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Storytelling Lecture, Artwork – The Power and Perils of Reference

Storytelling Lecture Series, Part 10

In my scripts, I always provide a lot of reference for the artist, or links to places he can get reference online. I think it’s important to use reference. Sometimes, it’s just so the artist understands what I’m asking for, a certain angle, expression or gesture. For instance in Magnus Robot Fighter #1, I provided this photo as reference for a gesture and expression I wanted for Leeja…

…because it was easier to find a picture than to explain it.

Mostly though, the reference is because I want something specific, so they get whatever I’m calling for right. For instance, a certain kind of car or a real location, like the Wallkill River Bridge:

I actually provided a number of shots of that bridge from different angles.

But, beyond those sorts of specifics, I recommend that you find reference on anything you don’t know how to draw. Once you use reference for something a couple of times, you’ll learn how it looks and you won’t need to look it up any more. Don’t fake it! If a script calls for carousel, and there doesn’t happen to be one handy, find pictures of carousels, find out what you need to know and draw a convincing carousel. 

Once again, I want to point out that this is not about style, not about photo-realism. It’s about using your eyes, learning to draw and developing whatever your style is on a firm foundation.  I don’t know whether Russ Heath or Carl Barks ever drew a carousel, but if they did, Russ’s would look right and real and Barks’ would look proportionally correct and proper within the context of his style—because, I guarantee you, he knew or would have found out what he needed to know about carousels. Get the info. Do it right.

A word about swiping. Don’t do it. Swiping, in case you don’t know, is tracing someone else’s work. It is a not-uncommon practice in the comic book business, but I think it stinks.  It’s good to look at Ditko Spider-Man figures to get a sense of how Spider-Man moves, but don’t rip him off. There are some guys, even well-known guys, who shamelessly swipe. I’d give you a few examples, but you probably already have noticed that, “hey, this guy crawling up out of the water looks just like a character Neal Adams drew crawling up out of the water.”  Etc.  Neal Adams’ work is swiped relentlessly. Ask him.

And now, the down side of reference. The old saw goes, “Use reference but don’t let it use you.” If you use reference too literally, especially for figures, it can make your work stiff and posed. For example, once, an artist, Fred, experimented with using friends, fellow creators, as models, having them act out a sci-fi fight scene. Archie Goodwin’s comment was:  “It looks like Joe and Susan shooting each other with blow dryers.” The names, except Archie’s, have been changed to protect the innocent.



Storytelling Lecture, Artwork – See It, Draw It


Storytelling Lecture, Artwork Part 5


  1. While I was sitting with Steve Leialoha in a restaurant once, with a pen, on a napkin, Steve idly doodled a perfect Mr. Spock. I was impressed. But, a good artist, given enough reference or otherwise becoming familiar with the characters/actors should be able to render acceptable likenesses without tracing — especially inappropriate stills. They should use the reference, not be its slave.

    P.S., Steve's doodle motivated me to offer him a ST cover featuring Spock, which he did brilliantly.

  2. Jim,
    Something of a tangent, but what about artists doing licensed properties? It seems like, in a lot of ways, doing Star Trek or Star Wars or some other property with highly-recognizable characters is almost a no-win scenario for an artist.

    Fans of the licensed property tend to expect and demand good likenesses, but having good likenesses that also fit the story seems extremely difficult. I've seen a lot of comics where you can tell exactly which production still the artist traced, and 9 times out of 10, the still isn't even appropriate to that particular moment in that particular story.

  3. Dear Jim,

    I first saw Shelly Moldoff's Hawkman in the early 80s as a kid. I didn't know about Alex Raymond then and thought, wow, great-looking stuff. Hey, I was ten. Didn't realize he had also drawn the old Batman comics I had seen. Looked like he was aiming for Swan/Klein in your first published story to maintain a sense of continuity (cf. Romita's early Ditko-ish Spider-Man). I've never seen Moldoff's own style. I wonder what it looks like.

    I don't have the Elvgren book, but I have seen this online comparison between his source material and his paintings:


    I'm amazed the doghouse in #11 has legible Chinese characters 狗巢 for "dog nest" which aren't in the original photo. As a linguist, I appreciate the use of reference for foreign writing systems instead of faking them with random strokes.

    Alex Ross' work initially struck me as stiff. Either I got used to him or he got into the groove of not following reference too closely. Probably the latter.

  4. Shelly Moldoff drew my first published story. I revere Shelly. But, I'm still anti-swipe.

    Nothing wrong with photo reference. I recommend it. However, if you use it too literally, you end up with friends firing blow dryers at each other. Hal Foster posed models and used photos, but used them well. I have an Elvgren book that shows the photos he used alongside the illos he did. He knew how to use the photos as base info and make the illos better. . As I suspect Alex Ross does.

  5. I think I know who Jim is referring to at the end of this lecture. Recently, IDW Publishing released a hardcover titled 'The Art of Jim Starlin: A Life In Words and Pictures'. The fourth chapter is dedicated to "Metamorphosis Odyssey" from Epic Illustrated and there's a paragraph dealing with models on page 142.

    Starlin wrote "I shot photo reference for all the characters, using whoever was on hand as their model. Val Mayerik and I switched back and forth as Ankaton's stand-in, wearing a silly costume skullcap. Walt Simonson was the doomed alien, Joenis Soule. Heather Devitte posed for Whis'par, wearing a ridiculous white Afro. Al Milgrom was her father. Petite Lynn Varley, the colorist, acted as my young Juliet, her father played by Frank Miller, who would later marry Lynn in real life."

  6. I'm not sure of this whole swiping thing. What's important is that the work looks good. Shelly Moldoff's work on the Golend age Hawkman stories are legendary Swips of Alex Raymond, but I love them. So they're not original but Shelly did craft some cool stories.
    Greg land is the new whipping boy of the swipers. Sure he uses photo references but with such highly photo realistic work, would you expect him to rely heavily on photo references. He may use photos but I think the finished product is pretty nice and stylistically consistent. Do people imagine that someone like Alex Ross doesn't rely heavily on photo references?
    I think the finished product is the important thing. Is the work fresh and inspired or is it tired and lazy? Sure if an artist relies to heavily on copying others work or repeats poses or compositions too much, I can understand the complaint.
    I'm kind of on the fence on this and would love to hear other peoples opinions on this.
    Great column as always Jim!

  7. Dear Jim,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I only recently read your new MAGNUS #1, so your example was still fresh in my memory. (I did get your old MAGNUS #1 when it was brand-new twenty years ago.)

    I'm sorry to hear you "encountered many swipe artists" at Marvel. In theory, it should be harder to get away with that now because technology makes it easier to

    – identify source material

    – compare art with its hypothetical source

    – spread the above information

    Yet swipers can apparently still get work.

    I just discovered an entire online column devoted to this sort of thing. I'd rather not look:


    The worst case I've ever seen (examples and commentary):



  8. Thank you kindly for the reply, Jim!

  9. Dear uncannyderek,

    As Editor in Chief at Marvel, I encountered many swipe artists, though not noticeably when I was the writer. I militated against swiping. Publishing so many comics, I probably missed some, and some leaked through.

    As a writer, I worked, for a while with an artist at DC who even swiped his signature, stylistically, from Neal Adams. I had no power to do anything about it. Ask Neal about the guy. Neal should be getting reprint money….

    I'm not up to date with current Marvel artists. There are a number of artists who get work these days for reasons that baffle me.

  10. Dear Marc,

    This subject was often a big part of my 90's seminars. More in some, less in others — they were all unscripted, but close.

    Some other writers, I think — judging from other peoples' scripts I've had the opportunity to read in recent times (usually given me as reference) — take the easy way out. Deliver the minimal script, cash the check….
    I may do okay, or spectacularly fail, but I give it my best shot every time. As my grandma Elsie used to say, "That's the kind of hairpin I am."

  11. Jim,

    Have you ever worked with people who blatantly swipped from other artists? If so, what usually came of it? If not, what would you have done?

    Currently, there are a few artists at Marvel who are questionable to why they are still on payroll.

    I discussed one on my website before here: bit.ly/miV6PZ

    I'm curious on your thoughts.

    Thank you kindly!

  12. Kid

    As everyone will know, renowned DAN DARE (the UK version) artist FRANK HAMPSON used to photograph people to use as reference for drawing the famous 1950s' EAGLE comic strip, but first he drew a "rough" of the page and then had the models pose according to that. However, the so-called "roughs" were practically finished art which, with only a little polish, would have been good enough to print. Indeed, Hampson's "roughs" were probably better than many artists' finished art. The point is, the "roughs" often had a vitality and spontaneity that the finished pages, magnificent as they were, lacked.

  13. Photo reference is definitely a good tool in helping to get certain gestures, body language, and certain objects drawn correctly, and the best use of them is when it's integrated into the art style and not obvious to the reader. Otherwise, being slavish to the photo only drains the life right out of comic book art.

  14. Dear Jim,

    Did you talk about this topic back in your 90s seminars? I appreciate the recent example from MAGNUS. I've never seen anyone else's scritps contain so much reference. Do other writers just trust the artist to wing it?

    Swiping is no substitute for seeing.

    Both swiping and excessive photo reference jump out at me when they exist side by side with the artist's own attempts to draw (or, more likely, clumsily manipulate glyphs). Varying skill levels in the same comic can be suspicious.

    It's hard to use photo reference for action. Some guy holding a pose can't hold a candle to someone really running or fighting. And good luck finding a photo of someone flying for real!

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