References for Artists: A Guide to Using Them Properly

Is using a reference cheating? Over the years, I learned that different artists have different definitions of what is considered 'cheating' in art. And they can be very passionate about it.

Some painters avidly avoid using photo references altogether. They get great results by concentrating their efforts on observational work. Others have tremendous skill and imagination and work purely from visual memory. Some artists unabashedly use references, especially movement that is hard to observe, such as quick movements or action poses.

Some people believe that using references is wrong! Others use it as a part of their art practice. But which side should you choose?

Let's discuss...

Is using a reference cheating?

I remember arguing with a friend in art school about whether we could use references or not. He said if I were to consider being an artist, I should give up on using references. I knew I did not have the mental library to draw without that help.

So I continued to use references whenever I wasn't at art school. At art school, I would struggle to piece fragments of my imagination together. Whenever no one was looking, I would try to gather as many images as possible and memorise them. I would look through books or find images online to fill in the gaps in my visualisation. I felt like a fraud, but I knew I could not draw without it.

Turns out many prolific artists have used photos to help them create their masterpieces.

Norman Rockwell used reference photos to help with the composition and proportions of his subjects. Rockwell would stage these references in his studio or on location, arranging people and items how he desired, and then hired a photographer to capture the images. He then pasted these images together to develop his desired composition.

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell. (2022, August 29). In Wikipedia

Using a reference is a tool; it is important to give credit where due if you use a photo or another drawing. It is important to let people know you used a photo for different aspects. Don't say that you created it purely from imagination. That would be untruthful and seen as dishonest behaviour.

However, it is okay to take time to build your visual library and using references is a tool that helps.

Why references are important

There are certain situations where you cannot work from life. For example, if you wanted to draw a dog yawning, you would need a reference for a dog with its mouth open. You are not going to be able to convince a dog to pose for you with its mouth wide open as you draw it. No matter how good your imagination, you would not be able to picture the dog's mouth open unless you have studied it previously. Photography fills in the gaps when drawing from life cannot.

There is a common misconception that drawing from your imagination is superior to using a reference. When you draw without using a reference, you are limiting your creations to being banal and generic.

Most people might resort to drawing a dog easily recognisable as one. But if you took the time to do some research, you might see that there are so many different breeds of dogs. Picking the right breed for your drawing might make it distinctive and knowledgeable.

Make your own references

Sometimes it can be hard to find the references that you want online. Just grab your phone and take some yourself. Use your friends and family as models. You might be able to direct your models to get the perfect reference rather than hoping to find it online.

Take photos and use them as refrences.

Many professional artists stage images they want and take photos of them. They might get a person or group to pose in a specific way. They might go to a specific location to find the right inspiration for their artwork. Try that in your practice too.

Where to find good art references

Sometimes it might be easier to look online for an image rather than trying to do a photo shoot. There are many sites that you can use without violating copyright laws. You can use free sites like Pixabay, Unsplash, Pexels, Flickr, FreePik, Wildlife art-Online, Photobash, etc. Some sites require that you credit the creator of the photos. Other websites have some copyrighted content, so make sure to do your research before using an image.

There are also sites where you have to pay for your images, like Adobe Stock, Dreamstime and Shutterstock. You pay for a license to use their content without having to credit the creator.

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Watch out for copyright

Please make sure that you avoid any copyright violation. Try to ensure that you use royalty-free photography or a licensing agreement that grants you access to use or modify the photo. Even if you don't directly copy a photo, you can get into trouble if you are not cautious. Copyright law changes in different regions, so learn about the rules in your country.

Additionally, make sure to alter your reference to the extent that it is entirely your own interpretation.

Avoid copyright issues when using references.

If you find an image you particularly like, reach out to the photographer and ask permission to use it. Many photogs enjoy sharing their work with artists and want to see how their work is interpreted. Do your due diligence.

How to use references in art

Don't copy the reference exactly; get creative. What's special about the image and how can you enhance it? Use the photo to acquire details about proportion, values, colours, etc. But then turn it into your own creation. Exaggerate and distort certain areas to make them different from the photo.

Modify and combine references. Get innovative by combining your references to create something unique. For example, you can use one reference for the proportions, one for the lighting and another for the action pose. You can also use photo editing software to piece different elements together and create something extraordinary.

Camera lenses don't 'see' the way the human eye does. Strange perspective angles, harsh lighting, wrong white balance settings, lens distortion, etc. can make certain photos a bad reference. Make sure to spot the oddities and compensate accordingly.

Draw from life and photos

Ask yourself if a photo reference is necessary. It's absurd to be lazy enough to draw something from a photo if it is easily available in real life. If you rely on references heavily, they might become a dependency at the expense of your developing visual library.

Many students might just look up an image of a leaf rather than step out to find one. When possible, make an intention to draw from life.

Using a photograph as a reference can be captivating. It's easy to get lured into copying it without discretion. Without conscious effort, it's difficult to get lost in blindly copying a photo rather than using it as a 'reference'. Copying a photo can lead to a flat and dull image rather than capturing the moment’s feeling.

Drawing from reality will give you the most effective result for building your mental library. While that isn't always possible, be sure you are not using a photo as a default.

Draw from life and photos

I don't see the harm in using references while I work on building my mental visual library. I hope to draw and paint from my imagination one day. It's my 'Mount Everest', and I am working towards it.

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