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Fantasy Art Tutorials in the FARP Section

Figures and Costumes via References

By :-) Janet Chui

Welcome, or welcome back to Version 2.0! This tutorial has been updated, in light of the way the Internet, books and software programs have evolved since 1998. Resources and tools for the artist are becoming more and more plentiful. If you have ever despaired about being bad with figures, costume design and the like, remember you're not living in a vacuum, but basking in the Age of Information. Let me be your humble guide in finding some good stuff! (I'm a little rusty now for not having attempted an art tutorial in years, but no less enthusiastic. Let's begin.)





Too many amateur artists suffer from the idea that skipping the use of references is the mark of a true artist. The opposite is really closer to the truth. The Great Masters of old always worked with models. Mona Lisa was not painted in an isolation cell! Many professional fantasy artists hire models too, if they're not already using their own friends and relatives to pose.

Well, the rest of us can't afford models, or maybe our friends are too bashful, or we don't have the costumes, or a camera, or a large mirror. (You can always be your own model. In fact, that's what Julie Bell and Boris Vallejo do--have you ever seen how those artists look?) For the rest of us, copying figures from 2-dimensional sources is a cheap and easy alternative. Some illustrators compile scrapbooks. Some animators cover their walls with visual references. Some artists take landscape photographs specifically for their paintings. Rembrandt made copies of Leonardo's paintings and incorporated the studies into his own paintings.

Copying is a means of learning. You learn how to look at and render the human figure, fabrics and armor. You can study the details in different textures, forms, shapes, materials and shine in objects. You can take note of the colors and compositions used in other pictures. You can experiment in styles and techniques, or also just use the pictures to stimulate your own imagination. Even tracing, which I've always been personally biased against, has been argued in The Artist's Magazine as an effective means of learning to draw, because one is training in tracing images mentally while tracing images physically. That's only for training, however, and shouldn't be used for creating 'your own' art.

Perhaps it's time now to insert that using references and learning to improve your drawing skills aren't always the same thing. I'd love to tackle the latter, but that would take a whole other tutorial. Or you can get a copy of Betty Edwards' Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain, which a lot of professors actually use to teach Drawing 101. I'm going to assume the reader of this tutorial can copy well enough whatever they're looking at as reference. (Personally I've always drawn by putting mental vertical and horizontal rulers on an image.)

What are you lookin' at?

Being Elfwood artists, we're probably pretty sure of what kind of pictures we like to look at—fantasy! Building up a collection of favorite fantasy pictures is great, but why stop there? If you're looking to develop your own style and don't want to be influenced by other artists' visions, pay more attention to real objects, or, second best, photographs instead. Art is a supposed to be a reflection of life, after all. Photographs of people, costumes, buildings and landscapes offer good references if you can't exactly go outside to find a medieval maiden against a mountain backdrop with Castle Neushwanstein for your picture.

(Now, if you're using a photograph not only to copy the line, or the costume, but also for learning how to shade the figure as a 3-dimensional object, I'd caution against using a photograph which has obviously been taken with a BRIGHT FLASH. Frontal flash lighting rarely occurs naturally in the real world, unless you're walking around all the time with a 10,000-Watt miner's hat. Use your chiaroscuro skills around the shading problem—look up 'chiaroscuro AND sphere' online if you need to, it's great for understanding how to apply light and shadow to objects!)

On the design and costuming side of using references, photographs need not be your only sources. For instance, Douglas W. Gorsline's What People Wore, offers 1,800 drawings of costumes 'from Ancient Times to the Earliest Twentieth Century.'

Now let's look at the brave new world of picture references out there. Many of these resouces are completely free. Great for us starving artists!




Casting your Net for references!

Unless I have a specific book or photograph in mind to refer to for my next picture, the Web is where I look first. Altavista's search engine has made it tons easier by providing a search service just for pictures. The search results given are in the form of thumbnails—artists have never been so spoiled. As in using any search engine, you can be as detailed or imaginative as necessary about entering your key words into the search engine. In trying to find figures, you can look for fine art nudes, dance photographs, SCA photographs, even celebrity pictures or movie stills. Enter the word of an activity, costume or object, if your picture in mind concerns such.

Search engines are getting more sophisticated all the time, and almost everything is on the web. Corbis, a vast online image library, even lets you set up an portfolio for free in which you place your favorite Corbis reference images. They know it's useful for artists.

But don't forget to read to the end of this article for a caution on copyright. (And that applies to everything!)

One man's trash is another man's treasure...

Newspapers. Magazines. TV guides. Junk mail. Flyers. It's about impossible to avoid or live without these things—they're so pervasive. Even you don't subscribe to them, chances are someone you know does, and has to throw them out once in a while. Grab 'em—they're a treasure trove if they have photographs in them, and nowadays, they always do.

Sports photographs are great for action, and sometimes, rippling muscles (wooo...). Fashion magazines can inspire glamorous fantasy portraits, or great costumes and fabrics. News photographs come in a whole variety, and it's likely you'll find pictures that capture your attention for one reason or other—the expression on a person's face, the drama of the scene, the composition, the pose, the situation. Just looking at some of these pictures can inspire great pictures, and studying pictures may well be used as to train your eye to see what makes a good picture and what doesn't.

If they're particularly great and useful-looking, keep the pictures in whatever form suits you best—in a scrapbook or on your wall. Just don't forget to look at them when they'd be terrific for what you're currently drawing or painting. Collecting pictures for your scrapbook or wall is a long-term project. The longer you've been at it, the greater your collection of references gets. And the busier your wall gets...well, don't be surprised if you're inspired one day to try and combine as many ideas and images as you can in one picture!

Freeze frame!

Putting great photographs, even postcards, in your reference collection is something you should already be doing. What if there's something you need which you know you don't have and can't be found? You can attempt the picture from imagination if you're confident, but if you want the best, it may be time to do some harder legwork. To put it most simply: you're going to make your own reference pictures.

When I have to resort to this, I'm usually in a rush or the picture is Really Important. So I break out the sketchbook or, if it's complicated, the digital camera. (Avoid using the flash on your camera, though.) I may model for myself. I may get someone to model a pose. I may drape a quick mock-up of the costume on the model if I need to study the folds of cloth. If the picture I want has light coming from the top, I place the model under a bright light. Or I use a window or spotlight as needed. If I need to study how the shadow falls on a wall, I place the model against that wall, and so on. It's all in making the best of what you have.

An artist hardly needs to stay in the studio all the time either. Go to the gym. Take an archery course or a dancing class. Learn when and where your local SCA members get together to bash each other in their medieval fighting get-up. Make friends with them. Let them bash you in return for posing for your picture. Explore all the possibilities outside your door, and have fun.


It's not a doll, it's an action figure.

I used to use my She-Ra dolls to draw, but it's not something I do anymore because, compared looking at the real thing, dolls—er—action figures are woefully simplified and inadequate. Even wooden artists' manikins don't look very human, though they are fun to pose and play practical jokes with. (Now, there are pretty slick wooden hand models to be found on the market too, but if you're on a budget, remember you've still got the two real deals at the end of your arms.) Still, it's all in how you use your resources, and though I wouldn't base clothing or anatomy drawings on dolls, I can see some usefulness in them for trying poses and examining lighting effects, group/crowd scenes, unusual perspectives (How does He-Man look from above?) and other basic guides.

Poser? You don't even know 'er.

(I didn't come up with the above joke.)


The Poser software program is probably the latest resource that has appeared for figure artists. Heck, it is being used to create actual end products. Is this a good reference to use? I couldn't tell you; I haven't touched it. I'm inclined to place it at the same level of usefulness as a poseable doll; I can see its convenience, but even taking that into consideration, studying a real human figure can never be beat. Does it beat looking at a photograph? That's probably a question of personal taste—in my case I'd say that Poser, from what I've seen, has yet to achieve enough realism and detail to oust the other resource. Can it be used in conjunction with other references? Certainly! If and when you need to, make the best with what you have, and as much as you can get. (Shouldn't that be a mantra for doing anything?)

Time to hit the books

History books. Art history books. Anatomy books. Books on arms and armor. Fascimilies of illuminated manuscripts. Photography books. Anthropology books. Costuming books. Books on machines. Books on faith. Books on acrobats, you name it. There are books out there which are useful to the artist even when they're not found in the art or art instruction sections. Some pictures you'll do may call for research, and books are such an obvious answer that they can get overlooked. (Well, I know I did in the last version of this tutorial.) Go to the library. Go to more than one library. Go to the part of the library where they're selling books for a dollar apiece. Visit second hand bookstores. If you're armed with cash and know exactly what you want, visit the bookstore or online bookstore. When you're tired of the pictures, you might even find yourself (gasp) reading it!

By now I hope I've covered most of the stuff there is out there for drawing figures and costumes. There's possibly more, but if you've been doing all the above, chances are you're already flooded with possible picture references.



Using the Pictures

Be creative

As said before, copying and using references (and just drawing in general) should be a learning process. Being able to copy a picture line for line might be a great exercise, but what's more important is learning and clarifying what you see in the reference with what you know: the musculature of a figure, the construct of a body, its features, proportions, et al.

Just because you're copying doesn't mean you can stop thinking about what you're drawing. The more you put into the process, the more you get out of it. If the picture you're copying is not your own, make the exercise challenging by changing some things, like costume, background, weaponry, etc.

Be careful

Give credit when necessary, such as when you've heavily used another artist's or photographer's work. Sometimes CD-ROMs and books offer copyright-free reference photographs and clip art, but most of the time, you do have to be careful about copyright infringement, especially if you're copying almost-wholesale things like movie stills and published paintings and photographs. Should you have to do this, just treat it as practice, and give credit. In trying to make original images, however, you'd be on the safer side copying your own photographs only, or taking bits and pieces from everywhere...textures here, costumes there, your own imagination here. Even while getting help from references, it doesn't mean you can't inject as much as your own work and ideas as possible into the picture.


A last caveat: If combining a few references into one picture (eg. figure from one pic, costume from another, background from yet another), be careful of how you're copying. Make sure the elements work together, correct it on the picture if they don't. Is the light in your final picture consistent? Are all the figures being lit from the same direction? Is it the same kind of light, day or night, wide or narrow source?


Conclusion and Credits

Drawing should not be an overly-difficult process where you have to wrack your noggin wondering how things look and how to draw them. Copying and using references is the easiest and most direct way to learn, and books, magazines and the web offer more information and pictures than you'll ever need. Artists never had it so good with all these resources and references they can access. It's up to us to use them, and use them well.

Material about the tradition of copying was gotten from:
Mendelowitz, D. M. & Wakeham, D.A. (1993). A Guide to Drawing. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.

Chiaroscuro and more figure drawing can be read about at:
The Figure Drawing Lab

Book recommendations
   The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
The classic drawing-instruction book that teaches how to draw better from what you see.
[More info!]

   What People Wore : 1,800 Illustrations from Ancient Times to the Early Twentieth Century
One great guide to different costumes from various countries and through the ages.
[More info!]

In association with Amazon.com

FARP Article Guestbook

14 Mar 200245 Diane
Thank you for such a great article. I am an aspiring computer generated artist looking to translate all my inspirations into some kind of digital art work. I am not formally trained but have such a thirst for this subject. I was amazed at how much I have already implemented in these very early stages of this "hobby". I have just recently bought Poser 4 and I find it invaluable for drawing the human form. I don't like the way it renders and looks so plastic and would like to create work that is more traditional than 3d. Anyway, thanks for sharing.
2 Jun 200245 Anthony
Not a bad tutorial -- most of what you said should be common "artist sense". But I find a lot of people even my own age still trying to replicate what they see in comics or on the covers of fantasy books. Even those are very much second-hand to the real things, anatomy or accessory.
To conserver precious space in my home, I immediately slash out the pics of a magazine I'm done with, then scan them into my computer. I adjust the res in photoshop to make sure i'll still be able to see the contrast levels and textures. Recycle the hard copy (please recycle!). I back up my reference library onto CD once a month (depending), or as soon as I've scanned in a whole load of pics. For a buck, I can throw out or give away the older version, and file the most up-to-date copy.
So far, I have more than ten thousand pics stored away on one plastic disc.
PS: Here's a tip, if it's feasible: Buy one mag a month that contains really cool pics of something you may want to draw in the future (so, let's a say a gun mag, even though you hate guns in general). Scan in your new collection of, say weapons pics, throw the mag out, and for five bucks you've got fifty beautiful guns pics. Almost no effort at all.
18 Dec 200245 Michelle
Great article! Just so you know, Google offers a picture search too.
13 Feb 200345 Opie
Do I feel dumb or what. I never even considered the idea of collecting magazine pictures, ads and such. Great idea
17 Apr 200445 Anonymous
Very informative
16 Jun 200445 Jenny
I know I should be using references, but I can never find what I'm after. Thanks for the altavista link.
I have had some trouble reading the links though. Maybe you should change them to a darker colour?
19 Jul 200545 Anonymous
Can some please tell me where i can search for comic on this site!!!
9 May 2006:-) Hana Běťáková
To Poser: I think it's better than those wooden manequins (I have both) for one simple reason: wooden manequin has limited poses, at least that one I have. I cannot bend his arms and legs as well as upper part of his body as far as I would like to. But I don't doubt living model or photo must be much better.
19 Sep 200645 Silver_Weave
If you want some good sword references, you should pick up a Bud K catalog. This catalog has tons of swords in it.
25 Apr 200945 Anon.
It’s 2009!
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