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Customizing: Reference and Art Books

In spite of the everyday prolific nature of search sites like Google, when working on custom projects, I still like to kick it old school.

In customizing, it’s inevitable you will run across a project that you aren’t intimately familiar with, particularly when it comes to anything with a lot of intricate detail or based on a real-world inspiration. It’s pretty standard to fire up the search engine and cruise through hundreds of images, looking for the angle, lighting, or color you needed to see. As a customizer, I honestly don’t remember doing this in a time before Google. Even though I certainly did. Interestingly, as a model-builder, I can remember much more distinctly the pre-internet struggle of trying to match details. Like most modelers, I amassed a sizeable collection of Jane’s Aircraft, modeler’s magazines, and Squadron-Signal Walkaround and “In Action” books.

The last couple years, as I have got back into vehicle-building specifically, I have found myself returning to these old methods as a supplement to the usual image search. And in doing so, I have found there’s something unmistakably cathartic and relaxing about working on things from older reference art. Even more interesting is just how much more inspiration I can draw from something like a video game art book than I can just in keyword searches. So if you’ll forgive the pictures — photographing books is sort of like wearing glasses with your contacts in — here’s a few examples that I thumb through constantly:

Modern Combat Aircraft, Modern Fighting Helicopters, Modern Land Combat

These books are great examples of a somewhat lost art — color illustrated books about weapons and warfare of the 1980s. While the information here is really not much different (other than dated) than you would find on Wikipedia, it’s those classic hand-drawn illustrations that have kept these on my shelf for more than three decades. There is something about a non-CAD image that just calls to me.

Combined with some excellent diagrams of tactics, operations, and technologies, I use these not only for reference, but also often inspiration. Nothing better than flipping through one of these and recognizing the shape of a real-world vehicle in one of my thrift store vehicle finds.

Modern Combat Gear, Uniforms of World Wars I & II, Infantry Weapons of World War II, Small Arms 17th-Modern

I obviously build a lot of soldier figures, so some uniform breakdowns are essential.  Again, like the other books, having color illustrations to go with the archival photos helps immensely for me when it comes to putting things together.


There is also something to be said for getting this information from a verified, published source. Often when looking at random search results, it can be difficult to know if what you’re looking at is a legitimate photo or schematic, or something from a movie, or a piece of fan art, etc.

The Art of Wolfenstein: The New Order, The Art of Batman: Arkham, The Art of Metal Gear Solid V, The Art of Batman v. Superman, Batman v. Superman Tech Manual and lots of others

These books are some of my favorite reading and browsing material. In some cases, like the BvS movie or the Arkham games, it’s easy enough to get reference from screenshots or just playing or watching the stuff itself. But these books can provide fascinating context to go with these images, and of course that ever-fascinating behind-the-scenes stuff I can never get enough of. In the case of BvS, these two books actually enhanced my overall enjoyment of the movie.


Wolfenstein and MGSV can also provide useful information in terms of reference, as well as some peeks behind the curtain, but what books like these really do for me is get my motor running. Flipping through the design phases of a character, well, it makes me want to design. Looking at the breakdown of a FOB or a vehicle makes me start looking for ways to build them.  And most importantly, the books can give you a much better understanding of the atmosphere or the context of an image, surrounded by related information, that can really help you grasp the feel of something you’re trying to recreate. When playing a game or watching a movie, it can be hard to narrow-in on a single scene or object without having to put the brakes on and break the immersion.

Collecting The Art of G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe vs Cobra Official Guide


And these require little explanation. If I need to see some Joe card art, or even figure shots, I turn to Carson’s books. The Guidebook that was put out some years back is pretty handy as well.

With the exception of some of these older books, there is no doubt there is nothing in binding that can’t be found with enough online searching. And I sure as hell don’t miss places like the Library or looking at Microfilm (yeah, I’m old enough for that) when I can pull out my phone and have my answer in 30 seconds. But when we’re talking about creativity, there is something about being able to pour over a physical reference that affects my work differently than it does on screen. I think it’s having it actually in front of you that lets you slow down, look more closely. There’s no screen burning, no data charges, no screensaver or auto-dim looming. I suppose it’s not all that different than people who prefer reading paperbacks and comics over e-readers- you can get a little more absorbed in the material.

It’s also a bit of collecting in it’s own right. Sure, the art books can be a little expensive new — the Miyazaki sketchbook in particular is pricey — but usually these things are languishing at the thrift store for a couple bucks. And you never know who your reference might have served in the past …

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