Thursday, June 11, 2009

Google Images and the Artist’s Filing Cabinet

A story: when Carrie saw Crumb, Terry Zwigoff’s documentary about the great underground cartoonist R. Crumb, she went out and bought a digital camera to start a file of stock images. This was a while back – you know, the days when a top of the line digital camera boasted an impressive 3 megapixel resolution. She watched Crumb sketching incessantly in public and as cool as that image seemed, the movie also made it pretty clear that Crumb looked like a weirdo to everyone around him. Not wanting to call attention to herself by sketching in public, Carrie thought a camera would be more helpful – she could take quick pictures of things she wanted to draw later in the privacy of her own apartment.

The inspiration faded pretty quickly. The camera itself was slow, bulky, and inconvenient, and besides, she began to feel silly carrying the ugly, awkward thing. It just wasn’t as cool as an old-fashioned SLR. And it was just as embarrassing to be seen taking pictures of everything as to be seen sketching everything. Bottom line, she was self- conscious. She was also very fortunate that another great innovation appeared around the same time: GOOGLE.

The filing cabinet stuffed with reference photos used to be a basic furnishing in the cartoonist’s studio – and the painter’s, the sculptor’s, pretty much any artist. I remember vividly a young adult cartooning book I had as a kid, a “how to be a cartoonist” primer that had an entire chapter about developing a stock photo collection. That was my inspiration – gathering hordes of cuttings from newspapers, magazines, books, and so on, categorizing them, and filing them away for future reference, really appealed to my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. And collecting magazines and newspapers for their images lasted long past my determination to be a cartoonist.

But seriously, who still needs to do that? If you have internet access, you have the biggest collection of reference images ever. We’re all like Steven Wright in his old joke about having the world’s largest seashell collection. I have the world’s largest reference photo collection. Maybe you’re seen it – I keep it on Google.

There is, quite simply, no need for a reference file anymore. If you need to draw a dog, you can immediately find millions of photos of every breed developed by man. If you want to draw a fire escape, like Carrie did just this afternoon, and there’s none close by, you can find pictures from every conceivable angle.


Granted, reference photos can’t replace drawing from life – they were never intended to. The point of a reference collection is to aid experience, to remind you of things you’ve seen but can’t quite remember, to give you access to pictures besides those in front of you or in your head. And just think how lucky you are, next time you Google “dachshund,” that you don’t have to go find one of those yippie things just so you can draw it.

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