Using Reference Images Artistically

Using Reference Images Artistically

There seems to be some controversy on social media over whether "real artists" use reference images. I'm not going to attempt to convince you either way, but over time I've learned that there are many different ways and reasons to use reference. These ways all come with limitations and the need for creative thinking. But then, so does making art without reference! So I'd like to share what I've learned about using other people's images for reference, taking your own photos, and why in the world you'd want to paint something you already have a picture of. I'll also share some reasons I can imagine not using reference to be a valid choice because you do you boo.

Other People's Photos

I need to preface this by saying: It is SO IMPORTANT not to rip off a photographer's work - they're artists too and it would suck just as much for them to have their images used without compensation or permission as it would for you if someone stole your art so don't do it, it's not okay. If you simply must paint a replica of someone's photo, contact them and ask their permission to license the work. 

All that doesn't mean you can't use other's pics for reference at all though. I use other people's photos to see what animals look like that I've never seen in person, especially when I need to understand their anatomy, or what their markings look like, or how they look in some particularly obscure position. Since I don't own the rights to the photos I use for this, I look at many images by many people and compile bits and pieces together for my own sketch. This makes for my own original composition but also leaves some difficulties when it comes to painting things more realistically. It leaves questions like, "How would that fur look in a warm setting sunlight", or "How would the shadow lie over this leaf", etc... In this case the best you can do is use your artistic license and study of real life lighting and animals to imagine what seems appropriate. Also don't think you need to limit reference to photos. You can take stills from films or live camera feeds and use those too. 

Your Own Photo Reference

Taking my own reference photos is my favorite thing to do, and yet I absolutely never used to do it. I questioned why I would want to paint something that I already have a perfectly sound picture of. I just didn't see anything creative or self-expressive about the idea. But I believe that was a limited way of thinking, and I'd like to show you an example.

Here's a Blue Azureus Arrow Frog I painted this week.

 reference image artist use frog

And here's the reference photo I took of this frog and made this painting from.

 blue azureus frog reference image artist use

Obviously this photo is terrible, and seemingly useless as an image. BUT. There's a lot of great information in here about the way the frog's skin reflects lighting, the way his color mutes in shadow, and most importantly his personality (which is one of bravery and exploration in my humble opinion). I found this little dude in a local pet store that I specifically went to in order to take reference images, because I realized after ruining two paintings in as many hours that I'd forgotten how to paint and needed some inspiration to help me power through it. I've loved these beautiful frogs from afar for a long time, and had no idea I'd find one in a pet store so it was completely exciting and lovely to get the chance to see one. I went home to paint him immediately. I wanted to imagine him in his wild state so that's what I thought about while I was painting him. The painting process was effortless and helped me feel confident with painting again. Importantly for my point here, the painting isn't a copy of the photo and still required some creative leaps but was definitely informed by the picture I took.

So in summary what I'm saying is that if copying directly from a photo, even your own photo, isn't your thing then don't do it. There's still a lot of room for creative exploration. Taking your own reference is a perfect excuse to get out of the studio and spend time with the things you care about, go to new places, and find new things around you. It's also a great way to make art that's more personal to you, since the things you can take pictures of are quite literally in your life somewhere, however tangentially.

Reasons Not To Use Reference

  1. You don't want to. No explanation required.
  2. You struggle to let your imagination loose and feel constrained by images of reality.
  3. You don't have access to any reference at the same moment that you want to draw something. Draw anyway.
  4. You want to draw something the way that you remember it rather than the way it is. This can be a lot of fun, and for some people it's a huge part of their style.

Reasons To Use Reference

  1. You want to. Still no explanation required.
  2. You're trying to make something that looks "convincing" or more accurate to life.
  3. You have your own reference photo and would like to make the memory into a piece of your own artwork.
  4. You're doing a study to improve your physical drawing or painting skills and want a challenge.

If you do or don't want to use reference it's totally cool and completely valid. Everybody has their own process, which is great because otherwise art wouldn't be as diverse. Do "real artists" use reference? They do if you're making art and using reference. It turns out that real artists do exactly what you do when you're making art - what a crazy coincidence! I hope this has been helpful because it's been a lot of fun to talk about. Until next time, stay wild my lovelies.