Tools for Creating 3 Dimensional Reference

I was recently chatting with some other realist artists about how they find their reference for their work. It occurred to me that everyone has a different method- some people use themselves for literally every human being in their work, and others hire models specifically for every individual character. Reference is an incredibly personal sort of tool – everyone has their methodology and it’s unique to how they create their own illusion of reality. I find this sort of thing fascinating.

A couple of years ago, I discovered a little tool built by Google called Sketchup. It’s a free 3D drafting program and it’s an incredible tool for creating 3 dimensional reference. It’s much faster than drawing old fashioned perspective that takes hours of layout with a ruler and vanishing points the old fashioned way. Also, it’s great for getting specific views of popular vehicles and machines. Granted, it has a bit of a learning curve, but as far as these sorts of programs go its fairly intuitive.

For this painting, I needed a tank climbing the hill behind the main alien soldier character. Although it’s set in a science fiction world, I wanted to vehicle to communicate itself as a typical “tank” in the most obvious way- turret, treads, etc. So, I went to Google Sketchup and searched a typical modern tank, the M1-A1 Abrams in their 3D Warehouse. Hundreds of results came up, and I had my pick of the litter for a 3 dimensional tank model. Part of what is so cool about this tool is that the tank can be posed in any position, and I was even able to adjust the turret so that it was pointing in an angle away from the main direction of the body.

I changed the turret to include a sort of robotic periscope on top and gave it a few laser weapons as well. Obviously, SketchUp isn’t much good for lighting, so I also looked up a lot of photographic reference to give the vehicle some weight and to make it appear lit from behind. To avoid copyright problems, I always augment the images I pull off the web with others so that any one particular reference is not obvious.

I used a similar method for “Supernatural Disaster 2” in which several fighter jets were called for circling this great Chtulu-esque monster rising out of the depths. The F-16 Tomcat is one of my favorite fighter jets – I was taken with them at an early age from watching Top Gun way too much, so I decided to make an homage to that classic 80’s flick with this piece.

For the monster, I built a maquette out of Super Sculpey and posed in him in the proper lighting. This is always one of my absolutely favorite things to do! In Photoshop, I dropped in the plane models circling him. Since SketchUp allowed me to tilt the planes at any angle I wished, I posed them just so to appear as thought they are buzzing around the monster like pesky mosquitos- no match for this Elder One!

This method of mashing different reference together can take some getting used to- one of the toughest things is matching the lighting of all the separate elements in the scene. It certainly has saved me a lot of time and effort however. Can you imagine how hard it would be to find an F-16 laying around to photograph?

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