Is It Important to Use Photo Reference?
Using photo reference for your art can be difficult when you’re not sure where to start. The great thing about it is that you can be direct with the way you apply your reference or deviate far from it. Using photo reference can help make your character or scene more relatable to your viewers. When people are looking at your artwork they need to see something familiar that they can connect with. For example, the clothes your character is wearing can be futurist but it has to be grounded in some level of reality. Or your story could be a period piece and you need the environment and characters to look appropriately for the time period they are in. If your story takes place on an alien planet it would benefit from being based on something familiar. The same goes for creature design. Most if not all creature designs are inspired by animals (and objects) that we see every day or at the zoo or in history books.
Photo reference can be used for everything you will draw, like characters, actions, environments, compositions, lighting, color palettes, and more (perspective, facial expressions).
Where to Find Photo Reference
So where do you find photo reference? With the internet, photo reference has never been so accessible. The internet can be a great place to find reference photos. One of the places I go for reference is figure drawing websites. My favorites are Line of Action and Quickposes. There are several photographers and cosplay models that take reference photos specifically for artists to use. You can find them on DeviantArt and the figure drawing sites I use. The figure drawing sites usually have a link you can follow to the photographers websites.
Many artists also capture their own reference photos when they are out and about or on vacation. You can find reference photos in your daily life, at museums or in books at the library. I don’t go to the library as often as I used to but it has been one of my favorite places for a long time, especially when they started carrying more comics and art of books. I also enjoy finding reference in reading novels. Sometimes the way something is described in a book can be used as inspiration for a drawing. Pinterest is another great place you can find reference photos. You can make Pin Boards (link to my Pin Boards) to save all of your reference photos on and look back at when you’re digging into a new project.
As I collect reference online, I like to save it to my computer in a drawing reference folder that has a multitude folders categorizing the images. This makes it easy for me to look back at when I’m not online. You can take your reference organization a step farther by organizing the files by year and month. I also have project-specific reference folders for characters, props, scenes, and environments. I highly recommend that you start building a reference library and if you already have one organize it.
How to Use Photo Reference
Having an idea of how you are going to use your reference for is the first step in taking action.
When it comes to character design, reference can be used to capture who they are at the core of their personality. For example, does the character have a relaxed or rigid posture? For the longest time, I was stuck in the idea that my drawings had to be either highly realistic and heavily rendered, so I would stick to my reference as closely as possible. I would do this even when drawing creatures. I think that can be a good way to approach things, especially when you’re getting started.
Before I go farther I will say, no approach is better than the other. All that matters is which way works best for you. Since my “stick to reference” days, I have learned that focusing on the line of action and understanding the gesture itself is more effective for my artwork. After studying a gesture I will push, pull, and flip it in different directions to exaggerate the pose in one way or another. For example, if I want to draw a tall lanky character I might make their legs and arms longer, their torso shorter, and head smaller to make the height a focal point and make their overall posture accentuate the long limbs. Recently I’ve been striving to create an extreme counterbalance of the proportions, shapes and angles of the characters body and the way they are gesturing.
Who Uses Photo Reference
Not all artists use photo reference. In fact, some even believe that using reference is cheating. While others believe that it’s necessary to always be building up your visual library and that with deliberate practice and the experience that comes with time you’ll achieve a level of mastery where you can draw from memory. I believe in the latter method. There are some things that I’ve drawn often enough to not need reference photos but if I’m not as familiar with something or want to capture something different I seek out reference material.
I hope this has given you some insight into how reference can help you create better characters and storytelling moments.
In the penciling stages of drawing my comic, The Isle, I’ve been redrawing some thumbnails because my vision for particular scene often becomes more clear once I start producing the surrounding story. Because of that I’ve had to do more visual research to find something that will capture the scene more effectively.
What do you find most difficult about designing characters or capturing storytelling moments?