Tips For Using Photographic Reference For Drawing and Illustration

If you work from photographic reference to draw or illustrate realistically, you can create a tight rendering or a stylized, abstracted image. Either way, it’s important to include detail in an illustration or drawing to make it interesting. But it has to be the right detail.
The key is to include the details that are of interest to the viewer — those that communicate our purpose in making the image. It is easy to include too much in a drawing, especially when drawing from reference. Some things will make sense in a photograph or real life but only confuse in a drawing or painting.
In fact, this is one of the main differences between drawing from life and from photographic reference — we tend to overstate and include too much information when working from photographic reference.
When drawing from life we tend to omit smaller details and more easily regard the whole thing or scene. We’re more likely to include what’s necessary for the drawing to communicate, and edit out details that don’t contribute to the overall idea. Why?
We include the main things when working from life because we’re actually analyzing form differently than when we work from two-dimensional reference.  We’re observing and analyzing real form in real space. Real space has actual depth. It requires different thinking to translate three dimensions — horizontal (width or length), vertical (height), and transverse (depth) — into two-dimensions, which is only horizontal and vertical. 
Depth in two dimensions is an illusion, and we create it either through the use of drawing systems: perspective systems, projection systems, or through the use of planar recession (overlapping foreground, middle ground, and background planes). 
To translate formal and spatial information from a photograph to a drawing is a direct translation. We’re not changing realms. We start in two dimensions with the photo, and end in two dimensions with the drawing.
A photograph is a capture and conversion of three-dimensional form and space. There’s no human impact between the real space and the 2D depiction. The photographer’s impact is in composing the frame, lighting, cropping, setting the shutter speed, and making depth of field choices. The camera gives us a resulting two-dimensional image with all the detail intact. The photographer then manipulates and finalizes the work in post production using digital editing or darkroom methods.
Photos make up the majority of the reference we work from as realist illustrators and draftspersons. Unless they’re manipulated, composited and otherwise “photoshopped” or “artificially intelligenced”, photos are fact and include all the details.
In a realistic drawing,  factual information is necessary, but not every fact should be included. 


How To Use Photo References

Here are 5 things to keep in mind when working from photographic reference that will keep you from creating a direct representation (and possible copyright infringement) of source photographs.
1] Use the image as the foundation. You can change shapes, colors, directions. You can reflect (mirror). Utilize the information you need from the photo to communicate your purpose, and ignore the rest.
2] Refer to more than one photograph. For most of my illustrations, I use a combination of photographic reference sources. Drawing from multiple sources ensures you’re using photos as inspiration and not to directly copy.  Even if you directly copy a photo in another medium you can still be infringing the creator’s copyright. 
3] Include what’s necessary for accuracy.  To communicate through your drawings you need to include some degree of accuracy, especially when drawing realistically.  You have to go beyond the idea of what something looks like (primary forms) into the subtle details that contribute to uniqueness, character and mood. 
Include only what’s necessary to make your point and tell the story. If your drawing is meant to communicate what a person looks like, your focus needs to land on developing the person’s distinctive characteristics and not everything showing up in your source photo.  If you’re attempting a narrative scene, do you need to overstate gestures and movements to tell the story clearly? If you’re depicting a person who’s tired and slumped in a chair, how can you emphasize that fatigue through line, tone, shape and direction?
4] Be willing to omit some details. Drawings are not photographs, and the amount of detail in a photo when translated to a drawing will clutter up the communication. For example, don’t draw every strand of hair, but identify chunks and planes that describe the hair. What you  include in your drawing should be accurate enough to communicate your intention.
5] Include what’s necessary for movement. Static, flat images and lack of structure in drawn forms is often the result of too much detail, but it can also be due to not understanding forms and structures. For example, the human head is a three-dimensional form having front, back, top, bottom and sides, like a cube. Failure to acknowledge this in a portrait creates flatness.
To create anticipated movement or purposeful imbalance, focus on the visual information that emphasizes movement. Diagonals, rather than horizontals and verticals, should be strengthened or exaggerated in order to communicate movement.
6] Use dynamic composition principles. Use scale change, framing, cropping (not the same thing as framing), diagonals,  foreshortening, asymmetry to make your narratives interesting. Manipulate value and chroma choices to draw viewers’ eyes to the most important parts of your drawing first.

Above all, remember that drawing is storytelling. It’s communication, but you’re not using words. Therefore, some exaggeration of movement and direction will be necessary. Just as in verbal storytelling, exaggeration is used to drive home a point. 


Finding Photographic Reference  

Develop a scrap file — a swipe file — of visual reference. Use your camera or camera phone to capture textures, patterns, shape, forms, people, animals, objects, plants, landscapes, color schemes, light and shadow examples — whatever excites you — and file these away for reference for creating your own work. Collect screen shots of images that intrigue you. Read my swipe file article here.
© 2024 Alvalyn Lundgren. All rights reserved.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.