How to Prepare a Reference Photo for Drawing

A Reference photo is an image used to reference a visual drawing. For example, if you plan to draw a portrait and have a real picture of a portrait prepared to reference your drawing from, then that real portrait picture is known as a Reference photo.  

 In this chapter, we will explore how to choose the best reference image to base your drawing upon as well as steps to take when in doubt about choosing the right reference image.

        Drawing from reference has its advantages and disadvantages, one of its advantages is that you have a reference to base your drawing on and that gives an Artist guidance to perfect the drawing, on the other hand, one of the disadvantages is that it is common to feel bad when the drawing does not come close to match the reference photo. The Drawing is often compared or expected to be exactly the same as a reference image which is not the case.

 One important point to keep in mind if the drawing does not come anywhere close to the reference image is that Drawings should not be exactly the same as reference images.. Even when the plan is to draw the exact dimensions of the reference outlines, the Artist should gravitate towards making references and not an exact copy. Regardless of how realistic the drawing is to become, it is okay to draw a slightly different image from the reference photo. Art exists in its own form, its uniqueness, and the ability to transform meaning.

Now that we know Drawing from Reference might not yield the exact results we wanted, we should at least know that choosing the right reference image is as critical as drawing to achieve realism. The right reference photo will help make or break the visual communication between your Art and the audience.

Artists who develop a knack to pick the right reference image to draw from normally have factors to consider. Understanding the how and the why will make a difference in the outcome.

[Tip]Choosing the right reference photo enhances or helps achieve the wow factor. When the customer (in this case the audience) is amazed by your drawing it normally means that the Artist achieved Product-Market-Fit where the customer embraces the product.

 Before picking the right Reference Image, study the image and come up with conclusions as to why one reference image might be better than others. Below are things to consider when choosing a good reference photo:

  • The image has a wow factor, something about the reference image that is just captivating. It could be the level of detail or the color scheme, recognizing what attributes catch the eye first will help determine wow factors.
  • Visualize the image in black and white (this is important if you are planning to draw the image in black and white mainly by using pencils). Considering the shades and highlighters of the image by studying the darks and light reflections will help plan in advance.
  • Think about the shades of darkness, how they marry each other, the lining between two different shades. Think about what technique would make the drawing stand out.  
  • Ask questions about why you would choose that specific image (listed in chapter 1). This might be overridden if the image is a commission reference image, in this case, you do not have more choices but to request more reference options from your client.

    However, if you are drawing to add to your portfolio then taking extra time to evaluate the reference images before picking the best helps achieve great results.
  • Consider impressions/instincts that come across when evaluating the reference image. Keeping in mind the feeling you felt when you first saw the image would most likely be felt by the audience when viewing the drawing.

    [NB] This is different when you are doing commission work but it can be applied when you communicate with the owner of a reference photo, it could be one of your requirements.
  • Finally, write down how many wow factors you think the audience would find intriguing in every reference image and compare to each reference image. When you are done evaluating the reference images conclude by picking the best reference.

    Consider images that have enough lighting, rich color variation, textures, level of detail, and less destructive objects surrendering the main focal point (the main subject you want the audience to notice). Keep in mind the different textures and shiny areas of the reference image.

         While considering the above-mentioned aspects, think about different techniques of shading you could apply to bring the drawing to vibrance. Finally, have a brute force plane ready on how you could tackle challenges you haven’t had a chance to experiment with.
    These challenges could be that you haven’t practiced drawing glass, water, or really shiny objects. All possible scenarios you could think the reference image would present you with.

    [Tip] If you really want to challenge yourself, pick a reference image with complex objects to draw like Water, rocks, metal, or grass. Challenging yourself to draw detailed subjects helps develop and master different techniques and affirm creative thinking.

After choosing the reference image to draw, the next step will be to prepare the reference image so that it can be easy to work from.

Take the steps below to prepare your reference photo:

  • Make a photocopy of the reference photo
  • Use an Image processing tool such as Software to edit and convert the reference photo into black and white.

    (This helps to see how light is reflected or distributed on the object and  understand perspective)
  • Make many different edits to a Soft copy to bring up different variations of the color scheme in the reference image, the gamma, grays, and darks of the image.

    (This could be black and white, some of the copy could be darkened or lightened to help you see variation and plan better)
  • Make sure that the soft copies made still have high resolution to help you see what you need to draw.


    In this chapter, we talked about what to consider when choosing a reference photo. Studying the reference image while planning or accessing the challenges you might encounter when drawing that specific reference image will help you pick the right image.

We also touched on the possibility that not all Drawings from Reference tend to be the same as reference images in terms of realism, you find it hard on yourself just remember Drawings or Art are meant to be slightly different from original objects.

I would encourage you to follow the steps outlined here in this book to perfect the craft of drawing realistically. I will leave you with this: picking the right reference photo with rich attributes, a photo with meaning to the audience you are targeting, a rich color scheme, and your ability to draw the subject and express the focal point in the reference photo will determine a great Drawing. When you write down the scores on every reference image you’re considering drawing it will be clear by then which reference image to consider for your project.

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