHTED. Be careful where you get your reference material from and how you use it for your illustrations. You CANNOT lift or copy any image or photograph you see on your computer screen to reproduce in a publication, use on your website, or print on a t-shirt to sell on Etsy.

I can’t stress this enough. It’s so very easy for anyone with access to the internet to copy an image, not knowing it’s absolutely illegal to do so. All images are owned by the original creator. If discovered, the wrongdoer might be asked to remove the image or the product(s) containing the image, pay the owner any profit made from using their art, and if appropriate, be liable for any lawsuit the artist wishes to pursue. If you see a digital image you’d really like to use, try to find and contact the owner of the image and ask permission. It’s also important to give them a credit line. Some people alter a Googled image with Photoshop to change it a bit, like I did for the T-shirt below for this post. But YOU can't copy my illustration of Robo-Kid and sell it on a T-shirt! Altering images is a grey area, and the courts may have to decide if it was fair use or not. I'm talking about copying stuff for commercial use. It's OK, of course, to use anything for personal use, like scrapbooking, or for a school project, or for tacking onto a bulletin board. Lightning will not strike you down.

For The Adventures of Robo-Kid, I did google swimming pools and community centers for illustration reference. I was able to find a hundred different pictures for inspiration and accuracy. How many steps are on a pool ladder? What kind of benches would a locker room have? What kind of goggles do kids wear nowadays? All this helps to make a better illustration. (Caveat: Be careful googling “boys in locker rooms.” Your browser history may never be the same…)

And finally, I should mention the elephant in the room: Artificial Intelligence. Or "AI." There are software programs that enable the computer to create art. (Gasp!) Non-artists can now make stunning images with these programs. It started out as filters to alter existing art, and now there are programs that generate images from scratch, just from a text prompt. There are also new copyright concerns because the computer searches the infinite web to make these stunning images, some of which are copyrighted. I'll save the AI stuff for another post, once I explore it myself. But just for fun, I tried my first text prompt with JAPANESE ROBOT IN OUTER SPACE ANIME STYLE to see how it would compare to my illustrations of Robo-Kid. This is what the computer generated. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I can recycle or shred all those picture files from the "old" days because the internet makes it so much easier to find anything and everything I need for reference now. And all the National Geographic magazines can be purchased digitally. Sigh.

So.......Would anyone like to have my personal clip files of 15,000 pictures? Free to pick up. (Minus the cabinets—they're holding up my worktable!)

Or would anyone like to own a hundred years' worth of National Geographic magazines? I personally will deliver them anywhere in Western Massachusetts. Seriously.

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