Reining in Reference

Monday, April 13, 2020

Boba Fett & Han Solo Pencils. 2018. Pencil on paper, 9 × 12″.

I was recently asked how I keep from spending too much time researching a subject and finding visual reference. It can definitely be an issue, so I thought I'd share my reply here:

When it comes to reference, it's very easy to lose yourself in the search. It helps to have a deadline, even if it's self-imposed. I often block out times on the calendar for research, making sure that there's something after it that I have to attend to.

Another technique is to not let yourself look for reference during the sketching phase. Take your ideas as far as possible using just your imagination. Only once you know exactly what you need do you allow yourself to start the search.

Lastly, there are 2 main categories of reference: design reference and posing reference. If you need to know what an X-Wing looks like, that's pretty straightforward. Put if you need a specific angle of the pilot in the cockpit, you might have to play dress-up and take some pics.

Oh, and one more thing — 3D reference is best if you can get ahold of it. Sketchfab is one of my favorite resources. That's not always possible. If it's design ref you need, but you're having trouble finding the precise angle you need, don't be afraid to change the composition to better match the ref. That doesn't mean you're a slave to your photo ref, it just means if you only have a pic of a vehicle from the front, you can avoid drawing the back without anyone really noticing.

For further thoughts on the subject, here's a series of 3 posts.

Presearch 1
Presearch 2
Presearch 3


  1. Hey Paolo,

    Thanks for posting this, really helpful! If you don't mind me asking, when you do your comps vs roughs vs final image... what sizes (inches and dpi) do you use for all of those? If I was preparing an 11 x 17 print for a commission, what's the highest dpi I would need to make that image at to be ready for print? Thanks for your help Paolo, hope you are well!

    1. Most of my final images for comics are 2750x4175 px (6.9x10.4" @ 400 ppi). I usually do the roughs at about half the height, with thumbnails about half of that. Hope that helps!

    2. That helps a ton, thanks so much Paolo! I'm doing a Mr Miyagi print for fun, excited to work on it:)

    3. Is that the size you would do for one of your 11x17 prints on big cartel?

    4. Yep! 400 ppi is a bit over what you need, which is what allows you to scale up without pixelation.

    5. Thank you Paolo! Dude seriously you're one of the most generous artists I've ever met with how much knowledge you share with people, I appreciate you man.


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