Gathering great lettering reference is one of the most important things you can do when creating lettering. Reference usually consists of research and material that you may have collected or put together, that’s relevant to a project you are working on.
Collecting good reference doesn’t just apply to lettering, it’s relevant to almost any area where something is being created. An architect would probably do a pretty bad job at designing a new building without gathering reference first. Many blog posts written on the internet would be very short, inaccurate and uninformed if the authors didn’t collect reference first before writing them.
When creating lettering, reference can inform many elements of a lettering piece. From the style of lettering used, to the layout, the textures, colours and even possibly illustrations used within the lettering piece. All of these areas can be researched, for example you might have created a vintage piece of lettering that you’re looking to add texture to. So a collection of images including old wooden surfaces, vintage wallpaper patterns, stone work or anything else that’s relevant may be useful to have in this situation.
There are those few lucky people that have a fantastic imagination, or a very photographic mind, and can get away without gathering reference, still being able to create something well. Most of us however will need to do a bit of research first.
Why Good Reference?
I learnt the importance of collecting good reference through digital painting artist Chris Oatley. As mentioned in my about page, I come to lettering from a drawing background, and I am a student of Chris Oatley’s Magic Box art course. Chris has taught me some invaluable things about collecting reference. In the past I had thought it was okay to just grab one or two pieces of reference to work with, a short way in to the Magic Box I soon realised this was not the case.
Chris is a professional artist with a lot of creative experience, and has worked on a few Disney projects so he knows his stuff! Throughout part of his course he highlights struggles he had with a digital painting he created for the cover of Imagine FX magazine. Chris had gathered tons of reference material for his original concept. Pictures of country side, relevant textures, he’d even made architectural style mock ups of how he imagined structures in the painting would look.
Quite close to the deadline of the painting being due in, Chris changed the setting for the painting from the outside in the country, to the inside of a barn if I remember rightly. This then meant that some of the reference he had originally collected he couldn’t use, and that he didn’t have the time to collect as much as he ideally needed for the new concept.
Due to the fact he had such an extensive collection of reference in the first place, he was still able to create an awesome painting. He still experienced issues here and there due to a lack of reference. Things could have been so much worse though if he’d done like I used to, and only collected one or two pieces of reference.
You can view Chris Oatley’s Imagine FX digital painting here.
Organising Your Reference
It is important to organise your reference in a way that makes it easy to find. So if for example you’ve saved an image from the internet of some old wood, give it a relevant title like ‘old worn wood with peeling paint.jpg’. You might use the same reference on more than one occasion so don’t just title it for the current project you’re working on. The last thing you want, especially if you may be working to a deadline is to think ‘I know somewhere I have this nice picture of some old vintage wood, I know I used it on a lettering project two years ago, so now I’m going to have to go back through all of those old reference images to find it.’
Once you’ve collected a lot of reference for a specific project it can be very helpful to make up sheets or pages that contains the information you’ve collected in one place. So for example you might create a new file in something like Word, Pages or even Photoshop or Illustrator, and put all of your collected textures for your project into the page. You can then either keep it open on your computer or print it out for easy reference. This can save you flicking backwards and forwards between pages, images and whatever else you’ve collected.
When To Collect Reference
I know sometimes all you want to do is just create some lettering, no reference, you have a thought and just want to get it out and down on paper. There’s no harm in doing that, reference can sometimes come later and sometimes isn’t necessary for those quick ideas. However for those bigger projects I definitely recommend introducing gathering lettering reference into your work flow.
Have you already been using reference in your lettering projects, have you noticed changes in your lettering because of this? I’d love to hear your thoughts about gathering reference.