Is It Really Okay For Artists To Use Reference Photos? Part 1

What are reference photos?

Reference photos are simply a collection of images used by visual artists for inspiration and as raw material to create their compositions from. They are handy tools and a great resource for artists to work from. When used as resource material, reference images can be of any living or inanimate object, a place or location, an animal, plant life, or an individual. They come in handy when it isn’t feasible for the artist to be there in person and observe the element or subject matter they want to paint or draw.


Irong Age Pottery Still Life“Still Life with Iron Age Pottery”
Still life by Teresa Bernard
14″ x 11″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


There are several reasons why an artist would want to use reference images:

1. A good reference photograph can take an artist to any location in the world without having to leave home. Sometimes artists simply do not have the means to travel to faraway or exotic places when they want to paint a particular place or location. And for others, it might not be possible to go out on location day after day with a canvas, easel, and paint box in tow. Reference photos make it easier for the painter to go anywhere without having to travel there. They are also a convenient way to avoid having to brave the elements in some cases.

2. Resource images allow the artist to capture and preserve the moment. I know of an artist who was commissioned by an upscale seafood restaurant to do a painting for their main entrance. He set up a still life using real fish and other types of seafood in the setting. He then took a photograph of his composition to paint from. I can only imagine what that fish would have looked and smelled like after a few days of painting! The resource photo he took allowed him to work on his painting without having to worry about his props smelling fishy. Another artist I know loves painting flowers, however, fresh flowers will start to fade after a few days. She takes a picture of them that she can refer to over and over again while painting her flowers. The image makes it possible for her to finish the painting with bright fresh looking flowers instead ones that had faded and wilted.

3. Reference pictures come in handy for the sheer convenience of them. If an artist is painting from a live model, taking a photo of the pose will mean he or she can paint during the times when it is inconvenient for the model to be in the studio. Many portrait artists often work this way.

As you can clearly see resource images are great tools for busy artists. However, there are some artists who frown at the notion that a fellow artist would ever use reference photographs to compose from. They believe the appropriate way to do it is to make on-the-spot sketches when they go out on location. While this may be the ideal way of working, the reality is many artists don’t always have the time to make the necessary detailed drawings that would be required for studio work.

Ever since the camera was first invented, many famous painters whom you will recognize, have used photographs to paint from. Such renown artists include Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec, and Vincent Van Gogh, to name but a handful. If you use reference photos too, this puts you in very good company.

This article is continued in Reference Photos, Part 2.