Why Artists Should Use Reference Photos

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

When I was younger, I had this odd belief that real artists never used reference photos, that real artists could draw everything perfectly from their imagination. Not only is this incorrect, it’s pretty unrealistic. But there are so many people out there who think this exact same thing! (Just think back to the last time you played Pictionary with your non-art friends, you know, pre-pandemic.)

To fight the stigma behind using reference material, I’m sharing Two Reasons Why Artists Should Use Reference Photos. At the end, there will also be tips on how to source and use them legally. Let's get into this, shall we?

References Help Train Your Eye

Believe it or not, being an artist has nothing to do with knowing how to draw everything exactly as it is in real life from memory. Being an artist actually means having an understanding of how to see and observe things around us and translate them to paper. Ye Old Masters did this way back when for pretty much every painting. I mean, how else could they have painted portraits and have them end up looking like the person sitting for it? They had to look at the person in front of them and paint what they saw! That’s exactly what you’re doing when you use a reference photo.

Using photo references helps you start to understand how forms move together or look under different lighting conditions in the same way the Old Masters did. For example, if you like to draw people, it doesn’t help you to try drawing faces from memory. You might actually end up solidifying a bad habit of drawing the eyes too far apart or the nose too high on the head. Whereas using a reference allows you to focus on learning and training yourself to know where the eyes actually sit and how high up a particular person’s nose is. Over time, observing reference photos trains your eye to see things as they actually appear in real life. So just use them and get that skill development in now. I promise it will pay off in the end.

You Draw More Accurately

If your goal is to paint something that seems realistic and believable, photo references are your best friend. This doesn't mean you have to copy your reference exactly. Think about it, even those who painted in the impressionist style used references. The end result wasn’t necessarily a photocopy of the subject, but using references allowed them to create a far more accurate base drawing for them to build off of. The same goes for using reference photos today. By setting up your base sketch with precision and accuracy, you save yourself from having to repaint or redraw things later on. And the end result ends up being far more believable than it would have been if you had just decided to wing it!


Obviously these tips help those who draw realistically or create representational art more than those who enjoy abstract painting. However, reference images can be used to create abstract work, as well. It might just translate a little differently. But obtaining reference materials is essentially the same for all artists. So how should you go about using references? Here are a few tips:

  • Get Permission! Every image is technically under copyright unless stated otherwise. To avoid potential legal trouble, always obtain written permission to use an image for your painting. Remember, photographers are artists, too, and deserve credit for their work! If you do paint something without permission, don't post it online or list it for sale.

  • Use Royalty-free Images. There are a few sites out there where photographers post images that can be used royalty-free and without fear of legal ramifications. My favorites are Unsplash and Pixabay.

  • High Quality is Best. To get the most out of a reference photo, make sure you’re using quality images. Photos that are blurry or distorted won’t be very useful - unless, of course, you’re trying to paint something blurry or distorted.

  • Take Photos Yourself. The best way to get the exact image you want is to take it yourself. Now, obviously we can’t all take a quick trip to Antarctica and take pictures of penguins. But if you’re looking for a specific pose or flower, consider taking the picture yourself! Big name animation studios actually do this all the time, and I recommend bringing it into your practice, too.

  • Draw from Life. Drawing from life is not easy, but it is one of the best ways to train your artistic eye. The next time you go to the park, consider bringing your sketchbook along and get some study time in. Or set up a still life and practice lighting. It will most certainly benefit you in the long run.


Working from reference photos is not cheating. It’s literally training your eye to see things more accurately over time. Painters of the past didn’t work without references, they just used them in a different form. If they were still working today, I guarantee you they would have embraced reference photos. Let’s stop criticizing ourselves and each other for using the tools that are available to us and get back to leveling up our artistic skills!

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Thanks for reading and happy creating!