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Building A Visual Library
Step 1: Pick a subject and amass a wide range of photoreferences related to it (e.g.: cars - look for all types from all eras).
Step 2: Out of those references, pick out some direct views (e.g.: front and side views without distortion).
Step 3: Using those views, get some average proportions (e.g.: such as the ratio of a car's height to its length and width).
In some cases, we can jump immediately to design references to get these kinds of measures (e.g.: Automobile Dimension).
Important Note: There are often some general conclusions that can be drawn immediately based upon the function(s) of those items (e.g.: a car has to be large enough for a human being to fit in, therefore, it has to be of a certain size relative to the characters in a scene).
Reasoning out why something looks the way it does (excluding aesthetic choices) is an artistic skill that we can develop just by carefully observing the world around us. We can do this constantly wherever we are, and whether or not we have a drawing instrument in our hand at that moment.
Here are some example questions that we can ask ourselves: How high is that table or counter relative to someone standing next to it? How much area on the floor does that box or bookshelf take up? Would someone fit through that doorway or be able to lay on that bed as we have drawn it (relative to the size of other objects in the scene)? Etc.
In short, we must continuously look at the relative heights, widths, and lengths of the things around us to hone our sense of proportion.
Step 4: Use these proportions to draw some primitive forms that embody them; keep in mind that we are aiming for a general framework that could be used as a basis for any drawing of that kind of object (e.g.: the bottom-half of a car could be approximated by a rectangular prism, while the top-half can be approximated by a trapezoidal prism).
Step 5: Analyze the details of your photoreferences to get an idea of:
• common stylistic motifs (e.g.: Where does the frame of the car often seem to curve in order to make it more aerodynamic? What are the general differences between a sports car and a luxury car? Etc.)
Again, sometimes we can jump immediately to design references to get the information we need (e.g.: Wikipedia - Car Classification).
• commonly used materials (e.g.: Cars are often made up of glass, chrome metal, and glossy paints that are going to form highly reflective surfaces which are rendered in a particular way. How can we render the textures of the fabric within the interior of the car? Etc.)
This last step gives us information that will help us to vary the primitives we built in Step 4 to create many different types of realistic cars at will. We are literally building up a visual language, and the more we understand, the more we can say.
We have used the example of cars throughout this article, but the same process can be applied to any subject.