A couple weeks ago someone was asking about what kind of reference I use in my illustrations, so I thought I'd expand on that a little here. Usually my books have animal characters (Francine's Day, The Three Little Kittens, The Purple Ribbon). These required some amount of photo reference to get the anatomy believable... but the animals are pretty stylized, so reference was at a minimum.
Now that I am painting human characters though, its a whole different ball game! First of all, the story I am working on now is based on actual historical events... so things like clothing styles and architecture need to represent the time period they come from. This is not always an easy task! Last week I spent an entire afternoon trying to figure out what type of nightgown a child slave would have worn in the 1830's. Many slept naked, but I can't draw that (if everyone was up in arms over IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, I can only imagine how that would go over).
At last I found a web site with patterns from the 19th century, and indeed they had a nightgown. But is that what a slave would have owned? I have about 20 books out from the library about slavery, many with pictures, but no one sleeping! At times, I read, slaves would be given worn out castoff clothing from the families they worked for, so I suppose that what I have will suffice. Sometimes its hard to know where to draw the line with accuracy- I want the illustrations to completely honor the story by being as accurate as possible, but if I spend weeks researching minute details I will never make my deadline!
Another very important use of reference material is for anatomical details. Hands and feet will always baffle me and take the most amount of time in a painting; they are so complex with so many small moving parts. Fortunately I have very cooperative roommates that let me borrow their hands when I am stuck with a painting. For instance:
When I was ready to tighten up a sketch and start painting, I took this picture of my roommate's hand:
Since the character is black, I needed some reference for skin tone, so I found this picture on the internet (love you google):
Using roughly the gesture from the photo I took, and the shades of color from the one I found, I painted this:
I don't always borrow quite so directly, sometimes I can approximate a gesture based on similar ones, or modeling myself (though its hard to draw your own hand without a photo). Just one more way that making a book is like a big puzzle, you try to weave together lots of little parts to create a whole that is its own.