A Syn Studio Guide to Making your own References

As artists, capturing a realisitic and believable feel in our works can be difficult. A strong understanding of construction and structure is key, however what happens when we get stuck? This is where a good library of references can help during the artistic process.

Many great artists create their own references. James Gurney, for instance, wears costumes and takes photos of himself to use in his artwork. He goes on to explain that they don’t have to be elaborate, they just have to be enough to give you an idea2

Not only do references help for figuring out shapes and light, but they can be a lot of fun to make too!

Charles Vinh, a master painter and illustrator, teaches classes such as Digital Character Painting from Life and Digital Painting among others at Syn Studio. His classes involve drawing from references to train his students’ technical artistic skills. He often likes to create themes for his models to add dimension to the characters.


Art by Pavel Sokov

This pirate above was created by carefully referencing a model in costume.


While the costume may look elaborate, it can be easily created with a little imagination and props that can be bought at low prices or borrowed from your friends.

This head scarf, for instance was a simple piece of red fabric tied together with a rope.


Charles builds his own props so that students are subjected to a wide variety of inspiring things to draw. Another example is the costume in the image below.


Digital Character Painting from Life class reference

Most of the armor was made from styrofoam, dollar store items and a lot of creative thinking!


In this blog post, we’re going to show you how to make one of his shields, similar to the one pictured below. This can be useful for either a model to hold, a still life set, or even a Halloween costume!


Digital Painting 2 Reference

Here are the materials you’ll need:

Note: feel free to customize the shield decorations as you see fit!

  • 2 pieces of Interlocking Mat (sold at Canadian Tire or your local hardware store)
  • 8 washers (as pictured in ziploc bag, sold at Canadian Tire or your local hardware store)
  • 1 can of black spray paint (sold at Canadian Tire, or your local hardware store)
  • 3-4 large pieces of foam paper (the orange and blue ones below, sold at Dollarama, or local craft stores)
  • 1 pack of googly eyes (Dollarama)
  • 2 bat decorations (keep an eye out for these kinds of spooky decorations around Halloween!)
  • 1 styrofoam ball, cut in half (sold at craft stores)
  • 4 patches of soft putty, with a design stamped on the front (found at children’s arts and craft stores)
  • 1 hot glue gun
  • 1 bottle of white glue
  • 1 bottle of Mod Podge (sold at Deserres or your local art store)
  • 1 Xact-o knife
  • 1 pair of scissors
  • 1 cutting mat
  • 1 roll of masking tape
  • 1 pencil
  • 1 old paintbrush
  • 1 pad of newsprint paper
  • 1 heat gun with gloves (optional)

The colors of the decorations don’t matter, as everything will be painted over at the end.


Pictured below: heat gun and gloves (optional)


Step 1: On a large sheet, draw a layout of what your shield will look like. It should be to scale with the actual shield. Here we have the bats in the center, with the washers on the centerpiece corners. The 4 soft putty circles will go in each quadrant and the foam will be the strips for the cross.



Step 2: Using the dimensions on your layout, re-draw and cut out the main body of the shield on one of the sheets of newsprint, and tape it to the piece of interlocking mat. For redrawing, it helps to have a light table, but since newsprint is thin, you can get a good idea of the shapes underneath.

With your Xact-o knife, cut the interlocking mat around the edges, so that it has the same shape as the shield. Make sure you do this on a cutting mat, so as not to cut into any surfaces.



Step 3 (optional): Using your heat gun and gloves, heat around the edges and then roll the edges on a hard surface. This will help flatten any unwanted scraps of Interlocking Mat that may be poking out and smooth the edge of your shield.




Step 4: Next, we’re going to make the handles on the back. Cut out two long strips from another piece of interlocking mat. These will be the two handles that attach to your arm, one for your hand to grip and another to go over your forearm. Make sure you measure the length with your forearm, so that it’s a snug fit. 

Bending the edges up with a heat gun is not necessary, but it can be useful to achieve a better handle shape. We’ll demonstrate how this is done in Step 5.


Step 5 (optional): Apply heat with the heat gun to both extremities (where we plan to fold the material), and once the material has softened, fold up the edges.

You can use your Xact-o knife to hold down one side, while folding the other side up. Hold it in place while the material settles into the new shape.



Repeat on the other side of the strip to get the results below.


Do Step 5 again with the second strip, so that both your strips of mat look like the above

Step 6: Apply white glue around the edges of each side and a dot of hot glue in the middle.


Important: You want to glue the handles on the textured side of the interlocking mat

Flip the strips over and apply pressure until it sticks. Your handles should now look like this.



If you did not use a heat gun: make sure you bend the shapes first so that there is space to insert your forearm, before glueing the strips down

Step 7: Now, the fun part: we’re going to start decorating! Using the initial shield template in Step 1, redraw the center shape on a newsprint sheet and tape it to a piece of foam paper. Trace the outline with your pencil and use your Xact-o to roughly cut out the shape. Use your scissors for the inside curves.


Step 8: Cut out 4 more rectangles of foam paper. These will be part of the cross design. Make sure the edges line up with the center cross.


Step 9: Using your newsprint, draw a shape similar to the one below, circled in red: this will be a cut-out template for the four rectangular foam pieces.

Tape the shape onto the pieces and trace around them with your pencil. You can now cut those shapes out from the foam. They should look like the orange piece on the bottom left. Repeat this for the other three.


Note: you want to make sure all four strips are identical. They will be glued to the shield like in the picture below.


Step 10: Glue both bats, half of the styrofoam ball and all eight washers onto the center foam piece. It should look as pictured below: 


If you coat the bottom of the styrofoam ball with Mod Podge, let it dry and then apply hot glue on top, it has better chances of sticking on to the shield.

Glue the centerpiece in the middle of the shield by applying white glue on the edges, and a few dots of hot glue for good measure. Note: make sure to glue the decorations on the non-textured side of the shield. 

Next glue the four rectangles in the cross shape, also using a mix of white and hot glue (see Step 9 on how they are placed). You can then cut off the excess foam that sticks out. 


Step 11Next, still with your hot glue, attach the googly eyes all around the frame, at equal distance from each other.

Glue the soft putty patches in each quadrant with hot glue. Make sure to seal up all the edges.


You can also make additional ornate patterns on your shield using just hot glue.


Step 12: Your shield should now look something like this. The final step: painting!


Step 13: Paint over top of the shield with Mod Podge using an old paintbrush. This will coat everything evenly so that the spray paint will stick better.



Step 14: Find a place outdoors, where it is safe to use spray paint. You can either set down a piece of cardboard, some newspaper, or make sure it is an area where it won’t be harmful to other people or the environment.

Give the can a good shake and, if possible, wear a mask, as the fumes are toxic.


Ta-da! You now have a prop shield! 


You can paint it any way you want! The coat of black underneath will give you a blank starting canvas but can also give a cool used effect, if you let some of it peek through.


For more info on prop-making, here are some other prop and costume related websites that go more in-depth on fabrication:




To learn more about Charles’ Digital Character Painting from Life class and his Digital Painting class, visit:



You can also see the full list of Syn Studio’s art classes here:


And remember: while references are important, don’t forget they are also tools for learning structure! You can have a great reference, but it is also an opportunity to understand how forms work, so that you can improve on your own knowledge! 🙂


2 http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.ca/2016/04/cardboard-cutout-for-reference.html

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