Approximation and the value of references and foundations

I’ve been working on a few commissions lately and I’ve streamed some of the sketching/cleaning up process of them and in one such streaming session, I talked a little bit about references and approximation.
The piece I was working on features a rather buff Blood Elf lady, something that both is and isn’t within my comfort zone. I’m used to drawing women, but I’m really not used to drawing defined muscles, so as such this commission has been a really good learning piece for me.

While sketching out the pose, I couldn’t find a reference picture with exactly the same pose so instead I took the references I had which were a few photos of Tessa Barresi (whom the physic is inspired by) and figured I could estimate roughly how the muscles would look in the pose I had picked out. The sketch looked alright as far as I could tell when I had finished it, so I set about to colour it.

And this is where my problems started. Not only did the colours themselves prove a problem and making me move to grayscale to get my values right but my estimations started to look weird.
I had estimated the muscles positions decently accurately, however, I had not taken into account how the muscles move and interact with each other. I didn’t really realize this until after I had gotten someone to look at the rough colours and they pointed out that that’s not how muscles look.
So, grumbling at myself for not checking my foundations I dug through my references files for a muscle chart and started drawing out the muscles on top of my current piece, slowly identifying the problem areas.

As shown by the lighter red lines I had made the muscles overlap and twist in really weird ways. So, taking my rough muscle lines into consideration I set about reworking the shading and fixing up the shapes. Thank goodness I had moved over to grayscale or I would’ve gone completely mad.
After working out the musculature I arrived at a much more pleasing version that actually made a lot more sense. I also took the opportunity to fix my values because the whole piece was way too dark previously.

So my big take away from working on this particular piece is that you can approximate a lot of things but you’ll only get it right if you have a good foundation to stand on. So in my case, I got the relative positioning of the muscles right thanks to having studied my foundations some, but I had not studied them enough that I knew to think about how they interact.
I tend to use reference photos (or pictures if I’m after a particular way of simplifying something) a lot because while I have a decent visual library, it’s nowhere near as good as it should be. And the fact that I often can’t find exact references of the poses I’m after means I do a lot of approximation. And this is especially true in terms of fantasy (and to some extent sci-fi) pieces where a lot of things don’t exist so you’ll just have to riff on what references you have.
The fact that I have been using a lot of references have saved me in a lot of ways because my foundations aren’t nearly as good as they should be and it really hit home just how much I’ve forgotten/don’t consider anymore while doing this piece.

The bottom line is I will try to work more on my foundations from now on because while drawing the same little thing over and over may seem really boring and tedious, it’s necessary for building muscle memory. Both in terms of what your hand actually does and what your brain remembers.

Also, remember to use references kids! Our brains are good at tricking us into thinking we know how things look 😉

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