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Referencing from Photos 101: Figure reference

January 30, 2008

It’s an inescapable fact, if you want to be an artist you have to observe real things. Whether you’re painting fantasy figures, classical studies, still life, or architecture, you need to have a good solid understanding of how things actually look. Most people, when they first begin to draw, use symbols to represent the things they know, not the things they actually see: a curved line is a mouth, a pair of circles are eyes, a ball with five sticks of varying lengths attached is a hand. Now, we all know that these things are far more complicated than that—it’s how well you are able to perceive and then recreate that complexity that will measure your abilities as an artist.

Sadly, most of us cannot afford to have scantily clad models drop by every day so we can practice drawing humans; and for some, life drawing classes either don’t come soon enough, or aren’t affordable. There are dozens of textbooks out there that will teach you to draw the human figure, but nothing beats actual observation. Luckily we now have the internet, and access to thousands of photos of people doing all kinds of things.

Stock images

There are couple of problems inherit in using photos and the Internet as your reference morgue file. Not all images online are free for you to use. Googling “sword fighter” might get you some interesting photos, but if you copy them someone is eventually going to notice and probably get ticked off about it. Stick with stock photos. There are a ton of stock photo resources online. Some you have to pay for, like, however by paying the small fee for a photo you’re guaranteed not only a good quality photo to work from, but also that you can use it for your work free from worry. Think of it like paying for peace of mind. There are some sites that are set up specifically to be used as figure drawing references like Some of these even offer the ability to rotate the figure to find the best angle for you to draw from. Usually there’s also a fee associated with these, as well.

If you’re poor and would rather go the free route, there are some free stock photo sites out there as well. Morguefile is one of my favorites, but the database is somewhat limited, especially when it comes to figure references. By far the most extensive free figure stock is at There are literally hundreds of stock-photo artists who put their images up for artists to use for photo manipulating or for drawing reference. A word of warning: READ THE RULES. A vast majority of the stock images available are only for use ON deviantArt. If you want to use their images outside or for commercial work, you’ll need to contact the artist and figure out what their terms of use are.

Seeing Isn’t Always Believing

There is another, hidden problem with using photos as figure reference. Unless the photographer really knows how to make up for it, all cameras distort things to one degree or another. This is especially true when dealing with the human figure. Because you’re seeing a photograph, your eyes are convinced that what they are seeing must be true. If the same distortions are copied into a painting, however, things will seem very off.

Analyzing a Photo for Reference

For the purposes of this tutorial I picked this image from Linzstock on deviantArt. I love her stock photos, and most of them are usually very large and very clear and easy to use. I deliberately picked one that was not. The reason for this was two-fold. I want to show you how to use a photo as a reference only—not how to copy it precisely. I also wanted to show you how to hurdle some of the problems in photos.

With this photo the first thing I did was to run it through a Photoshop filter to brighten it up enough so that we can see the details. You can do this by either playing with the level adjustments (specifically the midtones), or by running it through the Shadow/Highlight filter, which will make some automatic adjustments for you.

Click to enlarge images

Before I show you what TO do, here’s what NOT to do:
Do not try to trace the image. In this image the picture is very dark, and edges that are normally very clear are hidden. Chances are what you’re tracing isn’t an actual edge, it’s the edge of a shadow, which can end up cutting off parts of the face that you need for volume.

No Tracing

Do not try to free hand draw the photo without some guidelines. Again, you’re likely to be drawing the wrong edges. Additionally here we also have the problem of clothing. Clothing folds will cover up and distort the figure, making it difficult to actually draw what lies beneath. In figure drawing, it’s very important to work from the skeleton up to the clothes.


That doesn’t mean, of course, that you have to draw his bones. To start, what you actually want to do is figure out where the major lines of the body fall in this pose. Start with the head and jaw, and then figure out where his spine is, his rib cage, the line of his shoulders, arms, elbows, legs, knees, and feet. These can be rough lines, but they should all fall within the mass of the figure. I’ve superimposed the two here to give you an idea of how this works, but it will train your eye better if you work in a separate image on a white background.

Skeleton sketch superimposed

Once you’ve got the framework down, work on the major shapes of the body and limbs. Use large solid shapes to represent his arms and legs, spheres for joints. Build these on top of your framework, referring to the photo as a guide. Draw even the parts that are “hidden” by other limbs (in this case, his far arm and elbow are hidden behind his raised leg. By drawing it in, however, we ensure that our lines all go to the right place). If you’re working traditionally try to keep your lines light and easy to erase later.

Basic Shapes

When you’re first starting out, it’s a good idea to use this stage to do a light study. Eventually you can skip this step, but it’s a good way of figuring out tricky lighting and double-checking your anatomy. Imagine that your figure now is a wooden mannequin. Pick a light source (you can use the one from the photo if you’re unsure), and shade each “shape” in the figure.

Light Study

You can see here that we’ve picked up some distortions due to the foreshortening in the photo and the photo lens. His lowered foot is disproportionately large, and his raised foot seems too small by comparison. Because our figure will be foreshortened, the far foot should remain a little smaller than the closer foot, but not very much. His head is also a little too small. Working digitally it’s easy to resize areas like this, either with the resize tools, or by simply drawing them a little larger.

Look for Problems

Now that you have the basic body shapes down, you can start drawing your character. Use the photo to reference things like how things fold, and to measure, but make sure to build on top of your figure. Photo referencing, in this sense, isn’t copying line for line. It’s taking only what you need from the photo to enhance the realism of the painting.


In this case I’m keeping the things I really like about the photo figure: I like his pose, and I like the way his pants and jacket drape. He seems very masculine and confident and relaxed, which is something I want to translate to my painting. The background is nice, and it will help inspire the new setting I want to put him in, but I’m not going to keep any of it. I also want to change his face quite a bit, and give him something different to do with his hands.

Work in Progress

Because I’ve built the character from a skeleton, some of those changes are far easier to make than they would be if I’d traced the image. While I’m painting him, I may refer back to the original photo occasionally for things like folds in his pants, or jacket, or maybe the shape of his shoes. However, I’m totally free now to change the fabric, the facial features, hair, etc. based on my imagination OR I can use other photos to reference other elements.

Eventually you want to be able to borrow from a photo only what you need. When you first start out drawing the human figure, you’ll need to borrow a lot of it. The more you learn about how the human body is put together, the less you need to be married to your references. Breaking down reference photos in this way will help you become more confident about drawing people, be they real life models, photos, or your own imagination.

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Dark Moods Stock 10 is (c) 2007 Lindsay Archer (

“Touch of Sin” painting, Tutorial and tutorial images are (c) 2008 Melissa Findley (

Please do not repost without permission.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2008 9:42 pm

    Nice lesson. Your artwork is very good too. 🙂

  2. Cris permalink
    January 31, 2008 3:53 pm

    VERY nice run-through as to how to use photos!! I have to tell people time and again WHY a figure is wrong, even though they defiantly tell me “But I used a photo!” I book-marking this sucker….

  3. kelli (patronus-light/stock) permalink
    February 4, 2008 2:37 am

    nice tips 🙂

  4. Alastair (UrielHex) permalink
    March 4, 2008 5:23 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to do this, excellent explanation of your process.

  5. Jam permalink
    March 21, 2008 9:08 pm

    I keep trying to tell people that I cannot just google an image – I will run into legal trouble. They say a reference is a reference and everybody does it, well I’m sure they do. However, when I don’t have time or access to real-life observation say, for a class assignment (I go to art school) I have to use the net for a picture. Thank you for the free reference site and drawing/observational tips. They’ll come in handy.

  6. Yassy permalink
    August 11, 2008 10:31 pm

    Very nice~!

    but yet i think I should study the shading and light thingy x.x;

    I love all your pictures.

    Thanks for the tutorial? ;D’

  7. April 21, 2009 7:19 am

    Thank you so much – I think I need to practise this 😀

  8. October 29, 2012 11:05 pm

    awesome thank yaaa!

  9. January 6, 2014 11:09 pm

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    on your site. Im really impressed by your blog.

    Hey there, You’ve performed a great job. I will certainly digg it and for my part recommend to my friends.

    I am sure they’ll be benefited from this site.


  1. The 4 best places to get Free Images For Figure Drawing | Life Drawing and Figure Art

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