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All About Reference Photos

As someone who works in a more figurative (or realistic) style, reference photos are an important part of my creative process. My phone is filled with snapshots I take on my walks. I likely have more photos of flowers and landscapes than I do of my (very adorable) son.

reference photo, sunflowers, vase, mason jar

I am a very visual person and I need to see what I am trying to paint. I don’t consider myself a photo realist and I am not trying to recreate a photo exactly, but I do like to study details closely and use them to breath life into my paintings and tell help tell my story visually.

I always say that choosing your subject and finding inspiration is 80% of a painting. It is most certainly the most important step and I believe there is something a bit mystical about this process!

When you are scrolling through photos on your iPhone or out walking in nature, what draws you to a subject or scene? What makes you think, “Wow, I want to paint that?”

Here are some tips to taking and using reference photos for paintings

You don’t Have to Copy the photo exactly

I like to think of a good reference photo as a starting point. Always remember you have artistic licence to change any aspect of the photo. Consider everything you include in your painting to be a conscious choice! Move trees, change colours, change composition and make a painting your own in as much as possible!


You can use more than one photo

Do you like the background of one photo and the foreground in another? You can splice them together easily! Collect several photos of skies to add to your landscapes and feel free to add elements from several photos into your painting. Don’t limit yourself to just one reference photo.


Embrace Fuzzy and Imperfect Photos

In fact, sometimes a “bad” reference photo gives you more freedom to express yourself. If you have a fuzzy photo that doesn’t give you the crispest details, that can actually be a great tool to be more expressive and paint in a freer style. you can’t get too caught up in details if you can’t see them!


Source your Reference Photos Ethically

Sometimes we want to paint things that we’ve never seen in real life, let alone photographed. Still, it is important to source your reference photos ethically and not infringe on copyright. Photographers work hard to source out, take and edit their photos and it is an art in its own right.

If you do use another artist or photographers work as a reference, make sure you approach them first and credit them accordingly. Be clear about what you want to use it for and respect if they decline.

There are a lot of great Facebook groups containing shared photographs intended for artists. There are some talented photographers that would love to see their work interpreted. You can also search copyright free and creative commons images.

Of course, if you are sketching privately in your sketchbook - paint anything you like. But it is important in a world of social sharing to respect copyright and avoid plagiarism.


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