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Reference or cheating?

Since the dawn of time, man has argued the question without end: “At what point does the use of photo reference become cheating?” I am exploring this polarizing mystery in a side project, a 2-page story as part of Squishface Studio’s upcoming comic anthology, the theme of which is Brunswick, its suburb of locale. I compiled a bunch of photos of the area (kindly donated by Squishface Elder Statesman Ben Hutchings), as seen on page 1, below.

With this rough layout in place, I’ve used masks to segregate the photos and to create clarity and flow.

Next step is putting them into a folder, to which I apply a desaturation filter and lower the opacity. 

Next stage, drawing directly over the top. That’s cheating though, right? I could argue that I still make artistic choices in which lines to use, and how to draw them. And if this were the last stage of the process, then yeah, it would be cheating. But I’m not finished yet. After this I’ll print these pages out and ink over the top, further wangling it into something resembling my own style. In the meantime, I’m learning a lot by this sort of extended street study. All the little bits and pieces that comprise buildings, street signs, light poles, add to my visual library. It’s plein air painting for lazy digital people.

What do you think? Reference or cheating?