Art reference 2021: How to create your own delightfully useful art reference boards

Hello fellow artists, and welcome to my article about art references!

Access to useful art references, learning where to find them, and knowing how to create and use them are essential aspects of our art craft.

I’ll try to cover all the bases, including:

  • What art references are.
  • Why it is artists need and use references.
  • How artists’ options and use of art reference have evolved.
  • Sharing the way I learned to create reference boards.
  • A few alternative ways for creating your own references.
  • How to use references.
  • Where to find art references.

What is art reference?

Art reference comes in several different forms, but it’s essentially a tool to help us study and understand our subject’s shapes, forms, and other characteristics.

As a tool, art reference comes in two forms: three-dimensional or two-dimensional.

We can always draw what’s in front of us (Yay! πŸ‘πŸΎ).

Drawing from life is an essential skill and one of the art fundamentals. Having physical access to our subject–being able to touch, hold, and see it from different angles, gives us the best opportunity to understand all of its forms and characteristics.

But, let’s face it, much of what we draw is make-believe or not easily accessible. For example, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never caught any dragons, cyborgs, or fairies hanging out in my neighborhood. Likewise, when I needed to learn how to draw a pumpkin, I couldn’t just pop down to the store and easily buy one because it was springtime in Texas–not a pumpkin in sight (but plenty of lovely bluebonnets).

This is where two-dimensional references come in.

When I was learning how to draw a mushroom, creating my own reference board allowed me to study and learn about many different kinds of mushrooms I didn’t know existed. Another benefit of reference image hunting is that it allows us to see our subject through the eyes of the people who took the photographs, and that often inspires ideas we might not have thought of on our own.

To be clear, I’m not discouraging drawing from lifeβ€”quite the contrary. If I had a woodland forest with creatures galore in my backyard, I’d happily hike there for hours to draw the references I need from there–but…I live in the suburbs, so that’s not a thing. 😜

Why do we use art references?

Early in my artistic journey, I heard foolishness and dribble around using art references for drawing. Many people believe the rather silly notion that all artists should draw with nothing more than their “innate” skill, a few tools, and imagination.

Poppycock and utter nonsense!

Can we draw from imagination? Of course, but there’s so much more to being an artist. Our imagination and desire to create are the starting point and our sustaining thread. However, just because I can flip on a light switch doesn’t mean I’m qualified to perform electrical work. Likewise, buying food at the grocery store doesn’t mean I can cook edible meals. I’m sure you get the idea.

If you have no experience or familiarity with a subject–if you haven’t even seen it–how could you possibly draw it? Being naturally inclined or gifted at something doesn’t magically bestow omniscience upon us–we must still earn the knowledge, do the work, and use the tools. Art references are essential tools that help us create.

A necessity, not “cheating!

You may have also heard that using references is somehow “cheating” at art. πŸ™„

That is a load of hooey and rubbish! I call shenanigans!

We use books and other visuals to help us learn literally everything. When you cook a new dish for the first time, do you wing it from your imagination? Probably not. I bet you use the lovely cooking reference called a recipe, right? I don’t think anyone believes they’re “cheating” at cooking because they use a recipe. I used DIY YouTube videos to learn how to install a toilet myself and save money. That’s not “cheating” on home repair.

If anyone has ever dimmed the light of your confidence by suggesting it would be “cheating” your art to use a reference, I hope this puts your mind at ease. If you’re using references to help you study, practice, and create, you’re doing right by yourself and your artwork. Keep it up!

The evolution of art reference

We’ve all seen the paintings, drawings, and period pieces that give us an illustration of what it was like to be an artist in centuries past.

There were no smartphones, computers, or internet for easy access to online drawing tutorials. The creation of artwork couldn’t rely on stunning photo references in books, websites, or an app. Everything was analog and by hand for every person and every kind of job. When royalty or a noble family commissioned a portrait, they did not send a photo or two to the artist. Instead, they had to stand or sit, for hours at a time over several days or weeks, to acquire their likeness from an artist’s brush.

The two types of art references still existed even then, but artists couldn’t always create photo references to use in the studio. Leonardo Da Vinci mastered anatomy in the 15th century by dissecting more than 30 corpses and meticulously studying what he found through drawing. Two-dimensional reference had to be created through study from observation first and then taken into the studio and combined with the artist’s skill and memory. I’m sure imagination played a role, but that creativity was undeniably and greatly supported by robust study and drawing practice first.

The proliferation of the camera, and the use of the Camera Obscura as a drawing aid, didn’t come until after Da Vinci’s time. More widespread and commercial use of the camera began with the Daguerreotype and calotype processes around 1839. Still, it wasn’t until the invention of photographic film and the Brownie camera in the late 1900s and early 20th century that artists’ ability to create and access photo references really began to take off.

Since the first 35 mm cameras were made available to the public in 1913 and 1914, there has been a prolific expansion of photography and images. In addition, photographic device technology has advanced dramatically, taking us from the 35 mm camera to camera phones in less than a century.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, artists have had amazing access to make, find, and use reference photos. With the creation of Photoshop in 1988 and Google in 1998, we’ve gained an ever-growing and evolving slate of options for image access and manipulation.

I have found the Photoshop and Google combination particularly helpful and convenient. In addition, there are several ways to create reference images, and I’ll get into that below. But, first, I’d like to share with you the process I learned for making reference boards.

How to create your own art reference boards

With the extraordinary amount of information available globally and through the internet, you would think a simple Google search would provide an extensive library of DIY reference creation tutorials. Unfortunately, it turns out that’s not the case, so I decided to make my own.

More ways of creating reference materials

Reference boards are a great resource for the needs of our artwork, and they are only one of many ways to create and access reference resources.

You’ll remember earlier I mentioned there are two types of reference, two and three dimensional. So let’s talk about the avenues available to us under each type.

Two-dimensional art reference

From collage and studies from life to digital media, there are many 2D reference creation options.

Studies from life and figure drawing

Making drawings of subjects from observation is our most foundational and vital skill as artists. While it’s our most accessible and low-tech reference creation method, it is also, sadly, limited by our location and means to travel.

I live near a major American city, but it doesn’t boast high a high-quality zoo, aquarium, or natural history museum–ideal places for life drawing. Like most artists, my access to a live human model is modest at best, and requires that I drive a good distance from my home, pay a nominal fee, and hope I arrive early enough to get a good spot due to limited seating (and parking).

What we’re able to study from observation in our own neck of the woods depends greatly on the nature and infrastructure of the area and our own circumstances, schedules, and means.

Thankfully, the gaps in reference access can be successfully bridged in other ways.

Photography and found images

These days, it’s a relatively simple thing to get a disposable or one-time-use camera to take reference photos–though it’s also much less necessary now that most people have a camera and mini-computer in their pocket with smartphones.

With touchscreen technology and high megapixel cameras, our phones help us create reference photos at all the different sites we travel to throughout our days. Still, no one’s neighborhood has enough references for creating all their artwork. Found images, primarily from magazines and books, and the Google image search tool come in handy here.

Images can be studied directly from books and magazines to create drawings and studies–and nowadays, we even have e-books and digital copies of magazines, making things quite convenient.

If you’re on a budget (aren’t we all?), there’s always the option of visiting the library to study from their materials, take photos of the reference materials with your phone, check out the materials to borrow for a while or even make photocopies.

Collage (old school)

However you choose to create your reference photos, a useful way of compiling them is to create a collage–a one-stop-shop for all the images you’ve gathered to help your artistic vision.

It’s a little messy and time-consuming, but with a large piece of drawing paper or poster board, a pair of scissors, and some glue or tape, you can easily create a helpful art reference board the old-fashioned way.

Digital collage

The demonstration in my video above shows how to create your own digital collage using Photoshop and Microsoft Paint 3D. Other applications will allow you to do the same thing, like the site Canva and other digital painting apps (especially those that use layers).

3D modeling software

It probably seems odd to put “3D” anything on a list of two-dimensional reference resources, but hear me out. Technically, everything we do on our computers is flat and 2D. It’s all “real” but still rather intangible and amorphous. This is true of the models we can create in applications like Zbrush, Blender, Maya, and 3D Studio Max.

These tools give us the illusion of depth to manipulate data in the form of digital clay, and that is extremely helpful when it allows you to create your own “3D” reference. It’s a step up from a photograph because you can virtually rotate the model and view it from any angle, and that is immensely helpful. The drawback, of course, is that there’s quite a learning curve to sculpt anything useful in these applications, so, depending on your needs, it may or may not suit your process.

Here are a few examples from a Maya build I did to create a digital illustration.

Three-dimensional art reference

Let’s get “real”! Anything you can touch and feel, move around, and manipulate with your hands is three-dimensional. I know what you’re probably thinking, “Thank you, Captain Obvious! πŸ™„” I’m nothing if not thorough, and I know that can be annoying sometimes. Would you mind bearing with me? πŸ˜‰

Nature, models and found objects

These are all self-explanatory. You know what nature is. Models = the live human or animal variety. Found objects are…the random stuff and gubbins that help us practice drawing.

Sculpture and maquettes

These two are also self-explanatory, though I did have to look up maquettes for a better visual. Maquettes are the small preliminary sketches, or models sculptors create before beginning on the final sculpture.

Sometimes making a representation of your subject helps your drawing–it doesn’t have to look good or be accurate so long as you have the major forms where you need them. You could use Play-Doh. It doesn’t need to be fancy.

How to use your reference photos and studies from Life

Step 1: gather references.

Step 2: Draw all the shapes and forms you can see in said references.

Step 3: Keep doing step 2 and become awesome sauce. #sketchdaily.

Reference in the entertainment art world

All artists benefit from using references. So whether you’re an illustrator, a comic artist, a concept artist drawing characters, or a creative influencer on social media like Twitter, reference photos and materials are your best friend.

If you’ve ever seen behind-the-scenes footage for film and video games, you’ll know that artists who work in entertainment art frequently travel to draw on location for the project’s creative development. How cool is that?!

Where to find the stuff: Websites, social media, tutorials, and videos.

To help you build your image library, I’ve included a list of a few useful sites on the web that have stock photos and other reference photo resources. There’s a lot here for figure drawing, human anatomy, and body parts to build your library. Sadly, there isn’t as much for animal anatomy. Tips in that area seem more confined to books, but there are still plenty of images to be found in this list.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you so much for stopping by my site to read this article. I hope you found the tips in my video and the list of resources helpful, and I wish you good luck on your reference photo hunt.

If you have any questions or feedback for me, please leave them in the comments section below.

Take care and happy drawing!

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