My Secret Art Arsenal: Photo Reference

When it comes to one of my many “secrets” to making art, one of the biggest ones is my use of photo reference. In fact, it’s the biggest one, period. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for finding the right reference photos.

I have no shame in admitting I use photo reference for my art. The fact is, when it comes to making comics, the process is a rather time-intensive effort. Especially when you’re like me, the type of creator that is truly independent and is in charge of the whole package: writes, draws, colors and letters. A long time ago, I thought using photos was cheating. I also thought using photos would slow down my process of actual art making. In all my years of drawing and looking back in hindsight, I’m here to tell you using photo reference is going to help your learning process and actually make you faster…even if it slows you down a bit in the beginning.

I attended a California State University many moons ago, but ultimately dropped out because it was getting expensive and the instructor was having me do something I hated at the time: using photo reference! Now, it’s not like I never used photo reference prior to university. Keep in mind this was after community college, so I was well into my mid to late twenties when I decided to go to university. I used photo reference for some drawings, but I hated how it slowed down my process. But I was so enamored with drawing comics at the time that I only thought of looking at comics and emulating my favorite artists. That meant I was trying to draw like them after only having seen their final artwork in printed format in a comic book. Anatomy books? Figure drawing classes? More figure drawing classes at night where the students all chipped in to hire their own models after drawing live models all day long? I signed up for this?? Screw this–I wanna draw comics! Ah, I know the sentiment.

I guess I had a really bad attitude back in my day toward using photos to draw from. Let’s face it: we don’t see the human figure one day and decide we want to draw it. We see comics, manga, video games, etc. and we start drawing and copying those things. Not a bad start necessarily, but… a bad thing nonetheless. For me, it was the era of the Jim Lees and Todd McFarlanes at Image Comics. I saw WildCATS and Spawn and, BAM, I was off and drawing! Again, this was great for inspiring me and making me want to draw endlessly. But I lacked the knowledge at the time that using photo reference was such a thing. I guess you couldn’t blame me for not knowing any better, right?

I think that is an important part of our development, especially as comic book artists. We kind of have to first fall in love with the work we see, figure out how to do it, figure out if we really love drawing enough keep doing it even though the work really sucks (which we wouldn’t be able to see at the time anyway because we’re too new to it), do it any way we can, and (after potentially many years of struggling and learning our craft) finally learn how to do it in a way that actually improves our level of art. This only happens after having somehow found a path that points us in the right direction. This path could take the form of school, instructional videos or books, or another more skilled/advanced artist.

While I was glad I left university at the time (and quite frankly, I still am glad–no student debt for me, EVER!), I should have stuck to using photo reference. I think my disdain for using photo reference back in the day was because it was more of a hassle than it is today. Back then, to get really specific figure poses, I bought a 35mm camera as well as a Polaroid camera. Then came digital cameras, my first being a Kodak. And that was kind of cool, but still somewhat of a hassle because I had to put the memory card in the computer, download the JPEGs, etc., etc. Then, I got a really nice printer to compose and print out my work onto sheets of 11″ x 17″ paper. Which I would then trace off if I were doing a painting. But for comic books, man, such a pain! I did eventually print out a “morgue” file of some photos I took plus stuff I found online. I put them into a binder and created a catalog of reference photos. After a time, this became a hassle too. For me, all this work was a barrier to wanting to use photo reference for my art, especially for comic book work.

But today? It is zero hassle these days to use photo reference. Provided you have the right hardware and a decent internet connection, the barrier for using photo reference these days is only limited by my imagination. The main reason, in my opinion, is because of mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad. Damn, it is so easy these days to get a hold of any photo reference. As a co-worker of mine used to say outright and outloud, “Google that shit!” I routinely gather photo reference these days, especially for heads and faces, from Google images. For human figure work, when I really need to, I use small, poseable manikins or an app on my iPad where I can pose a figure in literally any position I can come up with. It’s helped my art tremendously.

The big take away here is this: photo reference is just a means to an end. The end result is creating a credible image or drawing that looks as we intend it to look in the eyes of other people. If I were never to show my work to anyone, the point is moot. But guess what? If we’re posting our art online for others to enjoy or critique, we’re opening our work and ourselves up to the world. For better or worse, people are going to talk. The worst of it: no one cares, and they keep scrolling. But, if someone takes the time to actually crit your work, man, that is golden in this era of social media. Sometimes we get good feedback, sometimes bad feedback. And at times it kind of stings when someone says something negative about our work, right? Some take it better than others for sure.

I feel using photo reference enhances my art, improving my chances of successfully creating an image that most accurately conveys what I’m trying to express. Consider my most recent endeavor “The Realm Ethereal”. In this comic book series, I am using photo reference as I never have before. This frankly due to the fact that I am now working entirely digitally and primarily using my iPad Pro. This has worked wonders for my love of using photo reference. As an example of some of the handful of reference I’ve used in this series, check out the examples below.


Straight on view, head tilted up. This is always an easy one to blow if you don’t have reference.

Eyes half-closed, looks better when referenced

Eyes fully closed…much better with reference!

Profile shot with contrasting light and dark areas…don’t even try to make that stuff up, especially if it’s a woman and you still need for her to look dramatically lighted and still appear attractive.

This one is challenging enough to draw even with a photo reference. How often have I drawn this particular expression? Prior to his, I don’t think ever. Forget trying to make it up out of my head!

This particular expression could only have been successfully achieved using this photo reference. And even then, the drawing itself might still be a bit wonky. Imagine if I had no photo reference at all!

These three-quarter views from behind are also a gem. Don’t even think about pulling this one from out of your head. That ear in that position will mess with you every time unless you have photo reference!

Did you know there’s more to eyes than just eyeballs? How about the way eyelashes attach to the eyelids and their formations as they bend up and back and down and back? Eyelids? The shape of the eyebrows and the insertion and origin points of the eyebrows from the middle of the brow area of the head? No thanks, I’ll use photo reference when I want this to look TIGHT!

That squinty-eyed look. But remember, she still needs to look attractive. Best chances are by using…photo reference!!

Eyeballs looking up. Trickier than you think. Don’t rush this stuff. Reference!

That darned three-quarter view agin, PLUS looking down at an angle. Tough stuff here…drawing a mouth from that angle is like a booby-trap. Photo reference, baby!

So, while photo reference won’t make your work perfect (no one’s work is perfect, and certainly not my own), you have a better chance of success by using it. We can all look at the photo reference and agree on one thing: you’re doing your best and the reference will always be there as gauge to see how much we’re really putting in to our art. And remember, you get out what you put in. The rest is talent, so don’t even worry about it. Just keep drawing, and when you have a chance, get some photo reference. After all, there really is no excuse.

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Rene Arreola © 2020