Keeping A Morgue Or “Swipe File”

As a freelance illustrator I often use reference photos for my work. Not to copy or trace but to study in order to help me understand the subject matter as I draw. My friend and fellow illustrator Tom Richmond recently wrote a good post on the proper role of reference photos when creating a piece of art. He compares it to a writer using a thesaurus, and warns against relying too heavily on reference imagery so that it becomes a crutch.

When I was in art school the internet was brand new and there was no such thing as Google, much less Google Image Search. Back then we were taught to scrounge old magazines from friends, relatives, and recycling centers so that we could pour through them and rip out photos of anything and everything we thought we might be asked to draw someday. We were taught to organize them into what was called a “swipe file” or a “morgue”. Over a period of several years I eventually filled two-and-a-half filing cabinets with photos.

Google has made much of my “morgue” irrelevant, but not all of it. I’ve embellished my morgue with still image captures from various DVD movies (for example, I often work with Christian publishers so I have lots of reference stills taken from Bible movies). I’ve also got some helpful reference photos of I’ve taken over the years with my own camera (I’ve even hired models to dress up in costume). I’ve also collected samples of animals and characters drawn by other artists I admire as a helpful form of reference. If I have to draw a cartoon frog, I don’t just study real frogs. I also study other cartoon frogs in order to figure out what features make up the “essence” of a frog and what features can be downplayed or even left out altogether.

I haven’t abandoned my morgue, but I am bringing it into the digital age. I’m in the process of thinning out my morgue, tossing out anything I can find easily on Google. I also bought an auto-feed scanner so that my lovely wife can work on scanning the rest of my morgue into the computer. It will be nice not to have two extra filing cabinets taking up space in my humble little studio.

Every illustrator should have a morgue of some kind. Yours might be big or small, and it might be hard-copy photos, digital images, or both. I highly recommend keeping photos on hand of the things you draw most often.

My filing system is evolving, but here’s a rough breakdown of how my morgue is currently organized. You may want to try something similar. (Several of the categories below have sub-headings, but to save space I’m just hitting the main categories):

    • Men
    • Women
    • Children
    • Babies
    • Ethnic (sub-headings by race)
    • Famous People
    • Expressions
    • Hands
    • Poses
    • Anatomy
    • Land Animals
    • Water Animals
    • Birds
    • Bugs/Insects
    • Trees/Plants
    • Water
    • Fire
    • Weather
    • Land Transportation
    • Water Transportation
    • Air Transportation
  • INDUSTRY (sub-headings of various occupations)
    • Men’s clothing
    • Women’s clothing
    • Hairstyles
    • Period clothing
    • Housing Interiors
    • Housing Exteriors
    • Workplace
    • Industrial Buildings
    • Misc. Buildings
  • CULTURES (sub-headings by country)
  • RECREATION (i.e. chess, surfing, bowling, etc.)
  • BIBLE (I do occassional work for Christian publishers)

If you have any thoughts about keeping your own reference files, leave a comment below.