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Submitted on
February 17
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The Artist's Toolbox - Working with References

I can draw anything... as long as I get to look at it.

There is a great myth that drawing is a memory exercise. That if you can draw entirely from memory it makes you a better artist who deserves more kudos.

Of course the study of drawing will lead to a good memory of the things you've already studied how to draw, humans, animals, whatever it is that you love to draw. But the downfall of this is that you can restrict yourself to only drawing what it is you have studied how to draw, ie what you've memorised.

Using reference is not a weakness! It is a strength and almost all top level artists use a lot of reference. Using reference means you're not trapped one person's life experiences and can draw upon a wealth of extra knowledge. How can that be a weakness?


A lot of people seem to assume that the reference should come first. They go out and they scour the dA stock etc to find the perfect pose to copy. And while this is a legitimate method, it relies on other people doing the photos and releasing them online, and then when you copy it directly you might end up as one of hundreds of artworks drawn from that image. So while I don't say "don't copy stock" I personally find it just as restricting as relying only on my memory.

In my opinion the ideal option is a blend of the two! Imagination and Reference. Which leads me to my second point.


You can use pieces of reference to shore up your artwork where you're having problems. Often I do a sketch, and then I look at it and see where it's not working very well, the hands aren't good, or the face isn't unique enough or I don't actually know how to draw a pick up truck so if I made it up it would look very shoddy.

This is when I go out and find the reference I need just for that one area of the image. Where hands are concerned I often want a very very specific pose so I take my own references with my phone and a mirror. (You could do the whole pose too if you want to!) I like to take my own photographs where possible because then I KNOW no one else is using the same refs as me.

The Sketch. I kept trying to draw the hands over and over and it ended up a muddy mess, I knew what I wanted but doing it just wasn't working out well.

The phone photos! I took each hand individually as I had to hold the phone with my other hand. I used a gluestick to give me something to hold as the weapon handle. (My gluestick has been many things over the years, from Gandalf's staff to a lightsaber!)

The new drawing. I simplify the hands from the photo down into the style that best fits the work so it doesn't look out of place, and then keep going on the rest of the image which didn't need reference for.

The Glam Reaper by FionaCreates
This is the final image.  It doesn't take long at all with a mirror to get the kind of pose I need for my own references. Often I also change the style of my hands to chunkier male hands, or shorter fingers etc to suit the character. The reference just gives me a good idea of angles and lighting.


In this example there was a lot more imagination involved in the interpretation of the reference. The previous method was to draw it exactly, here I used the references to then manipulate onto the specific angle and shape I needed in my picture.

I only vaguely know how to draw a truck, but I knew I wanted this very specific fisheyed angle in my work, so I drew it in anyway in the angle I wanted using simple  boxy shapes. Since I do not own a truck so couldn't take my own refs, I googled it. Using the showroom type images I was able to distort it to fit my sketch that I'd already made, in such a way that it actually looked like a pick up truck. It took multiple images of the truck from lots of angles to make it work for me. A reference need not be a single picture after all.

Because the underlying boxy structure of the truck was already there it was all cosmetic changes to make my poor attempt at a pick up truck look like an actual vehicle and not a toy car made of blocks.


This is the closest to my way of working when I get to big ass proper illustrations. I use a lot of references from all over the place, and some are only for research and inspiration. It's not about realism for me, so if you're a cartoonist don't think referencing isn't for you, it's about doing something believable, and your memory isn't always believable. If in doubt.. look at something.

This is an idea drawn entirely from my brain. I like to work like this because it does allow me to be free with my ideas and compositions without worrying about being "accurate" or "life like". You could even add a blob for "item goes here" into the thumbnail.

The illustration will be of a fantasy type castle Women's garden, including female knights and ladies doing their lady things. So there will be suits of armour, ladies in elegant dresses, a castle in the backdrop, castle walls, weaponry, poses, hands, faces and much more.

I could make it up, and probably do a pretty cool image. But I want to make something more interesting than just the first generic style that comes into my head. (Which is what it would be if I did it all from my head.)

So what I'm going to need is tonnes of references and research for ideas.

Images of

Ladie's gowns inspiration,
Soldiers on medieval walls,
Research what kind of small decor I want, plates, cups, tables. chairs etc.

I went to the stock section of dA and typed "armor" in the search bar, this is what came back that interested me for this project

Package - Armor - 1 by resurgere Arm Armor by yangfeili Samurai Stock by PhelanDavion
Knight in Shining Armor by tdreams-stock Armor Stock 10 by FairieGoodMother
It took me a grand total of 3 minutes to find a bundle of images, and already I'm spotting details I could add to the suit of armour I have in my imagination in regard to this image.

This is my new sketch. It's still fantasy, but I used a lot of medieval references for the sofa, table, armour, castle etc so that it retained that old world feel. You could use whatever you like for inspiration.

Even from this stage I will still have to get smaller bits of reference for things like the hands (like in part Two) when I'm further through the image and ready to make the hands look fabulous.


References can also help with things such as what colours to shade something, or where to place shadows and highlights. Even for very cartoony work. Have you ever played about with a single light source (lamp or torch) and your own body in front of a mirror moving the light around and observing the shadows? It's a lot of fun and you can learn a lot about where to place shadows. You can play like this for any object, cast different lights onto things you own and see how they react.

So don't count referencing out if you're a cartoonist either, even if it's not for realism but for lighting and colours!


Once again I appear to have written quite a lot of words in regard to referencing. For me reference is a tool I could not do my artwork without, and the internet makes my job a million times easier. It eliminates the need for me asking people to model for me for long periods of time like the artists of pre photography days.

I hope you stuck it through and perhaps learned something interesting.


Do sketch
Identify Problem Areas
Find References to help those problems
Fix Problems
Be Happy

Add a Comment:
nocturnaliss Featured By Owner May 27, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Very good article I must say! And inspiring. I'm one of those people who tends to not take the time to use reference material, even though I really should. And plan to. Thank you :heart:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner May 27, 2014  Professional General Artist
Thanks :D I sketch a lot reference free. So my sketchbook can be a mess of stuff that could be better. Because referencing does take time and effort. It's if I decide to take a sketch and work more on it that I take the time to reference properly. I have sketches in my sketchbook with notes like "dog goes here" and a blob that looks vaguely dog shaped XD Cos it's about working out composition not drawing pretty art. that comes later.
nocturnaliss Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
I don't draw enough, period XD but I really do like your idea of taking photos of yourself to use as reference... so often I have trouble with hands and poses and I don't really have the patience to sift through reference pics. It's an ideal solution.
theantist Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Thanks for the article! Very interesting!
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2014  Professional General Artist
You're welcome :D
TNGSTUBBS Featured By Owner Feb 19, 2014
Great article!! Adding to my favs!!! Love love love your work!!! Talent isn't quite a strong enough word!!tammy
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 27, 2014  Professional General Artist
Thanks :D Talent only gets you so far! The rest is hard graft and enjoyment.
Xadrea Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014  Professional Traditional Artist
I've pointed so many people in my seven years in art school to dA resources (the ones I know to be unrestricted and what-not) because it is INSANE finding people willing to model in real life (even friends have their limits XD). Aside from the figure, objects are important to reference! Great article! :clap:
FionaCreates Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014  Professional General Artist
I find google great too, more for... research based things, like going "ok I've done a drawing of a kitchen... and I've drawn in a kettle a hob and a toaster.. what else do people have in their kitchens?!" So great for just typing in kitchen and perusing thousands of images of kitchens to steal little ideas for details.

But yes for direct referencing or "heavy" referencing I either use myself or dA stock where possible, as you said there's so much stuff now. And a lot more of people like Senshistock who do pose refs,  unlike 5 or so years ago when stock was more for photomanips so more dressing up fully clothed in costumes.
Xadrea Featured By Owner Feb 18, 2014  Professional Traditional Artist
Yep, like heavy machinery or even physical locations Google is your best bet for finding a decent range of referencing materials for sure :D For figure related stuff I always default to dA ^ ^ Senshi is wonderful for posing and posturing, and I use a plethora of other resources on dA to reference facial features rather than a single face (sounds weird, but it is actually quite helpful :lol:)
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