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Making the Most of Your Reference: Costume Basics

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Last week, I found myself doing a bit of online shopping looking for props. A new client has me working in the cyberpunk genre and I quickly realized that I was missing a few key props that I’ll likely be using over and over for them. I think the quandary of “what kind of costumes and props do I need to buy?” intimidates a lot of fantasy and sci-fi illustrators face early in their career. We all know that a great looking prop can really amp up the reference for an illustration. But, no one can afford to go out there and buy every kind of tunic, cloak, polearm, axe, sword, and shield on the market – so how do you make do with what you’ve got?

It turns out that you don’t need the costume library of a full blown Shakespeare company. Instead, it is much more efficient to own a few key pieces that are general enough to be used on many different characters. I’m covering costume basics for fantasy as that’s a pretty large market. Individually tailored costumes are their own can of worms as they aren’t as versatile as generalized piece. So, in this first post of this miniseries, I will cover a few costume basics that you can use for any model in a variety of situations. Since there are a plethora of places to buy from such as Ebay, Amazon, and even your local flea market, I’ll leave out specific product links. Just follow these basics and you can pretty much make them work with any kind of costume.

#1: Period Shirts

T-shirts are thoroughly modern and you want to avoid them if possible. So a very basic item that you’ll use all the time is a period shirt.

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If you’ve ever seen the famous Seinfeld episode “The Puffy Shirt,” that’s pretty much exactly what this is. A shirt without a modern neckline is key and if it has ruffles on the sleeve ends, that’s a bonus – they instantly signal a shirt from another era. Get in an extra large size so that you can always cinch it down on smaller models and try to get it in white. White always works for everything and you can change the color of that shirt in your painting later anyway. Go for general over specific and you’ll have a shirt that you can use for hundreds of projects!

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Another example of a non-modern shirt in more of a peasant/viking cut.

#2: Bathrobes/Nightgowns

Early on, I never realized just how handy a bathrobe would be.

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Bathrobes are great because they are super versatile. They can be a wizard’s robe or a warrior’s cloak. Open them up and they become a cape.

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Notice how in this reference pic, I’ve used the robe as a kilt. Not just for bath time anymore!

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My model wore a simple nightgown for this shoot. The sleeves ended up looking really cool and it’s the main part of the gown that I kept in the painting.

#3: One Good Pair of Boots

I inherited these beautiful leather dirt bike boots from my dad a few years back.

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This is one item that I if I had to purchase, I would have spent a decent amount of money on them. I have used these boots so many times that they have made an appearance in probably at least a dozen paintings by now. Boots are everywhere in fantasy. Get one good pair and you’ll be set for your career.

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They work just as well on heroes as they do on villains. Everyone needs boots!

4: Kneepads, belts, gloves and accessories

A lot of modern fantasy characters are kind of crazy for belts.

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I found this old leather weight belt at a thrift store a few years back. It’s another item that I’ve used so many times that it’s more than paid back it’s $10 price tag. The cracked leather texture works wonderfully and it’s big enough so that it looks imposing on just about anyone.

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Notice how the hanging pendants and the chain belt in this reference image add so much to the overall costume. All these pieces can be found for dirt cheap at your local flea market! I have even heard of other illustrators using Ace bandages, which makes sense – they look just like tight, form fitting belts.

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Get creative and use ropes in conjunction with belts and pouches and you can really pull something unique and interesting together. This reference helped create one of my more successful paintings early on and it was mostly cobbled together from various accessories in the closet.

A key thing to remember: go general over specific when costume shopping. I own a few truly beautiful pieces that I spent a lot of money on, but I’ve only used them a couple of times. Often, the extra detail in a gorgeous costume makes it only applicable for very specific characters. So, the really fancy king’s tunic I own has only made it into one or two paintings, while the cheap puffy shirt has been the real workhorse, appearing in at least a dozen.

Buy large sizes. Many models will not fit a specifically tailored item. You can always use binder clips, clothespins and even duck tape to make a costume smaller, but you can never make it bigger.

Light colors are always easier to work with. A light colored outfit is always easier to make darker in your painting, whereas a dark outfit will leave out a lot of color and lighting information. Remember, you’re almost always going to deviate from the reference in order to serve your painting.

Alright, have fun out there and don’t forget to check those local flea markets! Next up: PROPS.