References Can Be A Comic Artist’s Best Friend


Well art tools help too, they’re good best friends as well.

So you’ve been doing your comic for quite awhile and you feel quite confident in your art skills. Does that mean you should resist looking at references and focus only on drawing from memory? It really is a topic of personal preference. Maybe you consider memory drawing a way to ensure your work resembles your style. That’s what we’re discussing in this weeks Friday Artist Talk!

So is it a good idea to use references? Will other artists look at you weird? Odds are, you probably won’t have any problem and no one will judge you. There are those among us who have the incredible ability to bring anything to life, but if you don’t have a photographic memory, photos themselves are recommended. I recall working alongside one comic artist who needed a vending machine. Naturally, he couldn’t find the ones he wanted online. Next thing I know we’re out driving around town, old tiny resolution digital camera with us, looking for one of these machines.

It may have taken a couple hours to find and get back home, but it’s easier to have something to look at. Sure, many of you may be considering the fact that a vending machine in general a basic looking object. A few buttons with names on them, or a key pad to select from a list. So why go out of the way? I’m sure many of us have been there before when you just draw a blank on the important details of an object. For me recently it was a cash register. Sure, from the back it’s simple, but having never worked an actual register before I had no clue what the keys looked like. At stores I may have glanced at the buttons as my order was rung in, but I certainly didn’t study them with artistic yearning to be able to recreate the object in detail later.

This is why the digital age we live in these days is so wonderful. It’s easy to search for images online of various items. But why? What is the big deal about having an accurate item in the background? Details like this help to sell your scene and draw your readers into the world you’ve created. It’s best to look at things and see what makes them what they are. Then take those important features and work them into your style so the object fits with your world without over detailing it. Giving more life to your scenes can be a fun task. It’s enjoyable when basic everyday objects like even a lamp post and a bus stop bench really help place your characters. Sure, all of this sounds basic but when you’re on a deadline, it can be easy to look for easy ways out of these details.

I’m not saying that it’s always the best idea in the world to drive around for two hours looking for a vending machine. Actually we were just unfortunate and the specific kind we were looking for was just nowhere in sight. Otherwise it’s great to go out especially on a summers day and look for references. One of my friend has always been lucky in doing that. It seems as if he was taking photos after the apocalypse when he shows me his images. Somehow he always takes photos right when there is no one in the frame. No people, no cars, it’s like some superhero power he’s got. Obviously you’ll want to follow local laws in your area too. You sometimes can’t just go anywhere snapping pictures of course.

So enjoy yourself! Stack up those references and consider what you may like to add into your scene. Don’t be ashamed of looking at pose references. You’re not expected to know how to draw everything just from memory. Look around and research what you’re working on sometimes. After all, I’m sure many of us have seen those videos of Disney artists at the zoo studying animals for Lion King references. You may be surprised what different things you notice that will bring even more life to your work. Even a trip to an old library that is selling off some books can be a wonderful outing. If you see images that inspire you, pick them up! Naturally you don’t want to be plagiarising someone else’s art by drawing exactly what you see, but inspiration is a great thing.

I should note that life drawing is also a wonderful thing to get into as well. Even if it’s just drawing models from a catalogue, doing daily exercises that keep you exploring the human form can certainly help out your artwork which is another way references can play into your useful tools. Life drawing, still life, any of it. These sorts of things help to build your mental catalogue of how things look. That’s why research like this is a great thing. It’s a learning process.

What sorts of things have you referenced before? We want to hear your stories! Comment below by logging on on the front page of TWC and coming back here.


  1. DemonDan March 7, 2014 8:44 pm 

    I have no personal stories (not being the artist for my comic) but do know that my artists often look for reference images. When one of them has to draw something a lot (like a battle suit or something), he’ll actually put the effort into making a 3D model of it to use as a reference forever after.

    Another artist working with us on an upcoming chapter took a week or two of a break in between pages he was working on to find some books and resources of body language and body position/movement to prepare for a difficult scene. And it’s totally worth it.

    So I, as a writer and as a reader of comics, have 0 problems with artists referencing and using real-life things, photos, whatever, to help them with their craft. Power to them. In my mind, it’s like how a good writer should talk to people and hear other real peoples’ thoughts and stories to get better at his/her craft.

  2. JFD March 7, 2014 9:18 pm 

    I should probably look at references more than I usually am :) I will look at drawing tutorials when I’m not sure how to draw something.

    Of course, my comic being fantasy, photographs are a bit harder to find, but pictures from RPG books, games, movie or even other people’s art are useful.

    I don’t feel any shame or ego hit when I have to look for references to draw something. I’m very much aware that my drawing skills aren’t perfect :D

    Two of the things I have researched the most on how to draw are *cough* breasts, female lips and the female body in general. I feel like Thany looks much better in my comic now than in my early pages as a result so it paid off.

  3. Coyote March 8, 2014 9:50 am 

    I use online photo references constantly, not just machinery but how people use the machinery– hand placement, etc. The first two panels in the recent comic “Rollover!” were heavily aided by on-line visual references from Google Images:

    Also, since I’m doing a story about the Iraq War, I have found that building a scale model hobby kit of vehicles featured in the story helps a lot. I can hold it exactly the angle I want, and compare all the intricate details with the pictures to customize a look for the strip. Models are expensive, and time consuming to build at first, so I only use them when I know they will be a useful reference for multiple cartoons.

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