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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Norman Rockwell is a CHEATER!

My kids have been asking me for art lessons lately. Lillian has been making anime and manga, and wanted to learn to create action scenes. First, I directed her to WALLY WOOD'S 22 PANELS, an invaluable document which every Marvel Comics artist has at his drawing board.

Next, we went to the Brooklyn Museum to see the work of my favorite illustrator, Norman Rockwell. Rockwell was an expert at telling a complete story using wordless images. He's world-famous for the realism of his paintings. How did Rockwell create such convincingly photorealistic illustrations? By copying photographs!

A lot of stupid fanboys have recently been mocking some Marvel and DC comics artists for using photographs to create realistic art, as if the artists are somehow "cheating."
Well, guess what, morons? We all do it. It's what they teach you in art school; How to trace and copy to make art.
My job as an illustrator is to entertain, not to make things up out of my head. It's not a memory test.

Norman Rockwell is one of the greatest painters of all time! If you want to be as great as he is, do what he did! Trace photographs!
Below, another great artist, Gil Elvgren reveals his secret...

The brilliant Maxfield Parrish:

Vermeer used a camera;

Alex Ross's hands (from his web site)

The Greatest Cartoonist Of All Time™

I'm too lazy to track down the photos I used. I don't usually hold on to reference, but I assure you these images were all traced or copied.


Christy said...

I had an art teacher who just told us over and over and over again that copying photographs was plagiarism, so we had to only copy from our own photos.

Man it made for some boring landscapes. To this day though, I have this crushing sense of guilt whenever I use a photo I didn't take for reference.

Kyle Baker said...

Braldt Bralds, my painting teacher, gave me an "F' because I copied a photo instead of tracing it. He's a successful painter of book covers and fine art. I even saw his art on a box of tea.

Christy said...

I just image-google-searched his name and wow, that is a whole hell of a lot of cats.

Amalgamated Biscuit said...

Don't you find if you trace photos of people they make the illustration a bit stiff and lifeless? When I have tried it myself I get a sort of "uncanny valley" effect.

Kyle Baker said...

That is the effect I am trying to create. If I want a looser drawing, I will just copy instead of trace. I am deliberately trying to create the look of a computer-distorted photo.

Kyle Baker said...

JayJay Jackson sent me some links to some Andrew Loomis books which artists will find valuable;



Luis said...

I think the problem most people have with the art, that some less talented artists create using photo reference is that it does not look good. I don't think anyone has said that about your art though.

greg said...

Are you serious, or is this a joke? I'm not trolling or trying to pick a fight. I'm honestly wondering if you think Rockwell or Parrish were tracing.

Randy Reynaldo said...

If I'm not mistaken, that image of the cars is from Google Sketch! I have started using it myself, also for cars--beats the hell out of drawing them!

Kyle Baker said...

Greg: In his autobiography, Norman Rockwell explains in detail his process for using a PROJECTOR to transfer his photos to canvas by TRACING. It is a common practice, so common that the projectors have the trademark name ART-O-GRAPH, and we all used them until computers made them obsolete. Did you SEE the Parrish image? It's an exact duplicate! Do I need to overlay the two in Photoshop to prove it or is the evidence of your own eyes and common sense enough?

Randy, You recognized that tell tale Sketchup horizon line. I like to export the files as DAE and open them in blender to add textures if I need more modeling. It's great if you need multiple angles of the same car. I also use a great Freeware called MakeHuman. I also have a ZILLION different importers, so I can move models from Sketchup to Blender to Photoshop to After Effects. And it's all available for free on the web.

by Jim MacQuarrie said...

The objection to people like Greg Land is not that he uses photos; it's that (a) he uses other people's copyrighted photos without permission, and (b) he's very bad at it; when Emma Frost is obviously Taylor Swift in one panel and Cameron Diaz in the next and Anna Kournikova in the next and Jenna Jameson for the next, it's a little bit laughable. Using porn "O-face" pictures to substitute for pain or determination expressions really doesn't work.

Eric said...

I tried to leave a long comment earlier, but Google ate it. Maybe it will be unpalatable for the machine this time? The basic gist was:

1. I wish more artists were forthcoming about using reference. I thought most artists drew out of their heads from memory until I was in my late teens, and this, as one can imagine, hampered my drawing progress.

2. I think there's something to be said for a distinction between using photo-ref and using it well. Selection of photo plays a big part. I would imagine that Rockwell is staging his own above, which is why even the photos themselves are highly evocative. Using the ref well in terms of wider composition decisions is another big part. I wouldn't damn every artist who uses photo-ref (because then I'd be damning a majority of artists) but there are many who don't use it well, or are not rigorous in their photo-ref selection process, and it shows. I wouldn't guess the average comic reader would know enough to recognize the distinction.

3. What is the first image in the set of your art from (the wide-eyed woman embracing the blonde-haired man?)? That's a really nice image -- tone, color, composition, texture...everything's on the money. Greatest Cartoonist indeed!

greg said...

I won't question your Rockwell knowledge, since I haven't read the autobiography. Maybe I'm misinterpreting what you mean by 'tracing'. The following is based on my impression that tracing is replicating another image. Maybe I'm off. Again, I'm not trying to pick a fight. I just disagree with you, and thought I'd start a dialogue.

I'm an illustrator, too. And no, copying/tracing is NOT the same as using photo reference. All artists should use reference. But if all someone takes from art school is the copying, then they've missed the point of the exercise. I thought it was a little distasteful to announce that all artists 'cheat'. We don't. Some artists try very, very hard to never copy their reference.

Making art, any art, when broken down to a base level, is problem-solving. For illustration, the 'problem' is the story. Solving these problems requires layers upon layers of decisions to be made. Subject matter, composition, color palette, light source. Photo reference is taken, or collected, to help the artist make informed decisions regarding his 'problem'. As more visual information is gathered, more pieces of the puzzle are solved.

The reference shouldn't make the artist's decisions for him. Reference is a tool used to craft the art. I think we might actually think similarly, but the flippant attitude behind the article stuck in my craw.

sonia said...

This is nicely written and you've provided an amazingly diverse array of beautiful examples.

Thank you for not only explaining that these practices aren't cheating, but also explaining that talented artists (like yourself) understand the difference between tracing and using photo references, and can make that choice consciously.

Ian said...

Hey Kyle,

Thanks for this post. You would think that after four plus years of SVA I would stop feeling self conscious about using photo reference. It's nice to see someone reaffirm the idea that art is based on life so reference is not how we "cheat", it's part of the creation process.


kurtomitch said...

Even Da Vinci and the Dutch masters make reference to the "Camera Obscura" and, I believe, used it. It is the artists prerogative to use all the contemporary technology available to them. I encourage all my students to do so... all the while admonishing them to avoid plagiarism and put it through their own "eye, mind, hand loop".

Jess said...

As a person studying illustration we are told to use reference and yes even trace someones face to get it super realistic. But it's still referencing a model.
Gil Elvgren got models to pose for him. It's not cheating. Not all artists are like others such as Frank Frazetta who can draw from memory. It's not cheating. It's called referencing.

Pedro Canhoto Pontes said...

Copying a photo is a 100% ok, as long as you can manipulate, and not only be a slave to the original image. If you do not use such graphic intelligence, you´ll lose a lot of tridimensionality in your illustration. While copying is great, tracing, on the other hand, isn´t a brilliant idea. Do it at your own peril.

J.E. Cole said...

Thank you Mr Baker for being real.

Also, do you have any plans to return to the Toussaint Louverture graphic novel you were working on?

I hope it has not been abandoned.

Duane Dinverno said...

I think you guys are arguing the difference of Fine Art and Commercial Illustration. Yes, if you are tracing and calling it fine art then I too would have a problem with it. However, in commercial illustration, time is money! Why would we spend forever drawing the figure out freehand when we have an art-o-graph that we can key it up in within seconds? We wouldn't, and most don't. This is the business. A construction worker isn't called a cheater because he uses a nail gun instead of a hammer! That's just stupid. Fine Art, however, is very different. It is done to show mastery of skill and the purity of the discipline. Tracing in Fine Art is not ok. Now, although there is a fine line between Fine Art and commercial art, you guys need to realize that there is a difference and don't confuse one for the other.

Stephen said...

I have always traced my photographs as an integral part of my process. I've also drawn live models, statues in museums, people in the park, whatever my eyes see, I've tried to sketch, and UNDERSTAND. I think the main difference in whether it's "OK" to trace or not has everything to do with understanding what you're tracing. When I trace a line, I know why it's there and how it should look. If there's something in the photo that's unclear, I have a pretty good idea about how to finish it. Another person who has never studied art, traces lines he/she thinks they see, but has no understanding of its' structure. There's a huge difference. Do you honestly think that anyone could start with Norman Rockwell's photo reference and paint something as beautiful. The man was in my estimation, a genius. You can try to separate illustration from fine art, but I think a fine painting, is a fine painting.

I also feel that the way a piece of art is produced should have nothing to do with the reason you like it. You love my painting, until you find out that I used some method that you think is "cheating", and suddenly that same painting sucks? Paintings are a totally visual medium. As soon as you try to put it into words, you start destroying it. When I'm in a museum, and I hear someone dissecting a C├ęzanne, finding the triangle designs he's created, I want to throw up. You're missing the point. If I could explain my paintings in words, I'd be a writer. Sorry, but I think this whole discussion is silly. I don't think, we as artists should have to defend our process. If you like what I've done, that's great, or if you hate it, that's OK too. But please move on, and stop trying to tear apart someones heartfelt creation, because you have some misguided notion that some technique or method they've used is in your eyes cheating. If that's the way you approach art, you in all likelihood wouldn't really understand what the artist wants to convey anyway.

Andy said...

I know I'm pretty late in the game with this post but I just heard a podcast interview with the great Neal Adams where he gives his thoughts on tracing which pretty much mirrors the same points Kyle is making.


dmillustration said...

If you can draw, tracing can help, if you can't draw, tracing won't help. Another good one: Your drawing is only as good as your reference, whether it be life, photo or memory.