Picking References: Part Two

Last week I wrote a post about where to find reference photos to draw from. This week we’re going to continue that topic, but we’re going to focus on what to look for in a good reference photo. 

This is a drawing from one of those reference photos that I saw and just knew I had to draw – I love the bright colours of the anemone and the contrast. Reference by Stephen Bullock from Wildlife Reference Photos

Everyone is different and has different styles of drawing, so what you look for may be slightly different than what I do. It’s important to pick a reference that is suitable for what you like to draw. I tend to draw hyper-realistic close ups of wildlife, so that’s what I look for. This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen a lot of beautiful references that I know I’ll never draw because they are whole-animal, scenic shots. 

Make sure there’s enough detail. Unless you’re really skilled at drawing that particular animal, if there’s too much detail missing you’re going to have a lot of trouble filling it in. Save yourself a headache right from the start by picking a reference that has a lot of detail. 

Don’t be afraid to combine references. If you’ve found the perfect reference of one animal but need to know what it’s foot looks like, find some pictures of its feet! This is what I did for my Bug and Birthstones series, because it’s a little challenging to find actual pictures of bugs sitting on birthstones. Just remember that light sources differ from reference to reference, so try and find ones that have similar sources, or remember to change that source in the drawing. 

Don’t worry too much about composition. Although many great reference photos have wonderful composition, there are those that have nice parts, but the photo as a whole is not the greatest. As an artist, we have the flexibility of being able to adjust the composition of our piece to make it exactly the way we want.

Though both these pictures aren’t bad references, I love the way Tiiah’s eyes look in the second picture – seeing this picture really makes me want to draw it!

Finally, pick references that really make you want to draw them. If the reference is ‘okay’ but not ‘great!’, you’re much more likely to work on different projects and push that one back. Whether it’s the challenge of a new animal, the way the light hits the nose just right, or the brilliant colours, make sure you really like the references your choosing.  

When I’m looking for a reference photo, I browse a lot of photos until I find one I like. Though the criteria above are important, often I’ll see the photo and know I have to draw it. Have fun picking your own reference photos, and I hope these guides have helped you! You can read all about where to find reference photos in Part One of this series!

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