How To Use Reference

What it is and what it isn’t; there’s quite a bit confusion about the concept and terminology of using reference. If you want to draw something you need to know what it looks like. But at the same time the goal  is to create an original work that is uniquely your own without infringing on other people’s rights. In this tutorial I will try and explain what copying, tracing and reference is and how to use reference to advance as an artist.


Can be a bit of a legal minefield. If your work strongly resembles the original image, then it is a derivative work. The right to create derivative work is reserved for the copyright holder. Meaning that if you do not already own the image you are basing your new image off, that you are possibly infringing on someone else’s copyright and could get into trouble.

The rule of thumb is:
– Is the image you are basing your new work off (the underlying work) your own to begin with? Then you’re free to do what you want. –tigergrid
– Does the underlying work belong to someone else? Ask first. They may allow derivative work, for free or under certain terms and conditions, or deny you.

Respect their wishes regardless of their decision.

Stock art/photography for example is rarely free, the copyright holder will often ask a fee for it’s use. Some people are content to provide stock material in exchange for things such as linking back to their gallery. It’s important to respect their wishes. If you cannot adhere to their wishes, use someone else’s stock.

A popular way of copying images directly is to use the grid method.In addition to being able to get a good feel for the major outlines of whatever you’re trying to copy over, it’s easy to transfer a drawing like this and resize it in the process. I sometimes use it when transferring a drawing to a linoleum slab/copper plate/wooden plank for carving/etching.

But again, I wouldn’t recommend copying over images without permission of their owner.


Copyright is such that the moment someone creates an original work, they own the rights to it, including reproduction, editing and reposting rights. Meaning, that if you trace over an image you don’t own (drawings, photos, movie stills, screenshots etc.) it is copyright infringement, which is illegal. Not to mention immoral.
There’s nothing admirable about tracing and you won’t learn anything from it. So don’t do it.

Some people think they can avoid getting caught tracing by parts of various drawings and compiling them into a single image (a practice sometimes referred to as frankensteining) or even think that this a valid method of creating art. Is it not. While it may look good at a glance, these “frankensteined” images are obviously flawed to artists and more experienced viewers.

To illustrate, I will combine some of my work with some work graciously provided by my friend Frisket.


Like I said, it looks okay at a first glance, but a closer inspection reveals the many errors evident in the places where the drawings have been joined.Especially anatomy and proportions suffer, there are glaring mistakes which would not have occurred if someone had drawn it from scratch; a wire frame, blocking in the figure and then refining it.

Additionally I would not recommend using existing art as close reference for new art, especially if the art is not yours. If someone draws something with the proper use of reference, they will create an individual interpretation which will inevitably have it’s flaws. When you use art as reference rather than live reference or photo reference you will copy the other artist’s mistakes and style.
Furthermore the other artist will have chosen to depict things they way they did because they gained an understanding from using reference that you cannot learn by referencing their finished work. Many finished pieces are preceded by numerous smaller studies, this is an essential part not only of creating the final image but of furthering their understanding, improving their future work and developing their own unique style.


On to the meat of the matter. This is going to get a big lengthy, but I feel like I should explain as clearly as possible since there’s so much confusion on the matter and because it’s so important. If you use reference the correct way, you will learn and advance as an artist, developing your personal style and the ability to translate and convey your imagination and personal experiences and enable you to share something very personal with others.

If you use it incorrectly you will stunt your development and spend the rest of your life imitating people who do know how to use reference.

Some people brush off the need to use references for stylistic reasons, however, it is a fact that some artists (fine artists such as Picasso, cartoon artists such as David Colman) with the most personal, recognizable and distinctive styles can render images with incredible realism. Reality is the starting point for stylized art.
Despite popular opinion, anatomy and such based off reality is equally important when depicting fantasy creatures. Familiar, realistic anatomy will lend credibility to unrealistic aspects of the creature. Some fantasy creatures appear to be composites of various real animals anyway; a centaur being half horse, half human. Or a gryphon being part lion and part eagle.

Ideally you should have an idea of what you want to draw, and then find reference from which you can learn how to depict exactly what you want to depict. Odds are you’ll have to use a lot of different reference images, none of which might be exactly what you’re looking to depict, but every one will teach you a little about how to draw what you want to illustrate.


Take this photo of a hand for example, it might not be in the pose you want to draw a hand in, but you can see what it looks like; learning to see is perhaps one of the most important things of learning to draw. Where most people see a hand, an artist has to learn to see proportions, where the joints are, how the skin folds when the fingers bend and so forth. There’s a wealth of information most people will never consciously register, but if an artist forgets these details or gets them wrong, their absence or incorrect depiction will stand out like a sore thumb, no pun intended.

For this tutorial, we will re-draw the bat-winged, maned wolf-taur lady to show the difference between a traced/frankensteined image and one drawn with proper use of reference.

When you have an idea of what you want to draw, make a few thumbnails. Play with the composition, the characters, the background. Especially the background, this way the background will be part of the sketch and not just something slapped in at the last moment. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on the individual thumbnails, and you can mix and match elements between them until you find something you’re happy with. If you have trouble deciding on a thumbnail, leave it for a while and do something else. If you can recall one or more thumbnails later on without looking at them again, you have narrowed your choice down to those few memorable thumbnails.



Once you know what you want to draw you can find the reference material you need. This can take some time and you might use a lot of reference for a single image. Especially if there’s multiple characters, props and a detailed background. Even if one aspect of the whole is not the focus of the image, if it’s drawn badly it might attract the attention and detract from the intended focus. So take your time to collect all the reference you need before and even during the process.

I tend to use a lot of reference, several images per aspect of an image if I feel I need it. For clarity’s sake I have used relatively few images from relatively few sources so I can show you what kind of reference I use. I’m not going into detail about how I make a drawing, that’s for another tutorial. This is just about reference.










This reference has been graciously been provided by the people named on the thumbnails, I would very much recommend visiting their galleries when you have the time.

Clicking on the thumbnails will open their respective sites in a new window.

marcus slephoto chrysocyonfrax erin ngon suekay crystal