top of page


Creating artwork has always been seen as something mysterious and magical by those of us who don't do it very often. The great artists of yesteryear hid themselves away in their studios and guarded their methods and techniques like the crown jewels, which left the rest of baffled as to how such beautiful things were made.

In 2020 things seem quite different, artists openly share their knowledge with the world in video tutorials, forums and blogs, but are they showing you everything?

I see lots of confusion and hesitance on the subject of references. One of the most common questions I see young artists ask is "Is using reference in my artwork cheating?". The short answer of course is no, but I think that the motivation behind the question is very interesting because artists use references all of the time, but it usually isn't a part of the process that they share. One of the reasons for this could be that showing the references you use to create your artwork ruins the perceived mystique behind a piece, another reason is possibly the fear of being marked as someone that steals from other creators. Of course, you can draw from real life or take your own photos, but you aren't always going to be able to have everything on hand that you need for an image. In the current climate, many places in the world are locked down and we aren't able to roam freely like we could before, which makes many visuals physically unattainable to artists.

Over the past 5 years I have been primarily a portrait artist so I have relied heavily on other peoples photography for my drawings and paintings. I have been commissioned many times by people overseas and it hasn't been possible to take my own reference photo. The project I am working at the moment is a few illustrations involving 2 characters in 2 different scenarios and as we are currently locked down here in the UK, I aren't able to photograph either scene in it's entirety. Instead, I have pulled 10 - 20 images per illustration and combined them to give my drawing the realism it needs to be believable and to anchor the image I had in my mind in the real world.

When I started thinking about writing this blog, I wondered about all of the artists I have admired all of my life and wondered exactly what their techniques were for curating references in the times that they lived in.

----- Michelangelo -----

Michelangelo was famously captivated by the human form and studied it all his life, sketching it thousands of times in countless angles and positions. He drew these bodies from life and from death, using skeletons and dissecting human cadavers from the age of 17. He also attended public dissections so that he could understand the form, literally from the inside out. He often sketched Roman statues and it is rumoured that he made clay models to use as reference for his larger works but destroyed them all before he died to protect his techniques. He was so paranoid that someone would try and plagiarise his work that he sent most of his sketches home to his family for safe keeping, burning many before his death.

----- Leonardo Da Vinci ------

Leonardo Da Vinci was also an artist that collected references by dissecting bodies. He is likely to have began doing this secretly and is rumoured to have dissected over 30 bodies in his life time. He made incredibly detailed studies of everything that captivated him, making his sketches as beautifully detailed as a painting. He was meticulous about his choice of models, searching for a long time to find the perfect faces to portray his characters. Part of his training when he was an apprentice was to copy his master's artwork line for line. Leonardo had his apprentices do the same, sometimes painting the same image alongside him, stroke for stroke.

----- Disney Artists -----

As a little girl my favourite Disney film was Snow White, not only for love of the story, but for the extra bonus footage that was on at the end of my video. It showed behind the scenes footage of the creation of the film, the sketching process, the painting process and how they achieved the sounds and visual effects. Parts of this additional footage showed how they hired models to act out the scenes of the characters so that the artists could have a visual reference to accurately animate each sequence. The animators would trace over the footage frame by frame creating a realistic animated movement. This process is still used today and is called Rotoscoping.

----- Makoto Shinkai -----

A couple of years ago I discovered the breathtaking work of Makoto Shinkai. I was immediately floored by his animations. His use of light and the realism in his films was like nothing I had ever seen before and had to know more. I poured through any clip of him I could find online and watched all of the films he had created to try and soak up as much inspiration as I could.

I found one particularly good "behind the scenes" on Youtube of the creation of his most famous film to date "Your Name". It showed how Makoto takes photos of the landscapes and cityscapes he wants to use in his animations and draws directly over them in photoshop, using his artistic skills to improve the beauty in every shot.

Makoto has taken what I love about anime and amplified it. I have always adored the realistic, detailed backgrounds in anime that contrast with the more simply illustrated characters. Makoto's backgrounds are beyond realistic, they are idealistic and dream like and every frame is a masterpiece.

So now you have a few examples of how major artists use references in their work, here are some ways you can use references in your work

----- Tracing -----

Tracing gets such a bad rap, but I think it is misunderstood. Being able to trace is an amazing tool for artists and should be embraced wholeheartedly. I see young artists asking "Is tracing cheating?" and the answer is no. Tracing is an age old method used by artists for centuries and dates back as far as 1430.

If you want to learn the form or understand the way something is structured, the fastest and easiest way to do that is to trace over a photo. You can break down an image into simple shapes really easily this way. You can do this over photos of anything that you want to better understand such as the human form or faces. It is great for learning value in portraits, marking out where the shadows and highlights are.

If there is a particular artist's work that you want to study the style of, tracing over their lines can give you a good understanding of how they work and what their techniques might be. I know this is really controversial and I have seen certain artists lose their minds if they see a fan doing this, but if you do it with the intention of learning and not plagiarism then this is not only absolutely fine, but encouraged.

----- Windows ------

There are many ways you can trace and many things you can use depending on your budget. The cheapest way to trace something is the window method. You are essentially using natural light and glass to make your own light pad. Just take your photo and stick it to a window, lay your paper over the top and draw around everything you see. I find it best to be as detailed as possible in this part of the process. I have used this method for the last 5 or 6 years myself. It can be quite uncomfortable as you have nothing to rest your arms on and will be drawing lines from an unnatural position but it costs absolutely nothing.

You can trace directly onto most papers using this method, which is great it cuts out a step and saves a little bit of time! Even my thickest oil painting paper works with this method beautifully.

----- Tracing Paper -----

Another way to trace is by using tracing paper. This is very cheap and really handy, I would recommend always having tracing paper on hand. I buy mine in long rolls so I can cut it to whatever size I need at the time. Tracing paper is great for making stencils with and also perfect if you want to mirror an image. You trace over your image, flip it over, trace over it again, now you can lay either side down on your paper and by drawing over those lines a third time, you can stamp your drawing onto the paper. This is a technique that was taught to me by an artist that visited my school when I was in my 4th year and I have used it ever since. You can use tracing paper with a light pad if you like but it isn't necessary as you don't need much light to push your image through as the paper is so thin. The downside to tracing paper is it crinkles very easily and when you are using the same piece multiple times it can get quite messy.

----- Light Pad -----

If you have a little more to spend, you may want to invest in a light pad. These are really handy for any artist as you have a constant light source that you can control and a comfortable flat surface that you can draw on anywhere. I got mine at the beginning of this year and it has been wonderful for saving time and is much more comfortable to use than my previous methods. It has 2 lightness settings and comes with a bulldog clip so that you can fasten your reference to your drawing paper and clip it onto the board. It's large enough to trace a whole A3 image, fits onto a desk perfectly and is really easy to store as it is only 4.5mm thick. It fits on my desk perfectly, leaving plenty of room for all of my pencils and knick knacks, I'll never be without one again.

----- Projectors -----

A projector is probably the most high end you can go if you are tracing. This gives you all of the benefits of the options I have listed above but also gives you the ability to control the size of your image by the touch of a button, giving you a very useful visual image of what how your subject will sit in your image before you put your pencil to your paper (or whatever your surface might be). This would be quite an investment and would take up a good chunk of space in your studio so I would only recommend this method if you are working on very large pieces.

----- Studies -----

Studies are wonderful for building up a knowledge of form. Studying from life is particularly beneficial but you can also work from images. If you are trying to draw the figure, a good way to learn how to draw complicated poses is to use yourself as a model. You can do this really easily by using the self timer on your camera or phone and snapping a few shots of yourself in different positions. You can ask family or friends to pose for you, if they are willing that's great ! This means you have many models of different ages, sexes and body types on hand every day. I prefer to use photos that are natural and not so posed, then you can see how the body hangs and bends in every day settings, which is very different to how someone holds themselves when having their photo taken.

Animals are very good at acting natural in front of a camera and make wonderful models. If you have a pet, take lots of photos of them from all angles and draw them as many times as you can, soon you will be an expert!

You can also find images online, I have used a website called that have models in multiple poses that are completely free to use, they don't even ask for credit when you use their images (but I think it is always nice to give credit anyway).

----- Using Multiple References -----

Using multiple references is a brilliant way to build an illustration and end up with something completely original.

The trick to using references that you find online is to use many images in each painting, changing at least one thing about each image so that you can't tell where the source was from. This can be done in many way such as simplifying the details, adding more details, adding a different pattern, mirroring, enlarging or exaggerating certain parts, the list goes on. The main reason for using references is to get the form and lighting correct, to see how clothes hang and to get expressions accurate, so as long as you aren't copying every detail, this is a wonderful way to use references.

When figuring out the pose for a character I am working on at the moment, I used 5 different references just for her. I had the initial idea of what I wanted her to look like and what position I wanted her to be in and went through many different versions until I got to the one that felt just right. I trialled more than 10 different references for her but settled on the combination of 5, using 1 reference for her feet, one for her skirt, one for her hands, one for her hair and one for her face. By adding all of these together I came up with a completely unique character!

I hope this helped any of you that are nervous about using references and aren't sure how to use them in your artwork.



------- Shop My Studio -------

Light Pad


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page