Tips And Benefits For Using Reference Photos In Your Art


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Key Takeaways

  • Reference photos help you create believable art.
  • Reference photos help you understand the object, colors, values, and forms better.
  • Over the years, you will naturally build a visual memory that enables you to use fewer and fewer reference e photos.
  • Overusing reference photos hinders your creative imagination.

When you want to draw something or create a painting in your free time at home, do you work purely from your memory, your imagination, or a reference photo? Working from memory is tricky as we forget key details or let emotion override fact.

Working from imagination is easier said than done. Some people with aphantasia can struggle to visualize things, while those with hyperphantasia easily see fantasies before their eyes.

Working from photos seems like the best option for a better understanding of a subject and a great starting point for an image. But is this such a good idea? Can reference photos help us improve our drawing skills and artistic style, or will they hinder our progress?

Reference photos can be a very useful tool when learning how to draw and making sure you can practice your style. They provide growth opportunities when you use them correctly. However, artists can become too restricted, especially early on. It is important to understand how best to use those images and when to question what is in front of you.

How To Use Reference Photos, Pictures, and Images

There are different ways to make use of reference photos when creating art.

  • Take photos of something you see to work on a painting or drawing at a later date.
  • Take specific shots as reference points for a difficult, long-term project, such as a landscape or portrait.
  • Use photos from other people to create art for them – such as taking inspiration from a friend’s holiday or graduation photos.
  • Use photos from the internet for a bigger range of subjects – such as exotic animals or photographs of celebrities.
  • Use images of famous artworks from online gallery listings to learn more about an artist’s style.

There are issues to be aware of when using copyrighted material from other artists or photographers for your work. It all depends on if you are doing studies for your personal development or to sell your art.

With your photographs, there are no restrictions. So, it can help artists to get into the habit of taking shots of their subject to lean on as needed. This could be with a digital camera or just with your phone.

The Pros And Cons of Using Reference Photos In Your Art

On one side, you have those that say that artists shouldn’t use photos when creating work as it stifles progress and imagination. On the other side, you have those that appreciate that this isn’t always practical and creates its own limitations for budding artists.


  • You can enjoy a wider range of images with subjects not available in the flesh.
  • You can take photos of landscapes you are working on to help you continue your work at home.
  • You can capture details about a person, object, or scene that wouldn’t come through when drawing from memory.
  • You can also get a better idea of color and the way the light creates shadows.
  • This will all lead to more realistic images that will help you build confidence.


  • You may find yourself limited by the flat, static image compared to the real scene in front of you.
  • There is the risk that the colors and shadows in the pictures aren’t true depictions because of the settings on the camera.
  • You don’t get to see the subject for what it really is and build a connection with it.
  • Reliance on reference photos runs the risk of limiting your imagination.
  • Some feel that artistic style and progression are stunted this way.

Reference Images Can Limit Your Imagination

This is a common criticism of working from photographs. There is the idea that reliance on reference images stops artists from turning to their imagination to create images.

This is possible if artists become preoccupied with creating an exact copy of what they see in the photo. It helps to doodle and mess around with art materials without reference points to see how you express yourself. You can create more emotive and interesting images that way.

Reference Images Can Hinder Your Artistic Progress

Some also feel that an artist’s style and the chance for progression become stunted when using these reference points. The idea here is that because you only see a small 6×4’’ image of a scene or a snapshot of a moment, you don’t see the “bigger picture.”

You become bound to what is in that image. Also, these photos can be flat, static, emotionless images compared to what was actually going on at that moment.

There is also the risk that the colors and shadows in the pictures aren’t true depictions because of the settings on the camera. For example, you may take some shots of a scene at night but then find that the camera overcompensated when balancing the colors and tones for a “realistic” shot.

A smartphone camera can be too smart for its own good sometimes. Or, you may work from black and white images that have an unrealistic contrast or other forms of digital manipulation.

The obstacle here is understanding these barriers and changes and working around them. Some new artists will copy what they see in the photo without consideration for the true form and light before that digital manipulation.

In these cases, artists are no longer drawing the subject and aren’t building on their drawing skills.

You Can’t Build A Connection With A Photograph

Similarly, a photograph creates a barrier between you and the subject. Even if you are familiar with the scene or the person, there is still a sense of disconnection from the moment it was taken.

Many artists who paint portraits with sitters can get a better sense of personality and life story by talking with the person as they draw or paint. This can then help the image evolve.

Similarly, you can get caught up in a scene when painting a landscape and get a better feel for the area. You can see what it is like there during different times of the day or weather patterns.

Something may come to life in the rain, or there may be a deeper relationship between the place and local people you can capture. This only happens when experiencing the area in full.

Reference Images Help You To Create Realistic Drawings

The problem with working purely from memory or imagination is a lack of realism. Without a photographic memory, we can’t recall and recreate the exact image in front of us at home.

We could get lost in a fantastical use of color and form and fail to see the people and trees for what they are.

Seeing Details

Working from photos lets you capture details about a person, object, or scene far beyond your memory. For example, say you want to draw the tree in your garden tonight. You can’t see it from your window, but you have an idea of it in your mind.

Tomorrow morning you could compare your drawing to the tree and find they are vastly different. A photo would highlight every bend, every interesting part of the texture of the bark, and the true shape of the leaves. Then the drawing is a true representation of your tree.

Seeing Colors

Let’s continue with that idea of the tree in your garden. You might start adding color and simply say that the trunk is brown and the leaves are green.

Something in our basic understanding of drawing trees tells us so. But what type of green? Are the leaves uniform or mottled? Are there different tones to the bark, and what color is in places where the bark is exposed?

Seeing The Light And Shadow

Then there is light and shadow. You may love the way that the canopy of the tree makes patterns on the ground at a certain time of day. But can you recreate that properly without taking a photograph of that moment?

Reference images will only hinder your artistic progress if you stop questioning what you see.

This idea of reference images hindering an artist only works if that artist refuses to study the image and asks questions. You can still learn a lot from the colors and forms in a photo and use that knowledge to further your interpretations and a more personal artistic style.

At the same time, you can remain aware that the camera only captures so much, and you still have artistic freedom in your interpretation of any image.

Also, those that discourage using reference photos don’t consider the merit of photorealism art.

Photorealism is an extraordinary artistic skill of creating an image that looks like a photograph on first impression. Artists can study an image in great detail, from the tones to the reflected line and perspective, and create a striking “copy.” While some criticize the form for lack of creative expression, others are wowed by the effort involved.

Reference photos help you continue your work

There are plenty of good points here that show how over-reliance on reference photos can be problematic for artistic development. However, these images do serve a purpose when used correctly.

For a start, you can keep working on projects when the subject isn’t available. Taking reference shots for portraits means you don’t have to rely on a sitter the entire time. A balance of both approaches is fine.

Then there is the fact that you can enjoy a wider range of images by working on subjects not available for long periods in the flesh. Say you have an interest in wildlife and want to develop your art in this area.

You can’t get wild animals to pose for you. Sketching creatures in the wild is a brilliant practice for understanding movement and true form. But reference photos let you go further and practice your drawing at any time.

Reference Images Can Help You Build Confidence

Finally, while some talk about stunted growth and development as an artist, there is a counterpoint here. What about those that decide not to draw at all and don’t try and improve because they have nowhere to start? 

You can’t tell someone with aphantasia to work from imagination only. You can’t take someone new to drawing aspects of a landscape and tell them to paint the park in front of their eyes. Working from photos provides that practice and a way to build style and build confidence.



Digital Artist

I’m a digital artist who is passionate about anime and manga art. My true artist journey pretty much started with CTRL+Z. When I experienced that and the limitless color choices and the number of tools I could use with art software, I was sold. Drawing digital anime art is the thing that makes me happy among eating cheeseburgers in between veggie meals.

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