Reference and Costuming: Powder Street Market

Whenever I show people my painting reference, I tend to see the same reaction again and again – their eyes widen and they say “oh… I see!” Seeing an artist’s reference can often seem like the key to unlocking how they painted a picture. And while it is an incredibly important component, reference can never provide 100% of the answers for a painting. Actually, it’s important that the painting move above and beyond the reference to be successful. As I once heard the illustrator Dan Dos Santos say, the job of the artist is not to depict reality, but to “enhance reality”. That being said, here’s part of the puzzle for how I painted Powder Street Market.

(click to enlarge)

Reference Comp

After I shoot the model (who for this picture happen to be myself and my wife Laima) I layer the reference together in Photoshop. Working digitally allows me to resize the reference as needed and shuffle it around until it fits my basic composition. My wife, Laima provided the character inspiration for Arkeria. Laima is one of the most patient, accommodating models I know – she’s appeared in many paintings and will continue to show up as she’s turned out to be perfect for this role of Arkeria 🙂 Thanks Laima!

One thing that can be really tricky is keeping the lighting consistent when working in this way. It’s very easy to get spotty, unrealistic lighting when you shoot characters separately and compose them later. One trick I’ve learned is to place an X made of masking tape on the floor during the reference shoot. If the X is the focal point (Arkeria’s position), then anyone else you shoot should be in a different spot relative to the X and you can see more easily how your light source affects them relatively.

Another tip: if a character is holding something (in this case, a barrel for the porter and a crystal for the merchant), give them something of roughly equal size and weight to hold during the reference shoot. A classic example is that a character needs a sword, but since you don’t own a sword so you give them a broom handle to hold instead. The gestures people make when they actually hold an object versus pretending to hold something that isn’t there are completely different!

Costume Inspiration

When costuming characters, I try to get a “rough cut” of the costume in the reference shoot itself. It’s a rarity for me to have an exact costume on hand that matches my character completely (though I have been steadily expanding my collection in recent years). I knew I wanted Arkeria to have a corset on, but I wanted a sort of practical corset, something that she could move easily in. She’s a mid level sorceress at this point in her career, so I wanted her gear and attire to reflect that. Pinterest is a great website for finding general inspiration for these sorts of details. It’s important to note I never copy any one else’s image outright. I pick and choose bits of details from many different sources, sometimes as many as 10-12 different images and I blend them to create something wholly new.

You can see here that I’ve added a lot of inspiration from my sources to the original reference to create a new costume. The light and shadow information from my reference is really important, as it allows me to figure out how details are affected when I change them in the final drawing. With some practice at this, you can really get the best of both worlds: the realism that is afforded by the reference and the intriguing storytelling motifs that an interesting costume design can provide.


Here’s the last bit of the puzzle for Powder Street Market: facial expressions. I can’t really stress enough how important facial expressions are. One reason why Laima is such a great model is that she can make these evocative expressions that just telegraph her emotions across a room. I knew I wanted her to be in mid sentence for this shot, haggling with the merchant, so I asked her to start talking as though she was in the scene. After a dozen or so photos, I managed to capture her face in just the right instant, and there you have it!

Communicating what story you’re trying to tell to the model makes a huge difference. If you give them something to work with, chances are they will produce much better results and the story will feel that much more alive!