References: Their Importance, How to Use Them, & Where to Find Them

Welcome everyone!  If you’re a returning reader, you might notice I did a bit of an overhaul on the site.  It looks much more in line with my overall aesthetic, I feel.  I’m very slowly rebranding myself, but life is telling me there’s no rush.  I am constantly in a hurry to get everything done, between work, school, and everything in between.  If I have to rush through everything else, I might as well take my time with something close to me when I get the chance.  Slow and steady wins the race, right?

So how was your week? Other than tidying up this page, I worked on my first from-scratch web design.  I also painted a bathroom, and I caught up on all of Rick and Morty.  I gotta be honest, I discounted that show upon first sight because of the fan base, but it’s actually pretty hilarious. If you’re like me and you haven’t watched it because of its stereotypes, go watch it.  It’s ridiculous.  Plus, it’s important to get a break every once in a while, consume media and have a laugh.  It’s something I need to do more of, honestly.  I’m constantly churning out media, and yet I so rarely actually ingest it for myself.  It gets exhausting.  Even something as goofy as Rick and Morty can be beneficial; I mean those COLORS they use are so fun to look at.  What do you think is the most important thing in your own art?

This week, I wanted to keep things a little shorter than previously, but still talk about something that is extremely important in understanding your art: references.  References are used either directly or indirectly to influence how your art is going to look.  You can pull from multiple references at a time, or only one.

References are important because, unless you’re a superhuman, you cannot rememberhow something looks with 100% accuracy.  So if I wanted to draw a realistic dog, doing so without a reference would be extremely difficult.  I don’t inherently know the curvatures of a dog’s face, or their hair pattern.  To prove this, I’m going to draw my dog, who I see every day, without a reference for you:

So without a reference, I remembered that my dog has goofy looking ears, a smiley mouth, and a long tongue. But, as you can see, I didn’t know how to put it together.  I didn’t even attempt  in-depth shading or hair.

In reality, this is what my dog looks like:

You can go ahead and laugh, but I gotta be honest, I did a lot better than I thought I would. Still, there are some glaring issues. Now, if I’m using that image of my dog as a reference, I don’t have to worry as much about making the subject look like what it’s supposed to, because I can see it in front of me and can compare them.  Using this image, this is what I can create:

I’m not gonna lie and tell you this is the best pet portrait I’ve ever done, (it was actually a rush job for a class critique over a year ago) but as you can see it’s much closer to the original reference.  Similarly, I could have drawn from life and looked at my dog as I drew him, but that has its own set of challenges.

**PS: The reference photo I used of my dog was actually taken by the lovely Ericka Wadleigh of Luna Light Portraits!  You can find her on Instagram @lunalightportraits.

Multiple References

So, what happens when you want to draw/paint something a little more out there, like something you can’t see in real life?  What if you want to draw something otherworldly, like floating islands or anthropomorphic animals?

This is where you can use multiple references at once and piece them together.  You can do this a few ways: in your mind, which is the most traditional way, by printing out images individually and cutting them out and pasting them together, or you can use Photoshop or a similar software.

No matter what method of piecing together references you use, it’s always best to start with a few preliminary sketches.  Get your ideas on the paper and map things out before going in with details.

If you wanted to draw a lion in space, you could easily piece those two together.  I mean, I made this in like two minutes and it gives me exactly what I need:

If you wanted to draw something like a griffin, you’d have to piece things together a little more carefully.  A griffin is comprised of a lion and an eagle, and you’d have to look at the form of wings, the form of a beak, the tail of a lion, etc. just to create a creature with accuracy.  You don’t have to pull the exact shapes from the references: just allow them to grant you the knowledge about how the creature should be built, and put it in it’s own positioning.  Take from references what you need!  It’s extremely unlikely that this artist found wings in this exact position, or the body of a lion sitting like this:

The artist of this image also used a reference for the sky, the buildings, and the stone behind the creature.

(Art by Jesper Ejsing for Magic the Gathering, listed under public domain:

Do I Have The Rights To Use This Reference?

When looking for references, there are some legal issues that you have to be careful of.  If you intend on selling the artwork, you need to make sure you can use the reference legally.  The absolute best way to use references is to take your own, but that’s not always possible. For references that you need to find but can’t take by yourself, there’s a couple websites for you:

https://pmp-art.comis a hidden treasure: PMP stands for Paint My Photo! Users upload photographs that people can paint.  Make sure to read the terms and conditions to this site, as they do change frequently.

http://freebigpictures.comis exactly what it says it is: free big pictures.  These pictures are mainly nature related, but what they lack in variety they make up for in quality.

More well known are https://pixabay.comand  These sites are incredibly similar, but have varying content.  Each site is filled with royalty free stock photos.

Finally there’s my absolute favorite:  Unsplash has super high quality images, and a wide variety of them.  You can find just about anything you’re looking for with these images.


I’d like to end this week’s post with a prompt.  Take two or more images, one that you took on your own and one that you found on any of the websites listed above, and create a unique image.   Once you’re done, you can send it to bmartin.artdesign@gmail.comand it might get featured in the blog. Thanks for reading!


2 thoughts on “References: Their Importance, How to Use Them, & Where to Find Them

  1. References are my friend when I draw! The best lesson for me about using references was when Professor Paigo did the 30 second look at the image then draw it. You never really realize how important references are until you do that. 😉


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