Drawing from reference is a go-to exercise when I’m feeling artistically stuck. But I generally don’t stop there. Often times, I’ll transmute my sketch of the reference and make it my own by adding a theme to the piece. According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, there are seven common themes that link art pieces across time periods in American history. They are:
- Conflict and Adversity
- Freedom and Social Change
- Heroes and Leaders
- Humans and the Environment
- Immigration and Migration
- Industry, Invention, and Progress
When you link your illustration to a specific theme, you can add meaning to it, and make it greater than it was on its own. Let’s take a look at what that means by starting off from a photo from Minh Pham (@minhphamdesign).
The photo shows a young lady wearing a leather jacket. She appears to be adjusting the volume on her headphones. By mapping the theme of Freedom and Social Change towards my sketch, I can add a new context (or meaning) to the image. In my image below, we see a young lady transforming chaos into clarity.
Let’s see what we can do with the following reference photo of a train.
I used the composition as my starting point and explored the theme of humans and their environment by working in additional elements such as the guy smoking on top of the train, the barrier and the pile of junk on the left side of the composition. I deliberately selected cool colors to reinforce the feeling of being alone. The warm light hitting the left side of the train adds a calming influence and keeps the mood from being about sadness or emptiness.
If you’re feeling creatively stuck, but you want to go beyond sketching references, add a theme to what you’re sketching!