Photo Reference

Many professional artists use photo reference when drawing, which can be especially helpful when deadlines are tight. In the days before the internet artists would collect a “morgue”, or “swipe file”, a collection of photos cut from magazines and books and then organized under headings (i.e. “children”, “ducks”, “trains”, etc.). When I was in art school I used to collect old magazines anywhere I could get them, even digging through dumpsters at the local recycling center (with permission), hauling them home, and snipping out photos. My swipe file now fills 2-1/2 filing cabinets.

In my early years of freelancing I also took a lot of my own photos. I purchased an expensive camera, some lights, and even purchased or rented a few costumes when necessary. Then I would either take photographs of myself or invite friends over to dress up and pose for me. With the advent of digital photography I could instantly manipulate a photo in Photoshop to fine-tune it for the perfect composition.

My style has since evolved to the point where I don’t do “realistic” illustrations anymore, so my dependence on photo reference is not as heavy as it once was. But even as a cartoonist I still find myself using it on a regular basis. Drawing in a “cartoony” style doesn’t mean I can just make things up in my head all the time. I find that before I can simplify something into a cartoon drawing, I first have to study and understand what it looks like in the “real world”. For instance, doing life drawing and studying anatomy helps me to simplify the human figure more gracefully. As the saying goes, you have to understand the rules before you can break them properly. Or, as another artist once said, “Always respect your subject matter”.

There’s a big debate in some artistic circles about the value of using photo reference. Some see it as a virtue, others as a vice. Using photo reference certainly has its pitfalls. It can easily become a “crutch”, tempting the artist to lazily copy rather than create. There are also copyright issues to consider when drawing directly from a photograph. (Contrary to popular belief, there is no law that says you can legally alter an image X percent to avoid violating copyright. In a court of law, the real test is whether or not the average person would look at the photo and then look at your drawing and conclude that one was copied from the other.)

Nevertheless, those who frown on photo reference are (in my opinon) throwing the baby out with the bath water. When used properly (and not overused) photo reference can expand an artist’s mental library as he draws, thereby strengthening his mental drawing muscles. Studying good photographs can inspire and enhance an artist’s creative instincts. When deadlines are tight photo reference can help the artist to quickly capture the perfect pose, expression, prop, or camera angle. Also, if the photo is used as *reference only* and not copied directly, most copyright concerns can be avoided.

Canadian comic book artist Stuart Immonen (pictured below) recently wrote an article for Comic Book Resources discussing his use of reference material. It’s a good read.

Finally, here’s just a few of the many websites and books available for photo reference:

Google Image Search
Photo Reference page on
Terra Galleria
Facial Expressions: A Visual Reference for Artists
The Fairburn System of Visual References (clothing and hairstyles are dated, but still a great reference)