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Reference images can be dynamic resources, but knowing how to use them well is vital for the success of your creation if you want to end up with a believable piece. Relying on your visual recall isn't the best way to end up with an exact representation as there are too many elements to drudge up from the recesses of your memory, and this is where reference images come in handy. 

This article pulls together tips from professionals to make sure you're using your reference images in the best way possible. Page one offers some general tips on how to approach the matter, or jump straight to page two if you want some more specific advice on the principles to follow if you're using a reference to create art. 

Or if you'd like to start with some awesome drawing tutorials, check out our guide to how to draw which sums up our pick of the best tuts on the web today. 

Should we use reference images?

Recently, the hashtag #ArtistConfessions took off on Twitter, and one of the most popular confessions artists shared was 'using references'. This is bizarre because, as British illustrator and caricaturist Neil Davies pointed out, that’s exactly what artists should be doing.

"That’s not something that needs to be confessed, we all use reference!" he tweeted. "Look at probably the most famous American illustrator, Norman Rockwell: I have a book just of his reference photos! Or Drew Struzan: he didn’t make up poses, he took photos of himself!"

So where has this idea – that using references is bad – come from? 

"There’s a kind of purist mindset on certain parts of the internet that says using reference for anything more than studying is disrespectful," says North Carolina artist Ivy Dolamore "I think it stems from a frustration with people who trace and recreate what they see without really understanding it. Being a 'copier' isn’t flexing your creativity."

01. Identify the grey area

Reference images: Suzanne Helmigh

Artwork for Helmigh’s book, Caldyra. Suzanne creates her own reference packs, and sells them to other artists too

Using references isn't the same as simply copying, of course, but there can sometimes be a grey area between the two. "The biggest problem is when artists adhere too closely to the reference image," says California-based illustrator Kelley McMorris. "Sometimes a pose or perspective can look natural in a photo, but awkward and stiff in a drawing. It's important to modify the reference to serve your drawing, not the other way around. Or as my professors sometimes said, 'Don't be a slave to your reference!'"

Suzanne Helmigh concept artist and illustrator working in the game and film industry in The Netherlands, agrees. "The key is to understand what you're looking at and not simply draw what you think you see," she says.

"I used to teach people how to paint portraits and I made them study the skull and facial muscles before portraying actual faces. This helped them tons in understanding the proper volumes and proportions."

02. Combine your references

Reference images: Neil Davies

Alternative film poster for Black Widow by Neil Davies. “You need a decent understanding of the information reference photos are showing you,” he says.

Davies feels it's important to use more than just one reference. "I'll always try to find a good selection of images to look at, even when I'm drawing from one main one," he says. "I'll often use one reference photo for drawing a face, for example, then another for a lighting reference, and maybe another for a colour scheme idea. Combining lots of different references is a great way to be creative."

Speak to most pro artists and you'll hear a similar story. Admittedly, one notable exception is Korean comic artist Kim Jung Gi, who famously doesn't use references. Even he, though, doesn't purely rely on his imagination. As he explains in an interview on his website: "I observe things all the time. I don't take references while I'm drawing, but I'm always collecting visual resources. I observe them carefully on a daily basis, almost habitually. I study images of all sorts and genres."

03. Watch out for copyright

So where can you find references? Google Images and Pinterest are the obvious go-tos, but don't forget about copyright. "Sometimes I worry that I've stuck too closely to a photo that I found online," says McMorris. "So if I do use photos from online sources, I try to find copyright-free stock photos, and I always try to change the reference substantially. For example, I might change the model's costume, or only use their hand for reference rather than the entire pose."

04. Create your own references

Reference images: Kelly McMorris

McMorris cuts out the middleman and creates her own references

Alternatively, McMorris will simply cut out the middleman and shoot her own references. "I usually just dig through my closet for something I can use as a costume, grab whatever's lying around the house as a prop, and take a few shots with my phone," she explains. "It only takes a few minutes, but can save me an hour of struggling to draw from imagination. By taking your own photos, you'll not only avoid any copyright infringement, but you'll also learn about what kinds of poses, angles and lighting work best for reference."

Reference images: Kelly McMorris

The finished product from the above self-created reference image

That said, photography is just one way to create your own references. Dolamore, for example, creates her own 3D model references using DesignDoll, helping her to map out poses, perspective and shadows. "This gives me a result I like, although you can't just copy what DesignDoll gives you, either," she says. This does, of course, take a little time. And Samuel Read, a concept artist at Mighty Kingdom based in Adelaide, admits that, until recently, time pressures dissuaded him from using references as often as he should, even while he was recommending the practice to others.

As Read explains, "Although I used reference for things like inspiration and developing ideas, I was lacking in using photos and life drawing for task such as posing my characters, making expression studies, and designing different kinds of hands, feet, eyes, noses, mouths and so on."

05. Analyse your process

Reference images: Samuel Read

Dave-o the necromancer by Samuel Read. “Reference is essential in creating believable characters, props and environments,” he says

The #ArtistConfessions hashtag made Read rethink his process and focus more on these areas – and this approach has made an impact in his work. "The use of more varied reference photos, as well as drawing from life, have started to teach me more about the different ways in which people are constructed, and methods of communicating ideas, such as making someone's hands read as old, weathered and tired, or hard and strong," Read says.

Using references can be full of pitfalls, but done in the right manner it'll make you a better artist. "Listening to professionals proudly saying they use reference has helped me immensely," says Dolamore. "Learning that work I admire isn't created out of thin air gives me the confidence to think, 'Oh, I can do that, too'. I've stopped thinking as much about the purism and more about how I can achieve that initial vision. Why not use the tools available?"

The content was originally published in issue 177 of ImagineFX, the world's best-selling magazine for digital artists. Buy issue 177 or subscribe to ImagineFX.


Next page: step-by-step tips for using reference images

Reference images can hinder you if you don’t know how to compensate for the photo’s inadequacies and distortions. Every project is different, but these are the key principles you should follow to use references correctly.

01. Don’t copy the reference exactly 

Reference images: photograph next to artist's impression

Don't be tempted to copy every pixel of a photo reference

The temptation to copy every pixel of a photo reference is always there for an artist. People and things obviously don't look the same in a photo as they do in real life, so remember that a reference is there for you to gain information about the proportion, values, edges and colours. In order to get a realistic result, you will most likely have to deviate from the reference. Sometimes that deviation will be extreme and other times it will be subtle.

02. Ask if a photo reference is necessary

Reference images: two images of a dog

Sometimes it's better to work from life

This may seem like a simple question, but it’s important to ask yourself this up-front. Working from life will give you the most realistic and effective result. That isn’t always possible, but make sure you aren’t just using a photo reference by default. If you can quickly set something up in your studio, without too much hassle, then do it that way.

03. Take the reference photo yourself 

Reference images: image of a bust, vase with a balloon and jam jar with a flower in

Don't settle for an almost-right image

When possible, you want to take the reference photos yourself. Each project demands something a little bit different from a reference. It can be tempting to just search quickly on the internet and work with a reference that is not quite what you need. If at all possible, take the extra time and photograph the reference yourself.

04. Look for 'weird' elements

When we see something strange in a photo, we readily accept it. We don’t question the oddity, because of a camera’s inherent ability to document reality. However, as an artist, we need to watch out for those things that might look strange when transferred to canvas or paper. Forced perspective, odd angles or lighting, or even heavy lens distortion can show up in photos. If you are on the lookout for those strange areas, you can compensate accordingly.

05. Avoid over-exposed references

Reference images: over exposed photo of a woman

Over exposure covers a multitude of flaws in the face

I often see artists utilising references from fashion photographers and other focused fields of photography. Most of the time, this type of reference will not provide what they need. For instance, fashion photographers purposefully eradicate shadows on the face in order to give the model a pristine and flat look. This covers a multitude of flaws in the face, but provides the artist with no information on the structure.

06. Focus on lighting

Reference images: image of woman with half of face in the shadows

Lighting should be the most important consideration

The lighting in a reference photo should be the most important consideration for an artist. In order to understand the structure of what you are drawing or painting, you must have proper lighting. The lights and darks need to be clearly visible and understandable. The more straightforward the lighting, the better it will translate to a work of art.

07. Remember that photographs harden edges 

Reference images: photo of a teacup with a broken egg

Photographs naturally harden the edges of each object

Photographs naturally harden the edges of different values, unless a filter is applied. A soft transition from shadow to light on a model’s cheek will often look quite harsh in a photo. When you draw or paint from a reference, make sure you err on the side of soft edges. That little bit of compensation will help keep your art from looking flat and unrealistic.

08. Do colour studies separately

Reference images:  photo of a baby and a skull

The distortion of colour in photographs can range from subtle to extreme

Virtually every one of us has taken a photo with the wrong white balance setting, only to find later that our picture is an overwhelming shade of blue or orange. The distortion of colour in photographs can range from subtle to extreme. The best way to combat this problem is to observe the objects in real life, gather as many references as possible, or do colour studies separate from your reference.

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