Cave painting-Hands

Things writers get wrong about artists

I mentioned in the Kavalier & Clay post that I have a mental list of things most writers get wrong about artists. I decided to go ahead and elaborate on that. The #1 thing on my pet-peeve list is: ARTISTS USE REFERENCE MATERIALS.

Yes, even good artists! Even professional artists!

I have absolutely lost track of the number of times I've run across scenes, on visual media like TV/movies especially, but also in books, of an artist drawing a spot-on, detail-perfect representation of something (portraits of people are a particularly common thing, but also an object, a scene drawn from memory, and so forth) straight out of their head.

This is not impossible. Some artists (though not a lot) are especially talented at drawing out of their heads and can actually come pretty close to what you see on TV. But it is a particular talent! And it's kind of a rare one!

Possibly the reason why non-artists think that all artist can do this is because most artists have a limited repertoire of objects and sometimes people which they've drawn a lot and can therefore draw reliably from memory. This is usually not real-life people -- like, most artists probably COULD NOT draw a photo-perfect sketch of their spouse from memory, unless their spouse is also their main model and they have drawn them frequently in the studio, and/or they are a particularly talented caricaturist. The kind of things artists might more commonly be able to draw accurately and quickly include things like characters (for comics artists), particular kinds of cars and planes for people who like drawing vehicles and have drawn them a lot, ditto for guns, etc. I can draw pretty good spruce trees, certain objects (especially ones my characters carry around on them, such as Fleetwood's bomber jacket), and most of my own characters without needing a reference. I have also drawn the human figure enough that I can draw a number of poses without needing visual reference (but I have to resort to it if I get into complicated foreshortening and so forth, and I think my figures almost invariably look more natural and 3D when I use a reference). Some people are really good at buildings, scenery, and perspective.

What you see on TV, though, is more like people drawing photo-realistic representations of their first boyfriend, street they grew upon, particular model of car they only saw once, etc. Like I said, that IS a thing some artists can do, but most can't.

Instead, most artists are going to have photos taped around their drawing surface of whatever they're working on (or, in a modern context, on their phone/computer). That is how the process WORKS. The particular scene that made me think about this in the book was one bit where Kavalier (the more talented artist of the two main characters) starts to draw a particular kind of war plane on his drawing board, sans reference. Okay, I can handwave it as: he's drawn it a lot, so he doesn't need to open a book and look up details. And Kavalier actually is the kind of person who would spend a ton of extra time drawing a particular thing over and over in order to get good at it (which is just about the only way you can end up being able to do this, unless you have a rare talent for visual eidetic memory, which some artists actually do). But in general, what you'd see in real life is Kavalier, or his RL comic-artist equivalent, drawing the plane from a photo taped to his drawing board.

Similarly, there's a bit in the book that mentions Sam Clay, the other character, is a lousy artist when he can't refer to his swipe file (collection of cut-out pictures he uses for reference material; the book doesn't call it that, but that's what it was called by the comics-industry people I knew). This is accurate up to a point -- some people are very heavily reliant on visual references and can't easily do the little alterations to make the drawing their own. However, what the book leaves out is that MOST people use a swipe file. The book gives the impression that Sam's portfolio of clippings is a crutch, rather than a tool that almost everybody, in the pre-computer era of the book, would have kept on hand.

(This should not be taken as a condemnation of the book, because I think it's something that's so common in pop culture it's one of those things people literally don't think about unless they actually ARE professional artists. If all you ever see on TV is people drawing things out of their heads, then of course you would think that's how artists do things! And it's exacerbated by the fact that SOME artists can draw MOST things out of their heads, and MOST artists can draw SOME things. But in general, artists use reference.)

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My mom is a painter, and she always uses photos that she blows up then grids out to transfer the image to the canvas. Everything is from reference.

I was just in Florence, and looking at Michaelangelo's statues, my dad (who is a doctor) pointed out that on one statue, the femur was perfectly straight, but on the other, it was slightly curved. That is the kind of detail you only get when using a model, and having an eye for detail far beyond what most people ever see.
Yep! And a lot of Renaissance-era self-portraits are notorious for having malformed left hands, because the artists were painting themselves from a mirror image and that was the hand holding the brush (left because it's mirror-reversed). There's also some famous painting (I forget which one) that shows distinctive distortion from being enlarged on a grid using a camera obscura (shadow-box) about a century before they realized the technique had been used. Basically, it's cheating all the way down. :D
Thank you. I hadn't really thought about this before, but I think I have assumed people could draw from memory - even though I've heard enough artists on TV documentaries say they use photos etc!! *facepalm* It's so endemic, that as a non-artist, I've never realised how inaccurate it is!
Well, we just see it SO often on TV and whatnot, being done that way. And it is actually true that some artists can do it -- I know a guy who can! It's really impressive! But it is a rare talent among artists, like being able to do highly advanced math in your head. Most people can't.
Fascinating! I did have the impression that Sam's portfolio was "a crutch," as you say, but I didn't think about it consciously until you mentioned it.
Yeah; in fairness, it is a good point of characterization in the book that Joe is a better artist than Sam, but in all realism Joe should be using a portfolio and reference file of his own -- we just never see him do it, and the book gives the general impression that he's drawing it all out of his head. A few artists can actually do that (I know a guy who can, provided he's seen the subject enough to be familiar with it) but it's a rare talent.
Yes to this. (Also, my other pet peeve is that you can't 'enhance' security footage or grainy photos to get a crystal clear, recognizable face. Stop doing that, TV shows I love.)
hahaha! Orion and I have a running joke about erasing out a telephone pole to read the license plate behind it. :D Because that is only a slight exaggeration of the kind of thing they actually do on TV!
What's sad is that a lot of artists think the same; that if you want to be a good enough artist, you need to be able to work straight from your head. I know I used to think this way. I don't anymore, but I used to have a crazy amount of jealousy for people who would whip up a picture seemingly straight from their mind. It had never occurred to me at the time that they had probably drawn the image or images like it a hundred times.
Yeah, that's true - about artists buying into the myth, too. I have a few things I can draw without reference, but only because of lots and lots and lots of practice (from reference!). I guess it doesn't help that most artists are fairly solitary people, so most of us are largely self-taught -- I did go to art school, but even so, my personal procedures are almost entirely self-taught -- and don't have a reality check for how much of what we do is "normal".
Thank you for this. Between the popular misconceptions and the angry online callouts that only further confuse the issue of using references as completely valid and normal vs "stealing/cheating"... I know my own development artistically has been drastically hampered over the years.

Because when I was young, I did use references, a lot. Then, hearing all that as I got older, I became convinced that it was cheating, not real art, probably somehow unethical, and it got to the point where I was scared to use references for anything that I'd hope to show around. I thought the only references that were maybe-sort-of-allowable were photographs you had taken yourself, and since I didn't have personal access to a lot of the things I wanted to draw...

Anyhow. I've been trying to get used to using references more lately. I've always known that my skills developed so much faster when I did - I was just scared of being accused of cheating.
*nods* There are several people on both the LJ and DW sides saying the same thing! And, yeah, everybody uses reference, and everybody learns better when drawing from reference, and it's very damaging that it's such a widespread belief that one shouldn't. >_> I'm glad this was helpful.
Heh, I haven't run across this particular thing much lately because oddly whenever I read fanfics about someone being an artist it seems like the author actually has some background in this stuff. It's kind of odd that this is one of those subjects in which fanfic authors are more likely to get it right than professional authors/TV. I think it comes from the fact that a lot of artists also dabble in fanfic... do you think that's true?

I'd love to read the rest of the list of things that people get wrong about artists!
haha ... it is true about fanfic, isn't it? There are some things that fanfic is often terrible about (medical stuff, for example) but there are other things that I have a lot more confidence in fanfic to pull off than in original fiction -- mental health issues are an example of that. Or anything that the fic writer is an expert in, I guess!

I enjoy writing Neal Caffrey and other artist characters because I get to put in detailed art stuff. :D
As someone who does not consider herself an artist but who on occasion tries making art and whose confidence is veeeeery undermined by professional artists being amazing seemingly by instinct, THANK YOU for this post :-)