Skip to content

All About Drawing with a Reference Photo

August 29, 2009

As you learn to draw, your reference photo is going to be your best friend. Aside from life drawing, using a reference is the best way for you to learn structure and proportion.

Why Do I Need a Reference?

If you’re the kind of artist who likes to draw from his imagination, by all means, continue! You can still find references for the individual elements of the composition you want to create. A hand from this photo, a facial expression from that one, a pose from another. Having something to refer to will go a long way towards making your drawings more believable and realistic.

An example is a drawing I did a few years ago. It started with the idea of a medieval style woman leaning against a door with her hand on her hip. The image on the left is straight out of my head. Notice how awkward and unnatural the figure seems! It wasn’t working, so I snapped a picture of myself in the pose I wanted. The picture on the right is the result of having that reference to look at. It’s still a simple cartoonish drawing, but the figure is much more natural and believable.                              


So now that I’ve convinced you that you need a reference, let’s talk about finding the right one!

  • Detail

not-enough-detailYou need to find an image that has a close-up, detailed image of the subject you want to draw. It’s no good trying to draw a portrait when the person in the photo is so far away their eyes are just two dark spots. If you’re going to draw it, you should be able to see it! In this photo, we can’t see enough of the flower to be able to do a drawing of it. 

  • Quality

blurryThe better your reference is, the better your drawing will be. Don’t choose a photo that is blurry or pixellated. When I do commissions, I ask for as high-resolution a photo as possible. I know that my customers are expecting a recognizable likeness of their loved ones, and the only way I can get that is by using a good quality photo. Here, you can see the general shape of the flower, but it’s too blurry to see the details. 

  • Lighting

flashLighting is extremely important to consider when choosing a reference photo. You don’t want a dark, gray photo, but you don’t want one that is too bright and washed out. Pick a reference that has a good range of value from dark shadows to highlights, and midtones in between. Try to avoid photos with flash, if possible. The light from a flash is very harsh. It creates unnatural cast shadows and makes everything closest to the camera too bright. You can see how the flash creates very dark shadows and actually changes the colours in this photo.

Photos from Magazinesflat-magazine-image

Magazines are probably the most accessible high quality images you will find. They can be either really good, or really bad. The problem is that they are beautiful photos that translate into flat drawings. This happens because they often use several light sources to evenly light the subject. This gets rid of most of the information that tells us about the contours of the subject. If I were to draw this face, there’s not much shading I could do. The drawing would be her head and her facial features.

On the other hand, you can find some “artistic” photos in magazines. These use more dramatic lighting and give you way more to work with in terms of shadows. It’s all a matter of choosing carefully. Be aware of copyright laws, though! You can practice with these images, but you can’t exhibit them or use them for profit in any way.

Ways to Use a Reference

There are different ways to draw from a reference photo. The firs two involve drawing realistically and trying to recreate the image in a believable way. You can use a grid to do this, or you can “eyeball it” using measurements and proportions.

The third way is to use an image as inspiration and draw your interpretation of the object. This can be as expressive and abstract as you want it o be. Maybe it’s the colour arrangement that interests you, or the patterns of light and dark, or the contour lines. I went to school with an artist who painted abstracts that incorporated delicate, wiggling lines of paint. You’d never know it, but her reference for those pieces was tree branches.

Where to Get Reference Images

Most agree that it’s best to take your own reference photos. That way you can control the lighting and composition. Do this as often as possible. I’ve also asked to borrow other people’s photos to use as a reference. Taking your own photos isn’t always possible, though. If you want to draw the Eiffel Tower and you’re able to pick up and go to France… well, good for you!!

What can the rest of us do?

There are online services, that provide royalty free stock photos. This means that the photographer has given permission for that image to be used for commercial purposes. Some of these sites, like Free Digital Photos, are free. The higher quality ones, like iStockphoto, usually have more selection and require a small fee for each image.

Another option is the Reference Library at Wetcanvas. This is a user-run forum where anyone is welcome to upload their own photos for others to use. The good thing about this is it’s free and you know the photographer has given permission for the picture to be reproduced. The bad thing is that the quality may not be what you’re looking for. It can be a good place to start, though. There are lots of categories to browse through, and if you can’t find what you need you can always make a request.

Be careful about using photos you find online (or in books and magazines). Don’t use someone else’s work without their permission. Respect copyright laws, as they are there to protect creative works, including your own!

Combining References

Don’t feel like you have to stick with just one reference. You can combine different images to get just the composition you want. I’ve often done commissions where the customer wants a portrait of their kids, but only has separate photos of them. In a case like this, I would usually combine the images digitally to find a natural way for the figures to fit together. Be careful about size and scale when you do this, you don’t want someone to end up with a freakishly large head!

For another commission, I was asked to do a drawing depicting a woman’s birthday. She wanted herself in there, her son, her daughter, a banner in the background and the cake! Each of these was a different reference. There were no photos of her son at the birthday, so I used a completely separate picture for him. The photo of her daughter was very poor quality, so I used it for the pose and the dress only. I used a different reference for her face. By doing this, I was able to capture the specific details of the birthday, but also draw a recognizable likeness of each of her kids.

In Conclusion

Reference photos definitely come in handy! Eventually, you may become familiar enough with your drawing subject that you don’t always need one, but in the beginning, you just can’t rely on your memory!


From → Art General, Drawing

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: