Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Using Photo References

Recently an "artist confessions" meme went around Twitter, where artists confessed to various things such as not keeping a sketchbook or not understanding perspective. I noticed that a few people "confessed" to using photo references.


You guys.

If your style is the least bit realistic, then photo references are your friend. I use them all the time, for almost everything.

For Lifeway's Explore the Bible series

I think it all comes from this idea that artists are supposed to be just magically good at drawing everything. If you believe this, then learning that artists actually use tools to make our jobs easier can, at first, seem like cheating. Then, hopefully, you get over it. Especially once you're the one trying to draw a crowd scene under a deadline.

No one, even someone with a photographic memory, magically knows how to draw every single thing in the world. Using photo reference can help you learn to draw things outside what you can easily remember or imagine - or as art professors like to say, "expand your visual vocabulary."

Here's a collection of some of the photo references I've taken over the years, next to the finished drawings. Enjoy.

(Special shout-out to my husband who has put up with some very strange requests for poses over the years.)

For Scholastic' Ranger in Time series

Cover for the book The Third Kind of Magic 

For Scholastic's Real Stories From My Time: The Underground Railroad 

 For Scholastic's Real Stories From My Time: Titanic

For Scholastic's Real Stories From My Time: The Underground Railroad  

For Scholastic's Ranger in Time series 

For William Sadlier's curriculum 

For Scholastic's Ranger in Time series

For the cover of The Second Guard

For Scholastic's Real Stories From My Time: The Boston Tea Party

As I've said before - I'm a lazy photo taker and I don't tend to put a lot of effort into my costumes or fancy lighting. This is partially out of aforementioned laziness and partially because my deadlines tend to be pretty tight. But there are also professional artists who hire models, find costumes, and invest in nice lighting setups. Of course, not everyone has the time, budget, or space for that.

My advice would be to make use of what you have - use a bedsheet as a cape, or a broom as an oar. Get creative. Learn to love working with photo references, and you'll see an immediate improvement in the quality of your drawings.


  1. I love these photos so, so, much! I found some old images of Al Parker's photo reference side-by-side with his paintings, and your post reminded me of it. Reference is such a necessary tool! http://jenbetton.blogspot.com/2012/05/there-is-website-up-now-with-some.html

  2. I love seeing all these examples of the use of photos as reference, and in particular, the way you altered them to fit your purpose rather than copying the poses.

  3. I love it! I use photo references too and I’m also lazy about it when it comes to costumes and lighting. I miss having access to figure drawing classes 😊

  4. I love how use reference for your illustrations. These are cool to see


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