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Making the Most of Your Reference: Props

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Props are the spices in a reference shoot! A good set of versatile props add liveliness and excitement to a pose. Also, it is really great for a model to hold something roughly similar to the object they need for the illustration. I think every fantasy illustrator has given their friend a T-Square to hold in place of a sword – but why not just buy an inexpensive prop sword and give them the real thing? It’s going to make your job easier and the model will be able to imagine themselves in the situation you’re depicting, a win-win.

#1: Swords

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You really only need one straight sword and one curved sword. My plastic samurai sword isn’t even all that curved, but it does have the single cutting edge that is particular to those weapons. I’m constantly making these swords bigger and changing the hilt, redoing the handle, etc., but so far they’ve worked great as base models.

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Also, having a scabbard is a great accessory. I’m often having to outfit warrior type characters with belts and having a quick sword scabbard that I can throw on a big belt makes them instantly look the part.

#2: Guns

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When it comes to firearms, I’ve gotten away with an old BB-gun, an airsoft pistol and a crossbow that I built from wood, foam, cardboard and a clothes hanger. I know, it looks really flimsy in this photo, but it does the job! I need a pistol with a silencer for a recent job, so that’s why the airsoft pistol has that funny little bit of black PVC taped to the end. Looks odd, but it worked.

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In this case, I attached the clothes hanger to the BB gun and it also made for a very compelling crossbow. I forgot my boots for this reference shoot so I put on a pair of my mom’s Uggs. They actually worked out OK though 🙂

#3: Armor

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I think armor might be one of the trickiest reference challenges. Most artists can’t afford to pick up a full suit of steel plate. If a character is not a full blown knight, I often cobble together a lot of other pieces. The green helmet is a snowboarding helmet inspired by WW2 soldier helmets, and the hand and knee guards are skateboarding safety gear. If I throw a pair of knee pads onto a character, they start to look more soldierly without having to go into Lancelot territory.

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If you do need an Arthurian knight, then I highly recommend visiting some museums to gather reference photography. Anytime I think I’ll see some period armor, I bring along my point and shoot camera and I try to get a 360 degree turnaround of the armor, along with closeups of lobster gloves, helmets and other details. This in turn informs me when I need to paint that tricky knight in full plate mail.

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Also, there is the additional method of building the armor piece in 3D and using that as a reference. Since armor is typically a smooth, jointed metal object, it’s actually pretty easy to build using a program like Blender. I don’t do this very often as it takes more time, but it is another option.

#4: Hats

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I figured I’d end this miniseries with my favorite prop: the humble hat! Most of these were actually given to me by friends and relatives that know my wife and I have a costume collection. I don’t actually use a lot of hats for fantasy work, but they come in handy for other genres, especially Westerns.

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I’m a disgruntled soldier from the Revolutionary War. Couldn’t you tell?

Start with just a few pieces. In the beginning, you’ll probably use a lot of broomsticks and mops in place of swords and staffs. This is fine and I did it for years. I only buy a prop if I think it’s going to actually get used a lot, or if I see something truly interesting for cheap at a garage sale.

Genre tends to dictate what kind of props you’ll need. Fantasy doesn’t go in for a lot of hats, whereas you see them all the time in Westerns. Likewise, pistols and rifles are going to appear much more often in noir or science fiction than they will in fantasy.

When you need to, adapt! My earlier example of attaching a wooden clothes hanger to a BB gun to make a crossbow is something I do all the time. The reference is just a tool to get me to an end result. The prop when viewed on it’s own often looks so crude that it doesn’t seem like it’s worth much of anything… but if I can make a compelling image with it, then its done its job.