Every artist knows the value of doing your research. We all know the temptation to make things up in your head rather than doing the work of figuring out what it actually looks like, and we all know that when we fake things instead of doing our research, the viewer can tell that we faked it.
If you have to draw the deck of a pirate ship, look at real pictures of ships. If you have to draw a Tibetan village, look up pictures of one. I'm not one of those artists that goes to extremes on this - there are artists that, if they had to draw a Tibetan village, they would read everything they could about the history of Tibetan architecture and they would make sure that they were drawing a village that anyone from Tibet would be able to distinguish the exact time period when it was built and where in Tibet that particular village would be. I admire that kind of dedication but I don't have that kind of patience...life is too short. I'm a storyboard artist at heart and I tend to worry about the big picture, the overall thrust of everything and I don't tend to focus on details because there's never time for details in the story process. Within the animation process that's the focus of the layout person, the Visual Development artist, the modeler and others. For storyboard purposes I would focus on drawing a village that feels like it belongs in Tibet so the audience would believe it and not be distracted by a village that doesn't feel right, unless there was some specific story point that related to specifics of Tibetan architecture (did any of that make sense?).
Anyway, in the olden days artists used to talk about using "clip files" which was a collection of pages culled from magazines and newspapers that had great reference material. Personally, I never did that but I do have a house full of books that I have collected over the years to cover reference on everything from locations like jungles and deserts, books about the history of costume, books on ships, cars, horses, cats, dogs, you name it. I have spent easily thousands of dollars on reference books over the years!
Anyway, that's a thing of the past now, of course. These days I do all of my research online, which is a million times better than trying to find the right book to buy and then trying to remember where you put the book later. It's also a lot cheaper.
For many of you this may be an unnecessary post. But I write about it because I am constantly shocked at how many people I talk to that don't do their research the same way I do. There are some great research sites on the internet that many people never think to take advantage of.
I do most of my photo research these days on two internet sites: flickr and Corbis.
Flickr is great because it is all content generated by everyday people. It's got millions and millions of photos uploaded by people all over the world and totally searchable. I've found some amazing photos on the site. Just a couple of weeks ago I used it to find pictures of horses sitting down. In fact I use it almost like a crutch - I constantly search, using variations in my wording, to look for inspiration even when drawing the simplest actions, just to try to spark a new idea in my minhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifd for doing commom actions and activities in interesting ways.
Corbis is great too - it's a database of commercial photographs that are meant to be licensed by magazines, websites, and other people who need photos for articles and things like that. But it's searchable (and free) for everyone. If you need reference of a pretty sunset or something like that Corbis is great because all the pictures are incredibly beautiful and professional looking.
There are other sites too - Getty Images is a lot like Corbis but I find Corbis easier to use. Getty Images is better for looking up vintage illustrations and photos, whereas Corbis is mostly contemporary (and staged) photos. Also Yahoo! Images and Google Images are great...it all depends on what you're looking for.
And of course I am totally indebted to wikipedia as well, the online encyclopedia made up of user-generated content. I've used wikipedia for everything from using it to understand how to invent and draw a vintage steam engine to finding out more about my favorite artists of the past. It's truly an amazing resource.