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Becoming a Better Artist #1007: Get Out and Get Muddy

How do you go about gathering reference to push your creative skills?

I was recently on the phone to someone and we were discussing the process of capturing reference.

This artist mentioned using online resources and using AI to generate reference and moodboards, and would say that:

…this is how everyone does it.

And I kept coming back with the following:

I’ve not used AI for reference or moodboards. I just keep it simple and go outside to capture reference, where possible. Or go to a museum, or grab a book. And if need be, I’ll find a few bits online.

We went back and forth a little with him telling me:

You can just use AI.

…and me responding back:

But that is boring and I’d rather go outside. I’d rather experience something and then use that as the reference.

Now I’ve got no quarrels with how people capture their reference (as long as it is ethical and credited). If you want to use online search engines, AI, or anything else, then be my guest. Sometimes, using online resources is the only option due to time, resources, location and a multitude of other issues.

But…the main reason I like to step outside and capture my own reference is primarily for the “experience” (and again, this is just my personal preference).

I want to experience the squelch from the mud as I walk through the woods, allowing me to get a better idea of how a character would move through the environment. I want to experience the warmth of the water (or the freezing water if you are in the UK) to understand how the body responds in such a medium.

I enjoy waking up in the middle of the night at the sound of thunder, so I can step outside to watch the lighting, and try to capture the result in slow motion, so I can better analyse the phenomenon later on. I enjoy watching the sun come up and go down and how the world responds to the changing light.

I enjoy watching how people behave and how my dog will run around like a loon and then charge into me.

I enjoy watching cats sneak about and observing horses communicate with each other.

I enjoy pausing to experience the stillness of the fox on a cold evening. I like the connection between me and the fox as we stare eye-to-eye – even if all the fox thinks is:

Why is this git staring at me?

I enjoy shooting with different cameras and lenses to see how a shot can be framed, and I like to play with depth of field to push things in and out of focus. I enjoy doodling with a pencil to try and capture the essence of a pose or a moment. Even though my sketches are awful, they are enough to jog my memory about the event.

The aim here is to capture an experience that can then be used for the purposes of pushing an idea.

For example, let’s step back and discuss the woods and the mud.

Recently, I was gathering some reference in the woods, from which I then plan to create a storyboard for our upcoming course, VFX Production. The main aim going into the shoot was to focus on framing and to get a sense of a character moving through the space. Plus, I wanted to play with movement and motion blur.

As soon as I stepped into the woods, I found my foot was stuck deep into a muddy patch. Nice. And then as I continued to work through the woods, this was a repeating trend. So, this got me thinking that it would be good to re-work the script to include this detail. Rather than a character running through the woods quickly and easily, instead they should be slowed down by the occasional muddy puddle.

This might all sound very simple and obvious. But sometimes, it’s the small and natural details that are missed as our attention can be absorbed by adding all the bells and whistles.

So, in a nutshell, what I’m trying to say (and again, this is my personal thoughts), and this bit is important:

I enjoy going out and capturing reference and experiencing the real-world and then feeding that into the projects I’m involved in. I do this for both a learning experience and to help strengthen the ideas of the project.

A downside of all of this will always be the amount of time it takes to capture this first-hand reference. Hence why I’ve had a few projects in the works for some years now. But I’d rather work with real-world experience behind me and my own thoughts, ideas and understanding of a subject matter, as opposed to relying on the interpretation of others, or their apps generation of such interpretations.

So, if you enjoy a good “prompt” and it keeps you happy, then good for you. But if you don’t mind, I’m going to continue stepping outside and experiencing the world first-hand while I can.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Picasso (and my thoughts on it) as this seems to be doing the rounds at the moment:

Good artists copy; great artists steal.

It seems like many people are taking this (and other comments like this) as an “okay” to take the work of others and profit from it. On most days, I don’t actually consider myself an “artist”. I’m just happy that I’m somehow able to survive by taking photographs, writing words and rendering pictures in some shape or form. And if that only results in me being a “good artist”, then I’m happy with that. I’d rather that than steal.

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Comments 1
  1. Amado García on 2024.05.24 at 13:12 GMT

    I seize the moment when I get my dog out or take a walk with my family for experience the world, and capture some of it. But I also like to read, specially horror stories or scary ones, (as I am mainly focused on creature creation) to let my mind fly and draw a basic concept of a monster that could freak me out based on my readings, and the feelings that the words bring to me.

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