Reference 4 – Close Counts in Horseshoes and Reference

The value of reference can not be understated. It’s the big myth that all new artists struggle with. What I’ve come to understand is that the more information you can gather about your paintings from real life, the better your art will be. That said, as an illustrator I am often called upon to create images from things I don’t have access to. With all the work I do for Legend of the Five Rings, the most notable example of this is Samurai Armor.

So how does an artist go about gathering information when he can’t afford a $3,000 suit of armor? The short answer is that you get creative. Cardboard, glue, clips, and other random stuff you probably have around the house will do just fine. In order to show an example, I’ll walk you through my reference gathering for my recent L5R card Daigotsu Arare.

Here is the sketch I sent to the art director:


After getting approval, I go around gathering images to help bring the sketch to life.

Here is the main image from my photo shoot:


As you can see I’m not wearing a samurai helmet. I looked into getting one, and they are either REALLY crappy looking or QUITE expensive. Instead I have on a visor with a piece of cardboard wrapped around it attached with binder clips. You’ll also note I’m not wearing samurai armor. Instead I’ve got on a baggy shirt with socks on my arms wrapped in cloth strips. The socks help the shirt bunch and wrinkle in a way similar to wearing arm bands. The shirt looks similar to what samurai wear under their armor.

The one thing I do have is a katana. My katana was $20, and has appeared in almost every painting I’ve done for L5R. It’s not professional grade; heck, I don’t even think it would make a salad, but it looks shiny in the right places when I need to photograph it.


From the same photo shoot I did a close up of my mug making the snarly grr face I needed. Once again the visor does the trick. Now one thing I do have is a miniature suit of knight’s armor. I got it for around $200 at a convention last year. Since I do a lot of fantasy art I figured it would come in handy, and it looks cool in my studio! I put Mr. Knight in under the same lighting set up I used for my shots. Before I had Mr. Knight, I would put pots and pans from the kitchen in for a few photos. The main thing is getting some idea of how metal looks under the lighting for your painting.


Finally I went to the park with my daughter and placed Mr. Knight in the woods. This helped me see how much green reflected on the metal. I also remembered that 2 years ago I ran into a Samurai at the Tennessee Ren Fair. I brought those photos out to help me see how the samurai armor looked outdoors.

Using all that information I did a more refined sketch:

Daigotsu Arare Drawing by Sam Flegal

Daigotsu Arare Drawing by Sam Flegal

And then finished the painting:

Daigotsu Arare by Sam Flegal

Daigotsu Arare by Sam Flegal

As you can see it all worked out in the end. I was VERY happy I had the shots of Mr. Knight outside; as you can see in the painting, there is a lot of green in the final armor. The lesson you can learn here is that the more information you give yourself, the better your painting will be. There’s no such thing as too much reference. In the places you don’t have the perfect reference remember that close is good enough!

To see more of my work or to contact me for availability to help with your project please visit:



3 thoughts on “Reference 4 – Close Counts in Horseshoes and Reference

  1. Hey Sam, that looks awesome, as usual! Also, don’t forget that your handy local librarian can often help when you are lacking reference images and have no idea where to start. You even happen to know a good one who works freelance, cheap!

  2. Pingback: Going from Drawing to Painting | An Artist's Journey

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