Burn the Past: Compositing Found Reference with 3D Modeling

The above snapshot is a closeup of my latest painting, “Burn the Past.” It’s really close. I am just sleeping on it at the moment so I can approach it with fresh eyes before I call it finished. One thing that I discovered while making this painting was the world of possibilities that open up by compositing found references with 3D modeling.

Reference can be a really big logjam when first first approaching a fantasy painting. After all, the bread and butter of fantasy are epic creatures, characters and locations that are bigger than life. How do we get the reference we need to paint this crazy stuff in a compelling way?

I’ll freely admit that I’ve never been great at making up detail. Some artists I know are brilliant at sketching straight out of their mind’s eye, but it’s just never been my strong suit. With the painting, “Burn the Past,” I knew that I really wanted a burning ship in the background – but where the hell was I going to find that piece of reference?

Burning of the Philadelphia – Edward Moran, 1897

First things first, I did some searching and came up with a number of great burning ships from art history. These gave me a good place to start. I next started to search for existing 3D models of ships, and found one that was royalty free. With some quick lighting in Blender, I was able to create this piece of reference:

By lighting the ship from the inside, it looks like there is a very bright light source that is illuminating it from within – just the same way a raging fire would.

There’s another piece of reference magic in the snippet of painting above – the bracer on the arm that is holding the flaming arrow!

I don’t own any leather arm bracers and neither did the model that helped me with the reference shoot for “Burn the Past”. I thought about it and realized I could use the same reference technique that I used for the burning ship.

Pinterest is an absolute goldmine for finding great costume references. I’ve come to rely upon it heavily when designing a character concept. Because Pinterest accepts both image URL’s and uploads, I can use it as an online library, saving loads of space on my hard drive. I remember that I used to save thousands of reference photos on my hard drive in the early days – gah, I’m glad that’s behind me. And, the suggestion feature is an awesome way to find fresh inspiration!

Next, I built a very simple 3D model of a bracer in Blender. It’s very crude, but it got the job done! I really wanted an effect of subtle rim lighting from the back and soft fill lighting in the front and by carefully adjusting light sources in Blender, it was totally doable.

There’s a common misconception with reference that says that using it is tantamount to copying or tracing. I prefer to think of the reference process as one of “compositing” rather than “copying”. This word is not only more accurate, it’s also more fair. You can see here that the reference is changed heavily, but the background structure of it is still there. The key is to use the reference as a tool without becoming a slave to it. It’s a tricky process and one I am still getting the hang of, but found reference and 3D modeling are fantastic tools for getting to the final destination a bit easier 🙂