Two Basic Ways To Use Reference Images When Making Art

If you don’t know what a reference image is, it is any image that an artist uses as a guide when making a different and original piece of art. It can be a photo in a magazine, something on the TV, the results of an online image search etc…

But, before I go any further, I should point out that reference images are NOT something that artists should copy directly! Generally speaking, most reference images are copyrighted. So, unless you own the copyright to the reference image, direct copying isn’t a good idea.

However, although they shouldn’t be copied directly, reference images can still be incredibly useful to artists. But, I should obviously point out that I’m not a copyright lawyer, so any of my comments about copyright shouldn’t be considered legal advice. So, do your own research!

1) Building up a “3D model”: If you are painting a real place or a type of animal or something like that, then it is important to remember that there’s often no rule against drawing or painting such things (Again, I’m not a lawyer, so do your research here – rules do vary from place to place.).

For example, in most jurisdisictions, actual real places can’t be copyrighted (although there are or were some silly exceptions, like – until relatively recently- the Atomium in Belgium or – potentially- the Eiffel tower at night).

However, each individual photograph, piece of footage etc.. of the thing in question is probably covered by copyright. You can’t directly copy, say, a random modern photo of London that you found on the internet. However, you can look at lots of different photos of that same part of London and use the information you’ve gained from them to build up a “3D model” of the location in your mind.

Then, when you aren’t looking at any reference images (to lessen the risk of inadvertant copying), you can then use the “3D model” as a basis for a new and original piece of art that looks different to any of the photos you’ve seen. You can use artistic licence, you can use a perspective that you think looks dramatic etc… The thing to remember here is that whilst individual photos of a place, animal etc… are often copyrighted, the actual things in those photos usually can’t be copyrighted.

For example, a photo of a shark you’ve found online is probably copyrighted. But, this doesn’t mean that no-one else can draw or photograph sharks. It just means that this one specific photo can’t be directly copied.

Of course, this gets a little bit more complicated when it involves – say- photos of a city that include lots of copyrighted art on billboards etc… (and it’s usually a good idea to change these and/or make them generic and indistinct in your art). But, on a basic level, using multiple reference images to build up a mental “3D model” of a location is a really good way to use references.

2) Learning general rules: If you want to make a particular style or genre of art, but have no clue how to do it, then try to find as many images of it as you can on the internet. Watch DVDs and Youtube videos that feature this style of art, read comics that include it and play any computer games that include it. Try to look at as many different example of it as time, money etc… permits.

As you are looking at all of these examples, see what they have in common with each other. Look at the colours, look at the style of lighting, look at the art styles, look for common themes and visual features etc…

For example, if you wanted to make some “film noir”-style art, then you might do an online image search for “film noir”.

This will, no doubt, show you lots of greyscale pictures of people in 1930s-50s style clothing, often in gloomily-lit urban locations. There will be clever use of shadows and silhouettes. There will often be a high level of visual storytelling (eg: people brandishing guns, couples kissing etc..) and the perspective will often heighten the drama in some way. There will be cigarettes, typewriters, whisky bottles, pistols, trench coats and trilby hats aplenty. Almost all of the windows will have blinds instead of curtains. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea……

So, if you wanted to make some “film noir”-style art, then you could just make sure that your art includes some or all of the general elements in this list.

Once you’ve worked out a common set of “rules” that most pieces of art in a particular type follow, then it’s just a simple matter of following these rules when you make your next piece of original art.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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