When getting critiqued most of us hear “you should use reference “, its right up there with ” needs more black” in the advice you will hear the most. Yet I, like most tattooers, live in mortal fear of being a “biter”. The best definition of “biter” I can give is “a tattooer who deliberately steals an image from another tattoo”, otherwise known a a plagiarist, copycat, or forger. What complicates the issue is that in our business the client frequently brings you a picture (from the Internet or a magazine) of the “exact tattoo” they want.
The way I see it there are two kinds of dilemmas surrounding reference; one is using non-tattoo sources to make our drawings and the second is how to use tattoo images as reference without copying the original material. Lets start with the easy one first, using non-tattoo reference in creating our own original drawings for a tattoo.
So, who needs reference when they are doing a drawing? YOU do. “But wait”, I hear you say ” I’m an artistic genius so I can see whatever I’m drawing in my head so I don’t need reference, besides what I’m drawing is my personal style so it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look like a real picture of whatever, and anyway if I use reference it won’t have my special signature style!”. Sorry to tell you, but these kinds of folks need reference the most, not the least, here’s why; reference is a way to enhance your personal take on an image, not limit it.
Argument 1:” I can see whatever I’m drawing in my head so I don’t need reference”
The world is full of what I like to call play-doh tattoos. Tattoos that resemble whatever they are supposed to be but look like they were made of dough. Sure the basic shape is there, but they always lack detail, a sense of solidity, and usually get specific, yet crucial, elements wrong. They look like an outline with nothing inside. The viewer (and customer) can almost see the unsteadiness of the artist trying to fill in that blank space without knowing what goes inside that general shape.
I can’t tell you how many koi fish tattoos I have seen with a giant fat headed koi with kissy face lips, eyelashes like a princess pony, a dorsal fin that goes from their (tiny) tail up to their head like a mohawk. Same for anchors which look like they were made of those balloons they make animal shapes with and daggers that look like some safety Halloween prop for a toddler instead of a weapon to stab people with. And oh the faces! Thousands and thousands of sad genetic mutant pin up girls and hairlipped inbred gypsy. . .uh. . .girls. . . I guess.
You need reference because our minds are designed to take in a general outline of the world, not to memorize minute details. If our caveman (cave person?) ancestors took the time to memorize the exact shape of a saber toothed tigers fangs, well, we wouldn’t be here because one of those fangs would be through his face. One of the reasons those rare autistic people who can draw entire gothic churches from memory are so impressive is because we can’t.
When you look at a photo or a real koi (to stick with that example, but feel free to insert anything you are drawing in that space) our brains pick out details that we would never remember, the right number of fins, the general shape, the proportions and relationships of one part to another. When you put that on paper the end result is still filtered through your unique lens into a drawing, it still looks like you (and only you) created it but all the bits are correct, this makes for a better tattoo.
Argument 2: “what I’m drawing is my personal style so it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look like a real picture of whatever”
Reference can be used for realism, it’s true, in fact that realistic tattooing is simply the art of recreating reference in a way. What about other kinds of art though? What about twisty chrome new school , multi layered biomech, or super simplified traditional? What about whatever the hell you call what it is that you do? What if you are so unique and your style so personal? Well, lets look at the non-tattoo world for a second, at the Dalis, the Picassos, the Blakes , Matisses and Freuds, the guys whose work was so out there and unique that they spawned entire artistic movements? They all used reference, in fact they all spend years in art school drawing live models, still life’s, and pouring over anatomy books! The wildest artists around had a firm grounding in reference before they could spread those metaphorical wings on flights of fancy.
Argument 3: “if I use reference it won’t have my special signature style”
When you draw something you are taking your memory of that object and transferring it through your hand, which is great except that there will always be elements of that object you would want in there , but you can’t remember. Your unique style is actually choked by the bottle neck of only coming from your inaccurate, generalizing, and incomplete memory. Don’t feel bad, we all have shitty memories! If you have a special signature style then reference will only enhance it the way spices enhance a meal, no chef thinks pepper dilutes her work because she sees it as just another tool to put forth their own unique take. Reference does the same for you.
Your style is what happens when creativity comes through your hand, all that you have seen and experienced in your life is part of that moment, if you are using reference then you are simply adding more accuracy to what you are going to render in your own style and everyone will notice it as an improvement, even you!
Ok so how do you use reference?
It used to be that you could tell how serious a tattooer was by the size of their library. In the age before google, and ready made tattoo reference material a tattooer would buy an entire book for one good photo! We would take a day off to go to the library and photocopy books of birds, ships, faces, swords, animals, anything that might some day be useful in drawing something. It kind of sucked! You would have some guy come in and ask for the one thing you didn’t have a book for!
Thank the tattoo gods for the internets! Using google alone can emulate a library of a million books, and since our phones and tablets are so ubiquitous we almost have no excuse to not use this incredible resource.
These days when I set out to draw I will try to find 2-3 images of whatever I’m drawing. More than that and I tend to get over-referenced and confused as to the bits I like best, less and you are limiting yourself to one view, pose, size, and details. Besides, we’re not copying the reference, we are adding it to the stuff our mind already knows about whatever we are drawing. By using multiple references we keep from getting too focused on reproducing the photo. I’ll lay the books/pages out around my drawing area and rough out my first draft, looking at the pages here and there to add elements that my eye likes, refining the proportion. Once I have more of a finished draft ill clean up the line work and look for areas that feel unfinished or empty, one look at your reference material is usually enough to spark an idea for how to tackle a problem area. I’ve been doing this for years and never once has my drawing looked like someone else drew it, nor has it ever looked exactly like the reference!
If I am drawing a pin up or a face I will often use images of old time (30’s-60’s) pin up girls or vintage stills of Indian actresses since the poses and expressions are much more dramatic than todays stilted, bored looking actors and models. Much like using an artists manikin this helps keep the proportions correct. In fact, if I used reference for no other reason, I would still use it for anything based on a human body, our brains seem especially sensitive to something being “off” when it comes to people.
Even when doing traditional imagery I find that looking at photos of a real rose makes my traditional roses look better and less like the 300th copy of a copy of a sailor Jerry rose. Real daggers and anchors and hourglasses make the drawn versions of these things so much better without ruining the “old-school ness”. The folks who gave us that wonderful bank of images, the Bert Grimms and Sailor Jerrys and a hundred more were using reference to craft their flash. Many of the old stand bys were actually popular advertising and illustrations of the time that the old timers of the era referenced and created in their own hands. And looking at a profile photo of a real woman will, I guarantee, improve those gypsy girl heads, the traditional guys who passed that imagery on to us were looking at images of popular actresses and models of their day when they drew them.
There are some tips I have learned specifically for Japanese tattoo imagery I’d like to share. Japanese tattooing is unique in that it is based on and still very heavily reliant on ukiyo-e woodblock prints instead of “real”images. In fact many of the greatest tattoo masters in traditional Horimono tattooing lift images directly from these ancient prints. It is not considered wrong or improper to use a Hokusai or kuniyoshi print, and even current masters consider it fair game. I recently attended a seminar taught by Horitomo whose Japanese tattooing is some of the best around today when a fellow attendee asked him “Do you get offended if a tattooer uses one of your drawings for their tattoo?” He answered “if you can’t draw a better one than me, then you should use mine”. Note that Horitomo was referring to his drawings not directly referencing one of his tattoos.
It’s seems clear to me and I think to any tattooer that reference can only be a benefit to our work. If we agree that each and every tattoo we do should be our very best effort then I think it’s obvious that we should be using reference for each and every tattoo.
Next time Ill give you my take on using other tattoos as reference without copying.