Updated: Oct 20, 2020
There are a few things I have learned over this past year on my artistic journey that have been the corner stone of my growth. I cannot say enough about using photo references, or any reference for that matter, and how critical they are in creating realism in my coloring. The other day I was looking at my work from a year ago. It is something I like to do from time-to-time just to gage my progress and see how far I have come on my artistic path. What I noticed the other day is that my work from a year ago looked really flat or cartoonish. I remember being proud of these projects, but now looking at them I see there are major issues I cannot believe I didn't see before. On all of my projects, I typically take pictures throughout the drawing and coloring process (for various reasons) and I keep a copy of the photo reference. When I was looking back at the process shots and the photo reference now versus a year ago - I realized something—I see the reference photos completely different now. Somehow over this past year I have developed my observational skills to see more of what I am looking at.
I am sure you have heard this before, but it is true, there is a difference from seeing something and observing something. We all have seen a female's eye (for example), but have we actually observed a female's eye. I mean if you are coloring a face you could color an eye with no issues because you have seen a million of them and it would not be difficult to create a pretty eye. Right? Well, I thought I did too until I starting observing eyes. Okay, let me explain a bit of what I mean by “observing” because it is more than just looking at an object, it is actually includes thinking about it too. We do a lot of things without really thinking about them because we have done them a million times. Like brushing our teeth, we have done it daily for so long that and we just don’t think about it when we are doing it anymore. We look at eyes all the time but we just don’t think about them. When I look at the reference photo I see a lot more about eyes now that I did not see before. I mean, I know the basic stuff that needs to be there like the iris, the pupil, a tear duct, and an upper and lower lid. Those elements alone would create an eye that anyone would believe is an eye, and if I add a pretty eye color, wallah a beautiful eye is born. Here is the thing I see now - to create the realism I am craving for I need to add a ton of stuff that I now see in the reference photo but didn't actually see a year ago in the same photo. I was missing the reflection highlight, the shade created by the upper eye lid, the soft highlights glistening on the lower lid and the tear duct. All of those things turn basic eye coloring into a wow moment. There is no special magic or amazing talent that creates the amazing eye that looks so real. When I look at my old work and see now why those eyes looked flat and cartoonish, they were all missing these elements that were sitting there right in front of me the whole time. I was seeing the reference photo but I was not observing the reference photo.
Observing is a skill we have to develop, because over time we have seen things so many times that our brains do not need to keep a lot of details to recognize what it is when we remember it or look at it again. I should say most of us don’t keep lots of details in our memory banks. There are some incredible people who have a knack for remembering every single detail of everything they have seen or heard everyday of their lives so I am really talking to those of us who gloss over the details. So how do we build this skill? Remember when you were a kid and you saw something for the first time, like that new toy you spent hours with. You looked at it really close and tried to understand how it worked. I wanted to know how to get that back again, to really observe. Of course, digging around on the internet, reading several articles I found they all basically said the same things. To truly observe requires purposeful thinking while looking at something. Basically watching things with an active mind and being inquisitive about it. Like a child, who says, "Ohh what is that?" Taking time to look at an eye and notice there is a highlight on the skin just below the eyebrow and asking yourself "Ohh what is that?" Start to look at things not how you believe it should look like but what shapes and colors do you see.
I remember Amy Shulke, of Vanilla Arts Co, at the beginning of every project, talking about the photo reference she used and pointing out different things about the reference photos. She points out specific details that she sees from texture on the stem of the flower to a color change from inside the flower petal to the tips of the petal. I will be honest here, when she talked about those things I didn't really get it - I honestly thought she was just giving us answers to the test by saying something like “if you add texture to the stem and glaze this color on the petals you will make this flower look realistic”. So I thought that was what I needed to do with all flowers, put some texture on the stem and add another color to the petals. That was NOT what she meant for us to know. What she was trying to get through my head is how critical it is to really take time to observe your reference. Each reference is going to be different. Also, in each photo reference I will see something different than you will see. That is not only okay, it is normal because we will probably experience the photo reference a differently but the bottom line is that the power of really looking with an active mind will pull out hints of realism that will take your coloring to the wow moments you are dreaming of. The answers to the realism test is right there in your photo reference, pull out the details you want to illustrate in your project and like magic your coloring will change right before your eyes.
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