When I was younger I used to think that a good artist didn`t need to use reference. That a sign of becoming better at drawing was that you needed less and less reference. You`d learn how to draw all kinds of architecture, clothing, anatomy and landscapes from memory and your creativity did the rest and helped you with your ideas to bring in the variation.

Boy, was I wrong. Reference will improve your art, whether if you`re a beginner or a professional. I know that a lot of people do not use reference or have the same ideas about it as I had. In this post I will go into why gathering and drawing from reference is a good thing and give you some pointers on how to start looking for reference.

At the bottom are some great resources about using the reference you`ve found. I might do a blogpost about that later myself if I see the need for it.

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Who knew fog could look this awesome? You would, if you looked at a ton of fog pictures. This was shot by myself on a winter morning.

I now know that, not only will you become better at drawing faster when using reference, but you`ll never run out of new things to draw. And unless you have a great photographic memory that can remember everything you ever drew up to the smallest detail, then you will also need reference for things you haven`t drawn in a while.

Some things, when you draw those a lot, will stick more than others, like the human skull or the shape of a cat. Sure, I can draw a face without reference and I can draw most basic things from memory, but those things will always look the same and have not much creativity in them, because I`m only drawing from one or a few limited options that are in my head.

You need to build up a visual library in your head for designing new things and coming up with good compositions or colour schemes and you do that by drawing and painting a lot from reference. And even all those things you studied at some point in the past will fade in time. At least it does in my head.

There are more possibilities now to find reference than ever before. Sites like Google, Flickr, Youtube and Pinterest make it very easy to see all kinds of things from all over the world. It also gives us access to a lot of art so you can see what has already been done and how other people approach certain artistic problems. Of course, we still have libraries to help immerse ourselves in a subject, we can watch movies or go to a museum. Better yet, you can grab a camera or your phone and shoot the reference yourself. Sites like DeviantART have a lot of stock photos that you can draw from as well.

You can use reference for:

  • Looking at how to draw certain things
  • Coming up with ideas for design, composition, lighting, colour, style and techniques
  • Getting to know more about a subject to make your story or drawing/illustration more plausible.

Things to look out for when using reference:

Never just copy something and claim it as something original you made.

Everything you see has copyright, even if it`s just a simple stick figure. Stock photo`s, holiday pictures, books, art, it`s all copyrighted and just copy it in a drawing you use for commercial purposes is a no go in my opinion. Some creators of stock photos will not mind if you copy it and publish it on the web, as long as you give them proper credit. Always look at the terms on sites that offer things for reference use.

If you make fan art of something, always credit the person or studio who has the copyright. If the original creator has a website, provide a link to that website.

Use more than one source of reference.

I learned to draw by watching animated movies and copying the art. Sure, Disney made use of a lot of different art styles in their movies over the years but it`s still, overall, Disney. If I had not looked further for inspiration my art would have looked very Disney-like. (or better said, even more Disney-like, haha)

I see a lot of people drawing only in anime and manga style on the web. But by using someone`s style to dictate how to draw things you are really limiting your choice in artistic possibilities and this might even get in the way of developing of your own style.

By using more sources of reference, including different photos, info in books but also by looking at how other artists draw something you`ll see the many possibilities you have in drawing one thing. It also gives you more ideas to make your art more creative and unique.

Draw from life, or at least from photographs.

On that same note, Disney and Miyazaki already use a very stylized version of reality. I think true understanding of shape, form, light and shadow, texture and all those things comes from drawing from life. By seeing things as they are without any artistic filter.

If you`ve got a real life model or objects in a still life setting you can draw, you can walk around the subject in 3D, see what the light does because you understand where that light is coming from (ever see those photos or movie stills and think: what is that light source and where is it coming from?) and won`t have the limitation of a flattened out scene, like photos tend to do.
If you don`t have that possibility, then photos work as well.

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When I was in Norway I made sure to capture all interesting things I saw there that I could maybe use later. (I actually find this fun to do, plus it was all pretty and I wanted to photograph everything anyway)

Gather reference for everything you need in your painting or story.

This can make the process of reference gathering rather long. But it will save you time and will make your art more awesome in the long run. (bonus: it will make you smarter, and don`t forget it can be fun to learn new things)

This is my reference board for my Painting Drama 1 project of illustrating two scenes of Jule Verne`s book “20.000 miles under the sea” in a Scandinavian setting. It`s only two scenes but I gathered extensive reference for the setting, the characters, the lighting and the colours on this board. It gave me far more ideas than I originally had. This is a sketch version of the first illustration I did that I used for colouring in Painting Drama 2. I had never been able to come up with the design for the monster if I didn`t look at all the reference I had of scary animals.

I could tell you how I use reference, but it`s similar to how other artists use it, and there are great resources about how they go about it, I recommend you take a look at these links if you`re interested:

Great post from Claire Hummel (Shoomlah) about reference

Blogposts from Paolo Rivera about using and finding reference – part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Great video from Will Terrell about using reference and making all you`ve learned your own:

Last link is from Chris Oatley, a podcast about how to improve art before you start.

Have fun creating!

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