References - The Cornerstone for a Great Visual Outcome.
4 min read

References - The Cornerstone for a Great Visual Outcome.

They are everywhere. Literally a click away from you, but how do you know if what you have in front of you is a useful resource?
References - The Cornerstone for a Great Visual Outcome.
Photo by Rene Asmussen from Pexels

Ever since I started working in the games industry, I was posed with a challenge. I wasn’t used to working with anything that wasn’t my imagination to create something.

After a while, I realized that my quality was raised by quite a bit every time a client provided a set of references to work from. I had very good artistic skills, but since I wasn’t used to recreating something, I was inventing stuff, and my portfolio was composed of pieces that didn’t make much sense.

So today, I wanted to write about how such a straightforward concept like references helped me take my art to a level I wasn’t used to. Why? It’s simple.

Every time we work using our imagination as a starting point, we occupy a big part of our brain with ideas and not actually spending that energy to make something look great.

Too many references are as bad as none, we'll understand why in this article as well.

So let’s start from the beginning, as always. What are references?

I call a reference an image or set of images that help me understand the shapes, sizes, materials, colors, lighting, and other visual elements that compose my props, scenes, or characters.

Images like these can be called references, and each explains a different thing.

A collage of different types of references.

On the left, a lighting reference for a character. The top right shows a close-up photography that can be useful for a texture. On the bottom right, a composition example for a knife.

Do you know why these references will work extremely well? Because they are isolated. If  I chose one, not more, I’ll get an exact idea of what I’m going to do.

Of course, many examples could justify choosing many different references, like different images of various angles for a prop.

Still, the more references you have, the more you need to filter information out. One reference gives you an exact idea of what you want to do and how it will look if you adhere to it.

This is a piece of information that an Art Director of mine gave me. But first, some context to it.

I once was lost. My environment looked weird, with too many crazy shapes that I loved but didn’t work well together. I then called my art director and explained the situation.

He asked for my references, and I showed him like ten different ones.

Of course it’s looking weird. You are mashing together many different concepts that work well individually but don’t make sense when put together. Use a maximum of two references. One for shapes and another one for materials if you want. More than that will confuse your brain!

It worked like magic. I stuck to one reference for the whole process, and my environment came out as attractive as the reference was. I learned a huge lesson that day.

An Example of an Overcrowded Board

Since that day, I tend to organize my references as follows:

For props:
  • One compositional shot of the asset I’m doing, like the knife image.
  • A shot of the asset showing the state that I want it to be (dirty, clean, etc.)
  • If available, close-up or detail shots derived from the main shot. These can easily be found on any auction house websites, for example.
  • Detail shots of any material composing the asset.
  • A couple of lighting scenarios for each prop maximum.
For Environments:
  • One main reference containing the concept of the environment. If the client does not provide this, I’ll use an image approved by them.
  • One sub-board for each prop, organized as the above list suggested organizing props ref boards.
  • One reference per material and material state. Suppose a material requires a clean and destroyed version, then one reference for each of the states.
  • A couple of lighting scenarios, previously approved by the client.

As you can see, I tend to be pretty straightforward when it comes to references, as I understand the more of them, the more decisions I’ll have to make, which leads me to the following:

Every time you start a new project, you will want to start by gathering references, a process that requires you to get many different images that represent your ideas and then filter them to reduce the number of choices you have to make when it comes to making your art.

A good reference board should never be distractive. As you can see from this article, simplicity is key.

As an extra for this article, here are some websites I use to find my references:

  • Auction houses for historical items or old collector props.
  • Historical/Museum websites.
  • Product websites for things like kitchen appliances, furniture, etc.
  • Collector Blogs. These compose a vast majority of the sites that have really high-quality content, plus they won’t use replicas in their images in most cases.
  • Architectural books. Amazing resources for all architecture-related searches you might want to do.
  • Urbex blogs. These usually contain pictures of abandoned places. Great for decay and ruined places.

What do you think friends? Was this helpful to you? At the end of the day, I’m a minimalist, and the lesser amount of distractions will ensure a more focused working time.

Thank you for reading, and have a great day!