Point of Reference

There is an on going discussion in the comics industry about the ethical use of reference material. Too often (once is too often) it is possible to find blatant examples of art that is boldly swiped directly from the pages of another creator’s work. I have seen entire pages lifted with only the costumes and word balloons changed!  Other artists lean heavily on reference photos and trace directly from them.

Maybe the practice of swiping is more rampant in comics than in other mediums simply because the volume of work on stringent deadlines encourages the need for shortcuts. You would think that this was more true back in the days when guys like Jack Kirby were cranking out six issues a month but it seems like those artists from previous generations drew so much and so fast they didn’t have time to copy, it was easier for them to have the work just spill from their mind right onto the page.

The argument that time is money has always been the biggest motivator for comic artists to “borrow” images. The legendary Wally Wood is reported to have had a motto framed on his studio wall that read, “Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut and paste up.”


22 Panels That Always Work is the registered, copyrighted property of Wallace Wood Properties LLC -- All Rights Reserved. You can order the print from http://www.vanguardproductions.net/Woodprint2

In bygone days illustrators kept a file referred to as a morgue where they collected every image they could find of every subject they could imagine possibly ever needing. Clippings from magazines were categorized and systematically stored for future reference.

Tracing required transferring the image from tracing paper onto the bristol board using a light box or an even more archaic technique of rubbing lead on the back of the tracing paper and transferring the lead onto the board by redrawing over the traced image. Some artists used opaque projectors to project an image to trace directly onto the board and others would grid the image and the board to insure that their proportions were correct. It’s no wonder that artists found it easier to learn to draw well, so they could simply look at an image for reference and render a form as they wanted to.

Artwork by Daniel Scott Gabriel Murray rendered in POSER, Click for More

Today if you are looking for a reference image all you have to do is search for it on the internet. You can build files of poses from images that you like and keep them just a click away. These images can be pulled into a photo editing program like Photoshop and scaled to size, modified and drug right into a comic page that is being digitally created or printed out and lightboxed onto bristol board easily since there is no image on the reverse side like on those old magazine clippings.  Even magazine clippings can be scanned and copied in this simple manner. Reference programs like Poser exist to let artists create their own specific three dimensional reference pose.

Tracing or copying is easier than ever before but now the world is watching. As easy as it is to copy it is just as simple for the audience to search for images to compare and they will. These swiper Sherlocks are more than happy to share their findings all over the internet.

Many artists take their own photos for reference which is also much easier to do in this digital age when a photo can be instantly uploaded rather than waiting to be developed at the Fotomat. Still, direct tracing fro a photo has its limitations.  Though a photo is a wonderful source for accuracy, an illustration usually requires some sort of subtle exaggeration to bring the image to life, a tweak that only a talented illustrator can provide. These embellishments usually become trademarks of the illustrator’s style and become distinctive in their work.

Famed Marvel Comics creator Bob McLeod often posts wonderful works of great classic illustrators on Facebook. He recently posted comparisons of Norman Rockwell’s reference photos to a final piece and pointed out how this master illustrator made select adjustments to make the work come alive. The post was a wonderful example of how to use reference material but immediately broke into a discussion about reference ethics.


I am a big fan of maximizing the use of your resources but as an illustrator you have an ethical responsibility not to plagiarize the work of others wether it be a photograph, painting or drawing. It is fine to be influenced and inspired. Refer to the work of others for education and use of technique. Look closely at details so you can accurately depict the form of the subject you are rendering. Regardless of what you are creating, be original and you will gain the respect of your peers and the admiration of your fans.

Celebrating Thirty Years of Comics History!

Gerry Giovinco


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2 Responses to “Point of Reference”

  1. Joe Williams says:

    Excellent article. I remember teachers in art school saying that you’re only as good as your reference is obscure.

  2. Paul Zdepski says:

    I still have a filing cabinet bursting with reference photos, with Copier Paper boxes full of images to be included, if I had room. The advent of google and digital photography has made many of my file drawer images obsolete, but many had been chosen long ago due to their unique nature, and are just as obscure today as back then. I still drag my camera along everywhere I go, since my iPhone doesn’t have enough MegaPixels, which becomes the source material for my new DIGITAL morgue housed on a separate Terabyte drive. II still own a DB400: http://kalispell.americanlisted.com/art-antiques/artograph-db400-table-top-opaque-art-projector-350-kalispell_17382967.html

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