Picking References: Part One

One of the most important things for any artist is finding good reference photos to work from. Although I’ve gotten much better at drawing things from my head, for any detailed work I have to have a picture to base my drawing on. 

When I’m drawing someone’s pet, the client sends me the photo they want me to draw, so things are pretty simple. But when I’m drawing wildlife, I have a lot more flexility about picking a photo to work from. Which leads me to this post: where to get reference photos from. In a later post I’ll talk about what to look for in a reference photo, but for today I’m just going to talk about the different sources you can use as an artist. 

One of the important things to think about when sourcing a reference photo is to think about copyrights. Though it’s very easy these days to Google whatever subject and find hundreds of beautiful pictures, many of those will be protected by copyright law. When I first started drawing I didn’t pay so much attention to this, but back then I was drawing for fun and not for profit. Now that I sell my works, I’m much more careful about where I source my references from. 

A photo I took of a flamingo at the Toronto Zoo. I haven’t drawn this one yet, but it’s a decent enough reference that I could use it.

The easiest way to avoid any issues of copyright is to use your own references. Visits to the zoo or aquarium can be a good way to get pictures of wildlife that may not live in your area. Of course, not all of us are talented photographers, or we may not have the equipment needed to take quality close-ups. In that case, we need to look to other resources. 

There are a number of good free resources out there. Pixabay and Wikipedia are both good ones. Almost all the pictures on Wikipedia are under Creative Commons licensing, meaning the photo can be used for commercial purposes, so as you attribute the author, and as long as that product is also licensed under Creative Commons. Wikipedia has millions of photos, and if you can’t find one you like, you can look at Wikimedia Commons to find even more pictures. It’s a great resource! Just be sure you carefully read all the copyright and attribution rules.

Another fantastic place to look for free photos is in artist communities. I’m a member of a number of different Facebook groups that are specifically for artist reference photos – just make sure the group rules are clear and you can use the reference for commercial use. You also want to double check what accreditation is required for using the photo as a reference. 

A comparison of a reference photo and drawing of an elephant commission. The reference is by Charmaine Joubert, from Wildlife Reference Photos

The last place I look for references (and this is my favourite) is Wildlife Reference Photos, a website where you can purchase photos to use as references. While paying for photos adds to the cost of making a piece, Wildlife Reference Photos has some advantages: 

a) the photos are relatively cheap, at $5 per photo or $10 for five photos, with unlimited usage

B) once you purchase a photo, you can use it as many times as you like, for commercial purposes, even without accrediting the photographer (though it’s always nice to do so)

C) the site is curated, so each photo is reviewed before it is put on the site. This means the quality of the photos is often much, much better than what you’d find on other sites. 

D) you’re supporting other artists and photographers by paying a small fee for the picture. 

Those are the main ways I find references for my art, so go check them out! If you have a place you find references that I have mentioned, please share! 

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