When making art it’s always a good idea to study reference material. Finding reference can sometimes be a challenge though. In this article I’d like to give you some pointers on finding reference photos of a good quality. Where can you find these references and what should you be paying attention to?

A good quality reference image can help you figure out anatomy, certain lighting set ups, textures, etc. When you’re having trouble finding reference, because perhaps the subject is too specific, then you can also make your own photos of course, or study from life!

Sources for finding reference

Free stock photo websites like Pexels and Unsplash are great resources for finding reference of a variety of subjects. From food to landscapes, from portraits to abstract textures.

Screenshot of Pexels.com

To find inspiration, I like to scroll through the trending or new photos on the websites. Or sometimes I use a search term or a categorie to scroll through specific stuff, like food or portraits. Doing this usually gives me way more inspiration than is good for me 😅

Screenshot of Unsplash.com

These websites are great to find study material or specific reference photos you might need to bring your artwork to life. If you need a specific type of reference, perhaps a pose or an object you can’t find on these free stock photo pages. Then you can go to paid stock photo websites like Shutterstock or you can make your own reference photos.

Reference photo of an Apple made by me

You can use a plain background for your objects and make a photo with your phone or photocamera. BUT! Of course you can also use objects to make real life studies. Practicing to paint or draw the everyday stuff around you is a great exercise. Want to find out even more great drawing exercises? You can check my article with 12 digital drawing exercises to improve your drawing skills.

What type of photos to use

So what are good photos to use to study or to use as reference? Sometimes you want to copy a photo, as an exercise to practice painting a certain type of lighting, a pose, specific textures, etc. And sometimes you need a reference photo because you need to paint a specific subject in your artwork, or perhaps you need to figure out how to draw a hand in a specific pose, etc.

You want to have photos that have a decent resolution and sharpness. Blurry photos are often not very useful. Also, try to pick photos with a pleasant lighting.

Examples of good quality reference images
Source: Unsplash.com

These photos for example have a decent amount of detail and sharpness and a clear lighting. The light is coming from the upperleft, casting some shadows on the right side. At Patreon I have shared a video of how you can make a portrait study of the portrait photo on the right, join the community to watch this and more fully narrated videos.

Example of a challenging reference photo
Source: Unsplash.com

Here’s an example of a challenging photo, the lighting of this photo has made the photo blurry. I wouldn’t recommend using a photo like this when you are a beginner.

Example of good quality food photos
Source: Unsplash.com

And here’s an example of some nicely lit, sharp food photos. It’s much better than this photo below, in which you don’t see a lot of detail and the lighting is meh.

Example of a low quality reference image
Source: Unsplash.com

My tip

I’d recommend making a folder on your computer in which you collect all your reference photos. Sometimes, when you feel stuck or have an artblock, you can go on and browse these stock photo websites and collect all the stuff you like. If you collect everything in a folder, you can always go back to it later.


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