Why Digital Artists Need to Use Reference Images

Let’s start with an exercise: take a blank sheet of paper and draw an ant, as anatomically correct as possible. If you don’t feel like drawing, take 10 seconds and imagine it. 

An ant is a creature we have all seen hundreds of times, with a fairly simple body structure. Easy? 

Now scroll down and take a look at the photo of an actual ant. Did you draw (or imagined) the ant with two fangs, a tear-shaped head with oval eyes, segmented antlers and legs that protrude from the central part only? It turns out, almost nobody gets it right. 

This is where a reference image comes in.  An actual ant.

The Problem with your Visual Memory

When remembering what we saw in the past, we are pulling from our imperfect, limited visual memory. And unless you have spent a focused time studying and analyzing your subject and  were able to remember it, it is very likely that you don't know all the relevant details needed to recreate it. Inevitably, there will be many elements of the full picture that you won’t be able to recall. 

This is not an arbitrary imperfection; in fact, visual memory needs  to be limited, allowing your brain to be economical with the information it stores by remembering the “gist” of an object while omitting detail . Simply put, remembering everything would be impractical and just clutter up your brain’s RAM.

Guided by Reference

To bridge the gap between reality and the incomplete image stored in your visual memory, leaning on reference images can make all the difference. Kent Trammell argues that the importance of reference images cannot be overstated: “In the past 8 years, I haven’t done a single piece of work without using reference. And not just one reference, I mean a whole library. I use at least 5-6 images per project, sometimes up to 20.”  

Tim Von Rueden seconds this: “When drawing, I usually pull between 10 and 25 references. And even if I am just color picking, I use at least three different color references.”   

Clearly, reference images are by no means a tool just for beginners. “It doesn’t matter what skill level you are,”  says Kent. “I have at least a decade of experience in sculpting characters, so I could probably get the proportions right without the use of reference, but what if my character is wearing clothes or armor? I don’t recall the structure of chainmaille and the folding qualities of leather well enough to get it perfect. So I go online, look up images and use them to create my own design.”  “At the Café La Mie” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec The painting is based on a staged photographed, a practice that Lautrec commonly used. “At the Café La Mie” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
The painting is based on a staged photographed.

Reference: What is it Good for?

So does this mean that the sole purpose of using reference image is to make your work as close to reality as possible? “Realism is definitely not the holy grail,” says Kent “but in digital art, it provides a standard against which we measure the skill behind somebody’s work.”  

And in 3D modeling especially, realism is in high demand, as Kent confirms: “Today, everybody wants realism. This is also why the  Shader Forge series is one of our most popular courses. Well, if you want realism you have to be dedicated to the reference and translate it to the computer. Th ere is no trick to it.”The desire to achieve realism can be restrictive, however. 

Kent prefers the term “believability” which leaves more room for individual creativity: “A supernatural beast cannot be realistic, strictly speaking, because it’s not real. 

But if you use the right reference to give it believable proportions and textures, your audience will happily make the leap of faith and imagine that it really exists.”  In addition to making your work believable, there are many other elements of your work that can benefit from using reference, says Kent: “Reference is just as important for informing the mood of a short film, or the dramatic lighting in your portrait, or the style of your caricature.” 

Tim agrees: “A reference is also great for color picking to make sure you are using the right palette.”  Kent studying a brushed metal surface in his Shader Forge series. Kent studying a brushed metal surface in his Shader Forge series.

How to Use Reference Images Efficiently

As a texture and shading artist, Kent uses reference to educate nearly every decision he makes. What is his process? He always starts with reference. “Shader Forge theory is all about recreating realistic materials like a marble floor, metal or wood. How does it reflect light? How transparent is it? I don’t have the knowledge of the materials to even begin to try and get it right. I always look up at least 5 or 6 images to learn what the properties should be and combine them in my head to get an initial understanding of these materials. Usually, if I’m not happy with the final image and something feels off, I go back to my reference image and see if I moved away from it somehow.”

Tim likes pulling his references into one Photoshop file to have an easy view of all of them at once. “If I need to color pick, I can do this right from the main view, or I drag and drop them into the piece I am working on. I spend a lot of time attempting to capture the mood that the reference image implied as well, whether this was through the contrast in the piece or the harmony between subject matters.”  Reference doesn’t always need to be an image. In his video on finding inspiration, Tim creates a fairytale creature based on the colors and shape of an interesting plant. Reference doesn’t always need to be an image.
In his video on finding inspiration, Tim creates a fairytale creature based on the colors and shape of an interesting plant.

Choosing the Right Image

An important step is selecting the right reference images to ensure that you end up using ones that relate to what you want to create. Tim explains: “Say I want to draw an underwater creature. I will look at a bunch of images of deep-sea creatures, poke around Pinterest and then I use that to frankenstein all these different references into my final original idea.”  So how can you tell that you’ve found the right image?  “Don’t just settle on the first image you find, even if it seems great,” says Tim. ”Dig deeper and trust your eye. It will gravitate towards the right image and you will know  that you’ve found the right match for your subject. It comes down to not settling; even if you find a great one quickly, keep looking a little more because you might surprise yourself at what you will find.”

Too much of a Good Thing

When it comes to the use of reference images, Tim warns against a common mistake: mindlessly drawing over your reference. “I see a lot of young artists tracing images. Sure, you might get a result that is be better than what you would produce otherwise, but if you just mechanically drew over something, you didn’t actually learn anything new.”   Above anything, keep in mind that your reference is a tool and be wary of getting too  stuck on it; it is there to help and guide your work, not to dominate it.  When used efficiently, the intensity of using a reference image will probably phase out during your creative process: “You will see this in my tutorials as well,” says Kent. “In the beginning I switch back to the image quite a bit, but once I get my work down to something I like, I might start to deviate from the reference and often stop looking at it altogether because my piece has taken a different direction.”

Is the Use of Reference Stealing?

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” - Pablo Picasso 

Let’s face it; all artists borrow from each other to some extent. It may be through indirect, momentary inspiration, or by closely studying somebody else’s work and transforming it to your own. Since the extent of influence can sometimes be unclear, how can you know where you stand?

Tim sheds some light on this gray area: “If you genuinely feel that your intentions were good and the end result is different than the original, you can call it your own. But if you feel a little bad about posting an image because your gut tells you it’s not totally your own work, that’s when you’re probably just copying it.” So what should I do then - toss it? No need. “Just make sure you credit the original author and call it a study - not your own work.”

What's your go-to approach when it comes to using reference? Yay or nay? Tell us in the comments!

"Draw an ant from your memory" exercise created by Feng Zhu.

Recommended resources for finding reference:

CC-Licensced Photographic reference Artstation, for artistic inspirational reference Searching for specific subject matter on Pinterest, like using a keyword "Character Design" DeviantArt

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