The Importance of good reference images

The Importance of good reference images

Reference: noun. Re-fer-rence.
-The act of looking at or in something for information.

What do you need to do your job well? What are the basic requirements needed to complete your work? One of the main factors required for anyone would be information, either from within your own mind or learned through research into the task at hand. Without information, we would stumble through the process, or project, and the results would be less than perfect. As an Artist, good reference images are a must.

For an Artist, the greatest challenge in creating a new painting is the reference images needed and used. To create images as real as I can make them, as much detail as possible is required in the reference images employed. A great article I have read online, by Chris Legaspi through his website the Fresh Designer, speaks of the necessity of great reference in relation to life drawing. Chris is an artist who teaches life figure drawing, who states that:

“Yes, figure drawing is hard, and since it is hard, it’s best to choose reference and lighting scenarios that can help simplify the process. Working with poor reference or poor lighting scenarios will lead to frustration, slowed growth and ineffective use of time.” 1

Lighting and detail, for me, are the most critical factors in choosing reference images. Having an understanding of how light works can help to make up the shortfalls in a less than perfect reference image. However, making up the shortfalls of detail is much more difficult and once you step into that realm, there is the possibility of the final work differing from the real thing. I remember reading an article, in ‘Airbrush Action Magazine’, where a fellow photorealist artist states:

“Paint what you see, not what you know!”2

Substituting details from memory is a very tricky step, as unless you have spent much time studying the original, your memory will distort, dilute and omit parts of what you know or think you know about the subject! Unless you are blessed with a photographic memory; your brain is not designed to hold all the exact details in your visual memory, it has to economize by remembering an ‘impression’ and omitting many of the finer details. Pavla Karon, from her article on CG Cookie, states that:

“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.”3

The importance of a great reference shot can be shown in creating a portrait of a loved one or someone you know very well. A grainy, blurred image, devoid of finer detail would not allow the artist to create a realistic image of that person that you would recognize, if they substituted their learned knowledge of what they ‘know’ the details to be. The person in the painting would be known to you, and yet somehow be a stranger. Sure, an impressionistic, soft painting could be a solution, yet as a photorealist painter, this is often a step away from our true style.

Provide a good image

gaby in progress, an example of high detail, good reference images.
Gaby, reference image by Aria Arts and Photography Kamloops. An example of high detail, good reference images.

So, what can you do to help provide the perfect reference image? Here are some tips for selecting an image, from your own library. Some of the following would be considered ‘wrong’ to photographers, as shadows can be considered as unflattering. However, as an artist, these can create interesting form and shape.

• What and where is your lighting source? Single source lighting can help provide great tones and definition between light and shadow.
• What direction is your lighting source coming from? Backlit, front lit and multiple sources of light can wash out the image or create a silhouette. To the side and front is often a great way to light a subject, as it helps to define features.
• High detail. If you have a digital copy, does the detail remain if you zoom in on the image?
• High resolution file. Along with the detail, what is the resolution of the image you have chosen and how big is the file?

If you do have a particular, absolute favourite image, which shows the genuine character of the person or subject you wish to have painted, there are solutions to the above points. The great thing about being an artist is the ability to use more than one source of reference. For me, the eyes are ‘the window to the soul’, and so having excellent detailed reference of the eyes of a subject is a must. Providing more than one image to your artist is a perfect idea, as working with the artist, providing extra reference, will only help them to create the best painting possible for you. If you are unsure as to whether your image will translate well into a painting, ask your artist, we are here to help provide you with exactly what you want, or even more.

Consult a professional

Another option is to consult a professional photographer about how to stage and create the image that you want. In this instance, making sure that the photographer knows that you wish to use the final images as reference shots for a photorealist painter is a must. The final painting is often so real, that they can be mistaken for a photo, opening it up to the areas of image copyright.

Currently a collaboration which is underway between WiRD Art and Melanie Dreyer, of Aria Arts photography, is another excellent way to get the exacting reference you need. Mel is a professional photographer on the board of the Professional Photographers of Canada (PPOC), who creates wonderful portrait photography. We are working to create a Portrait Experience, where you get to have a professional shoot with Mel and choose your favourite, well lit, high detail image. Your chosen image will then be turned into an exquisite, high detail, personalised painting. The whole process is designed to give you not only a great work of art, it will give you lasting memories too, as an experience for the whole family to enjoy. If you wish to know more about this experience, contact us now to find out how to book yours today!

I hope that the above information will help you to select which images your artist will need, in order to receive an amazing work of art. We are here for you and it is always an honour to be asked to paint for you. It is our wish to give you a memory, an heirloom, an item to be cherished and loved.

Links and article reference:

1. Chris Legaspi website –
2. Airbrush Action Magazine –
3. Pavla Karon –
4. Melanie Dreyer, Aria Arts –

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