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Using Stock References in the Creation of Vector Art

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This post is part of a series called Vector Portraits.
Featuring 25 Inspiring Vector Portraits
How to Illustrate Dynamic Hair Using Adobe Illustrator's Paintbrush Tool

Historically, artists have used live models and landscapes as a base for their work. In the digital age, stock photos are easily accessible and widely used in all forms of art and vector art is no exception. In this article, we'll look at how useful stock is to the vector artist.


Introduction

Stock photos can be used for a variety of reasons ranging from being the source of inspiration for a piece through to help with portraying an element of an illustration more accurately.

As a stock user, I mainly use stock to help with drawing anatomy and portraits. I manipulate stock images and then use the result as a reference for my vector art. Of course this is not the reason for all to use stock.


The Stock Usage "Rules"

Wherever you get your stock from, there are several things to take into consideration. The most important thing you must do is to check the rules of any stock image:

  • Are you able to use the stock for commercial purposes?
  • Do you need to notify the stock artist/company that you've used their stock?
  • Are there any manipulation limitations?
  • Are you limited to where you can display your work? Offline? Online?
  • Do you need to credit the stock artist wherever you post your work?

From personal experience, I've previously used stock that has included children and seen some common sense restrictions of no sexual themes and some limiting the use of animal stock to no gore.

The majority of stock websites and communities will have these conditions listed on the stock page or will have a link directly to the stock terms and conditions. It's vital for any professional or hobbyist to follow these and to respect the wishes of the stock artist.

If in doubt, try to contact the stock artist or site for further clarification.


Picking Your Stock

When choosing your stock, you may want to consider several qualities of it:

  • Resolution: You may be using it with an infinitely scalable format, but with a high resolution stock image you'll get all the little details that could give your work the edge.
  • Lighting: Is the subject/object well lit? Is it cast in shadow that it distorts the texture or even hides elements, specifically any crucial elements of the reference?
  • Originality: If you're using the stock image for an artistic purpose, then have you seen that specific stock image referenced before? Would you feel comfortable with others possibly comparing your work to another artists work?

What do you think people should consider when looking stock hunting?


Artists and Stock Usage

I asked some skilled vector artists about their experiences with stock and any advice they would give others on using stock.


Non Cadenza by Jared Nickerson aka J3Concepts

Jared used a fantastic stock image by TwiggXstock as inspiration for Non Cadenza.

He tells us:

I want to say that I can only speak for my personal illustration style and how I personally use stock. I can't give advice to anyone doing photo manipulation, etc.

Q What benefits do you see in using stock for your work?

In my case, I'm not the best at anatomy, so using stock for the human form is essential to creating realistic human illustrations.

Q When using stock, what is your basic process?

I usually draw out rough shapes of each individual object, then I start to fill in details like hair, lines in the skin, facial features, eye details, then shading and detailing, finally colouring. The stock photo is only used in the initial shaping process and then again for shading.

Q Do you hunt out stock as inspiration?

I wouldn't say as inspiration. I usually get the initial idea and then I hunt out stock to suit my needs. Occasionally, I will find a photo that I really want to work with, as in the case of "Life is Nothing without Love."

Q Do you seek stock for a specific element in your work?

I usually only use stock for the human form.

Q Do you alter the stock before using it?

I never alter stock before using it. Because I am redrawing the image, there is no need for pre-alteration.

Q What advice do you give others who wish to use stock references in their work?

Remember that stock should serve as reference only, rarely as a key element.

Q Are there things they should avoid?

I think you should avoid stock that does all the work for you. You should always use your imagination and create something in your own style.

Q Are there things they should look out for?

Be on the lookout for high-res images, but if a photo that you really want to use isn't high res, don't let that discourage you. If you are only using the image for inspiration, and you have a good eye, you can fill in the gaps on your own.


Grave Full of Secrets by Kat aka Turp

Kat used a fantastic stock image by Odessa11stock, unfortunately the original image is no longer available.

She tells us:

Q What benefits do you see in using stock for your work?

I've never been a portrait artist, my style is a lot more cartoonish, so it's given me the ability to combine the realistic proportions of a photo with my style and come up with something completely new.

Q When using stock, what is your basic process? Do you hunt out stock as inspiration? Do you seek stock for a specific element in your work? Do you alter the stock before using it?

My vectoring style started out based entirely off of stock photography I was inspired by and I'd spend hours looking. The older I get, the more I just use it as a reference for poses and hands so the hunt is a lot more specific. And other than cutting the pictures out of their backgrounds and placing them, I leave the stock as is, colour schemes and everything usually come to me once the picture is done.

Q What advice do you give others who wish to use stock references in their work? Are there things they should avoid? Are there things they should look out for?

It takes skill to make realistic pictures, but it takes talent to create something that wasn't there. Never let the stock photo limit your creativity, you should always be trying to do something different. And watch out for grainy photos! I dunno about you but they drive my eyes crazy when I zoom in.


er.. heimlich please? by RD aka duCkieasdfasdf

RD used a fantastic stock image by NikxStock.

He tells us:

Q What benefits do you see in using stock for your work?

The main benefit I see in using stocks is that they provide so many different approaches and ideas to what you could use them for. It always gives me a way to experiment around expressions and poses. Not to mention, my drawing skills have improved 0% since the third grade, so I don't have to worry about the correct shape/anatomy/proportions when using stock.

Q When using stock, what is your basic process? Do you hunt out stock as inspiration? Do you seek stock for a specific element in your work? Do you alter the stock before using it?

The first step for me is always laying out the lines since I am in fact, a line art whore. Then, I block in the bases and shades; this is where I tend to stop using the stock as a reference and start using my imagination. Finally, I fix up the colors and curves. That's basically my process in a nutshell. Whenever I see an awesome stock with some solid lines and curves, I either jump right on it or save it for later. There is still a huge line of stocks on my computer waiting to get ravaged by my pen tool. I usually resize the stocks before I start working so it's not too large or too small.

Q What advice do you give others who wish to use stock references in their work? Are there things they should avoid? Are there things they should look out for?

Some clichéd advice I could give is to be creative and to have fun. Each time you are fabricating your next magnificent vector/vexel using a stock, try to depend on the stock less and less. "A carbon copy" of a stock (which I am guilty of doing) can really limit your creativity and imagination! Although, I wouldn't like to tell anyone not do something, after all, it is your own art.


CRAZY FOR VECTOR IV by Orlando Aquije A. aka AtixVector

Orlando used a fantastic stock image by VeeStock.

He tells us:

Q What benefits do you see in using stock for your work?

Mainly, that it can save you a lot of time, because it's a part of the creative process that someone else already did for you. Either for reference or inspiration, it will always be very useful for materializing an idea and a great aid for going from scratch to the final job.

Q When using stock, what is your basic process? Do you hunt out stock as inspiration? Do you seek stock for a specific element in your work? Do you alter the stock before using it?

It depends on the work and what you have in mind. If it's a personal project and you don't know where to begin, picking stock may be a good idea to get started, also it's great for inspiration. If you already got the idea, finding the right stock for reference is a blessing. Sometimes I have to alter the image to get what I want, sometimes it seems that everything in the piece was made just for my needs. I don't have a basic process for that. Each project demands a different way of using stock.

Q What advice do you give others who wish to use stock references in their work? Are there things they should avoid? Are there things they should look out for?

It's important to understand that stock is just a resource, and that the final outcome of your work should communicate something with your own style and your own way of doing things. You can make a carbon copy of the image that you used as a reference, but that does not have much value or significance. We must try to make a difference between our work and the work of many others who will use the same image. People who share stock in communities like DeviantArt, expect from you to do something interesting with their work, and that's their main reward.


A Bored Stiff by Joey aka CopperThistle

Joey used a fantastic stock image by Bananered.

He tells us:

Q What benefits do you see in using stock for your work?

I personally love the community aspect of it. 99% of the stock images I use for reference in my illustrations are found on deviantART. I just feel like it's this exchange between artists that keeps us all going. I honestly believe the only people that can truly understand our lives as artists are other artists… This may spill over into other aspects of creativity, but I can't sit down and explain my processes and mindset to say, an accountant. It just doesn't work that way. I'm just really appreciative that people are willing to share themselves with the art community in this way.

Q When using stock, what is your basic process? Do you hunt out stock as inspiration? Do you seek stock for a specific element in your work? Do you alter the stock before using it?

It really depends on the piece. Most of the time, I will have a rough visual in mind or sketched out, and I will try to find an image that would work best with it. Other times, I'm just looking for something interesting to draw reference from and I will do the random digging around. It gets a little shady sometimes at the workplace, where I might stumble across a naked chick in bondage and saran wrap, but whatever. That's why I'm in a remote corner of the office!

Q What advice do you give others who wish to use stock references in their work? Are there things they should avoid? Are there things they should look out for?

Not really, specifically anyway… It all depends on what you're trying to achieve. I personally like as high a resolution as possible when finding images; It helps me to work out all the little details which helps breathe a little more life into the piece. I would also encourage people not to work from reference verbatim.

Again, this is a personal preference, but I feel in order to truly take ownership over your work, you have to put at least a little of your personal style and flare into it. I've seen a millions gradient mesh jobs that look exactly like the reference photo used. On one side, it's amazing that it could be replicated in such a way, but on the other side, I always ask "Well, what was the point?", you know? I love to be able to just glance at a piece, and say "oh yeah, that's such-and-such's work." I love personality in art."


Hot by Cristiano Siqueria aka CrisVector

Cris used a fantastic stock image by LockStock.

He tells us:

Q What benefits do you see in using stock for your work?

Well, I can't simply remember all details of a face or the human body without references. Also, the human body and face have lots of details that help to make the drawing more expressive and true. There's so many combinations of expressions, muscles, skin toning and each of these combinations tells a history. What I try is to get one of these genuine expressions and give it another feeling, with my work. Using a stock photo helps me to save a bit more of time to get the perfect expression and anatomy too.

Q When using stock, what is your basic process? Do you hunt out stock as inspiration? Do you seek stock for a specific element in your work? Do you alter the stock before using it?

First, I need to say there's a difference between using a stock and reference pictures. When I want to use a stock photo, I'm interested by the photo itself, there's something in the original photo that caught my eye and makes me think about a good work. Sometimes I use reference photos and, for this process, I use lots of photos to do draw a single object.

So, back to the question, I got a stock photo as inspiration, yes. And, as I said, I like to work with the stock photo on its original look, using most of the original picture's appearance. I try to get the information and improve it adding elements or even a technique that helps to keep telling the history that the original photo has started. Sometimes, in the final work, we can see a very different image, but for me it's just an improvement from what I've seen.

Q What advice do you give others who wish to use stock references in their work? Are there things they should avoid? Are there things they should look out for?

The first advice is ask for authorization first :) It's not polite to use stock references without asking first to the photo owner or model if they authorize the use. With the authorization, it's good to not just copy the image with a different technique, the good thing is to add some artistic view to the original picture, make it more interesting, improve the original history that picture tells. Unless, of course, the new work is just an exercise of technique. I like to consider the stock photo as a static model. I have all the basic information about shading, light, anatomy, intentions and I can build my work under this basis.


Conclusion

Stock can be a great resource to assist and inspire you. Experimenting with a variety of techniques and styles can help you transform a stock image into a piece of art.

I'm going to leave you with some great words from Kat, which are a great way to look at stock usage:

It takes skill to make realistic pictures, but it takes talent to create something that wasn't there.

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