The Art of Stealing from Photographs

Book cover diptych


I got this cover-design gig from Dark Maze Studios, an independent production company, by sending a random query. I emailed the producer because it seemed like the type of company my work might be appropriate for. That’s what I do, I just cold call. I’ve now been working for him for three years doing random illustration jobs. I’ve done DVD covers for him and movie posters. “Dracula vs Ninjas” is the latest piece I’ve done and I relied heavily on photo reference to create the piece.

When I was growing up, I was convinced that using a photo reference for a drawing was cheating. I thought it was just copying. I assumed since the camera didn’t exist during the 1400s, all the great Renaissance painters just painted things out of their imagination. More often than not, they were actually drawing from life, but then they all studied form and how things were built, and reading the how-to-draw-comics books made it seem like if you just broke down things into proportionate circles and shapes then POW, you could build photo-realistic images.

Da Vinci's Vitruvian man, a study of perfect proportions and yada yada.
Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” a study of perfect proportions and yada yada.


Drawing from life made sense to me because you had to look at real life at some point. But drawing from a photo? It seemed downright wrong — stealing, in fact.

When I ask pretty much every artist I know if they shared this mindset growing up they look at me like I’m crazy. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I sort of began to have to the obvious epiphany everyone seemed to know: Pretty much every painter uses photo reference.

Sometimes a lot. Vermeer, for example, literally traced his paintings using a primitive projector called the camera obscura. Norman Rockwell was said to use up to 150 reference photos PER illustration.

Vermeer's "Young Woman With A Watcher Pitcher"
Vermeer’s “Young Woman With a Watcher Pitcher.”


Vermeer painted "The Girl With A Water Pitcher" using a technique called camera obscura.
Vermeer painted “Young Woman With a Water Pitcher” using a technique called camera obscura.


I knew this in art school, but I thought it was an exception, not the rule. The whole thing should have been obvious. I’ve always agreed that good filmmaking means lying 24 frames a second, which is to say, you use every trick and cheat you can think of to pull something off. The more you lie and exaggerate and dramatize in film, the more you’re making something cinematic. It took me a while to realize the same is true in visual art.

Dracula vs. Ninjas sketch


So here’s the rough process I use now. Before the photo stage though I draw comps out of my head, and once that’s locked I do a rough color study. This is always very important to do before any photography is introduced because all your color and comp decisions will inform what you need from your photos.

Dracula vs. Ninjas sketch color layout


When making high-drama art I pretty much treat the photography stage as cinematography. I like very dramatic lighting, and the higher the contrast, the higher the drama. You don’t need fancy lights to get this, you just need a strong bright directional source (or three) and a goal to create highlights and dark shadows. I often use myself and my friends as models. For the book cover below, “Dracula vs Ninjas,” I used myself for both Dracula and the ninja and a friend for the scared girl in bed. The main thing in doing this is to make sure that your light is coming from the same direction from setup to setup.

When I’m done taking the photos I bring them into Photoshop, cut them up, reposition them, grey-scale them; boost the shadows and increase the contrast. Values are difficult to judge when an image is in vivid color, so turning something black and white really helps you see where important values are really hiding, and also where you need to add or subtract to make things pop.

I’m still a staunch believer in the mind’s eye above all else, and all those years of strictly drawing from my imagination out of stubbornness definitely helped to sharpen my mind’s eye. It’s also true that the more you draw in general, the better you get at drawing realistically out of your head. But, if you have to dress up like a freak, photograph yourself, and draw from that, just remember: It’s that final image that counts. No one will judge you for how you got there … well, except the tiny younger part of myself that deep down still feels like it’s cheating.

All uncaptioned images by Jeff Nitzberg.


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