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Making a Splash with Reference Photos

Before a drop of digital ink hits the canvas, splash artists often take pictures to reference

Beast Slayer Splash Art: WIP

Reference pictures are the unsung heroes behind every splash art, used for inspiration while never seeing the spotlight… until now.

Beast Hunter Draven


Victor “3rdColossus” Maury: That’s one of the pictures I took while working on the Beast Hunter splash. It’s one of my favorite reference images—I could instantly picture the final splash art when he made that scrunched up face. It was just so Draven. Every artist on the splash team has entire folders filled with pictures like this.

Joshua “HUGEnFAST” Smith: Reference images are kind of like research to figure out what something is supposed to look like. Sometimes, you can get by just with just a Google search, but other times, there’s a very specific thing, like a facial expression worthy of Draven, that you can’t find a good reference for, so you just make it yourself.


HUGEnFAST: Not always, but we should. If you ever need to figure out how something works, the easiest thing to do is pull out your phone, grab a room, and start snapping selfies.

3rdColossus: What you’re seeing is just one picture, but we often take like twenty slightly different ones to figure out what looks the best before we even start drawing. You can waste a lot of time on a drawing that doesn’t work, but photos provide a quick proof-of-concept and allow for a ton of variety and fun camera angles really fast.

HUGEnFAST: In my phone, I probably have like a hundred photos of my hand because I’m not exactly sure what’ll work best. I take a bunch with slightly different angles and slightly different poses and then pick the one that fits.


3rdColossus: A big reason our images tend to stand out is because they’re informed from real life. It can be tempting to make everything up, but if you want to make these crazy characters still feel anchored to reality, you have to add that one moment of believability.

HUGEnFAST: And to make it believable, sometimes we have to mess around in real life, like, ‘Wait, how do hands work again?’”

Where’d the idea of using reference images come from?

HUGEnFAST: Reference pictures have been important to painters since… forever.

3rdColossus: Basically, since photography was invented.

HUGEnFAST: Yeah, and even before that, it was life. Renaissance painters would hire a bunch of models to stand exactly how they wanted, for hours on end, and then they’d literally just copy them. We definitely didn’t create a new technique here—it’s more like a bridge between traditional painting and the crazy, digital art we make today.

Is there a specific thing you’re looking for when taking reference pictures?

HUGEnFAST: Usually, but more generally, the goal is to build understanding. Like for Pool Party Leona, we went out and bought an orange umbrella. When we got back, we took some pictures and realized that light filtered through the umbrella tints everything slightly orange. This little detail was a really important discovery for Chengwei “KIllerPanda0007” Pan when he was painting, and I think it’s part of what makes the splash so unique.

Pool Party Leona

3rdColossus: There’s also this weird phenomenon when you act something out where you empathize with the character you’re drawing. I know that sounds weird, but it leads you to certain decisions that make your drawing feel like the real thing that wouldn’t have necessarily occurred to you if you drew it without experiencing it.

HUGEnFAST: When I was crushing an orange for a Gangplank reference, I was thinking about my body language and my facial expression, inevitably inhabiting some of the mental space of the pirate. When mimicking a character’s gesture and emotion, you can gain new understanding about how their feelings would affect their pose.


3rdColossus: When you act as the character, you know where the weight is, where the tension is, where the relaxation is. When I took Warwick’s reference pictures, the way my hands spread on the ground helped me understand weight distribution, and I noticed little things like how my fingertips squished down. I learned a lot from posing for this picture, actually—firstly that this is a really awkward pose, and I am not a wolf, and my neck bones were not made for this. But it did help me find which angles felt appropriate for the limbs. If you’re inventing a pose, it’s really easy to draw something broken and never realize it. But as soon as you act it out, you’ll know, ‘Oh, my wrist doesn’t bend that way.


Why’re reference pictures so important?

HUGEnFAST: In every splash, we strive to really understand what’s going on first. That’s ultimately what helps us convince other people that this character is real, and they’re actually feeling this way, and they don’t look derpy because they’re posed in a way that doesn’t make any sense. It’s all based in reality—you don’t have to just draw from your imagination.

3rdColossus: Sometimes, there’s this misconception about art that it’s magical and we’re just really talented, implying that it’s somehow inherent or easy for us, but it’s actually a lot of hard work, research, study, and trial-and-error. Good image-making, like anything else, can be learned. Lucky for us, most of the answers you could ever need are present in nature if you know where to look.

HUGEnFAST: The human body, and light, and color, are so complicated. It’s too much to keep in your head, even as a professional illustrator, and references help us create art that accurately reflects reality.

The following is a collection of reference photos taken by Riot’s splash artists.

SKT Vayne
SKT Lee Sin
Traditional Trundle
Dragonslayer Xin Zhao
Spirit Fire Brand
Urf the Nami-tee, Order of the Banana Soraka, Archduke Nasus, Definitely Not Udyr
Gentleman Gnar
Nemesis Jax
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An Update on the Nexus