Is using reference photos cheating?

I’ve come across many artists who believe that using a reference is a sort of cheating. To be fair I used to be guilty of the same belief when I first started off. Way, way, waaaay back almost at the age of dinosaurs. I used to think that using a reference is like painting over a photo and calling yourself an amazing artist. However as time went by I learned that that’s far from the truth. As I thought more and more on the matter, I came to the conclusion that all great artists use or have used references at one point or another. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from, using a reference is how you learn.

If you think about it, art has always been something where you look at an object and transfer it on to a canvas (or a cave wall depending when you were born).

Can you draw something you have never seen before? For example you could draw something that looks a bit like a dog by combining parts of different species. However in the end you haven’t drawn a dog. That’s simply because you haven’t got the required visual library. Using references you build your visual library.

I believe most artists would agree that it’s a bit harder than drawing from a live model. Unfortunately though it’s not the kind of hard that would help you level up more quickly. Reason is that the reference picture you get from the internet cannot always give you as good understanding of forms that live-drawing can offer.
The way you transcribe forms on to a canvas is the fundamental ingredient of art.

Bottom line on whether using a reference is “cheating” – no, no it isn’t, it’s a tool and a good habit to have in order to grow your visual library.

How to pick the right reference

Searching for a good reference photo is, in my opinion, the most annoying thing you could be doing, nonetheless it’s worth doing it! You can easily spend up to 30 minutes just scrolling through irrelevant pictures and end up not finding exactly what you’re looking for. That’s if you’re looking for a good photo to reference light from, if you’re looking for a picture for a body pose to make a rough sketch of, well that’s a bit easier to find. However I’m going to be talking about how to pick a good photograph to reference lighting.

Here are the things you got to take into consideration:

That’s if you’re looking for a good photo to reference light from, if you’re looking for a picture for a body pose to make a rough sketch of, well that’s a bit easier to find. However I’m going to be talking about how to pick a good photograph to reference lighting.

Here are the things you got to take into consideration:

The right exposure

Basically you need to reference from a photo that’s in the sweet spot of exposure. What that means is it should not be too bright or too dark. You need to be able to make out the forms clearly. No harsh shadows that hide information, nor bright lights that burn away details.

Use high quality photos

High quality photos are often produced by professional photographers, however not all high quality photos will be good for referencing. For example some pro photos of models might not work, because the photographer could have retouched the face. That means they might have blurred out the “unflattering” features to make the model appear prettier and they might have overdone it. The “beauty filter” is a perfect example of overdoing the smoothing of the skin. If you can’t make out the normal facial features of the human face, chances are it’s not a good photo for referencing.
Pixelated images are an obvious no-good reference material, however I am compelled to make a note on them too.

This isn’t really usable even if you’re trying out pixel art

Keep away from blurry photographs

Similar to the “beauty filter”, blurry photos will make it difficult for you to draw details and edges of the facial and/or body features. The filter actually works that way – it blurs out some of your facial features, so there’s less information in there. Less information in a picture – less wrinkles and/or skin imperfections.
A good painting or drawing is a combination of both soft edges and hard edges. So having that in mind if the image you’re referencing from is blurry, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish what you should render out with a sharp edge and what with a soft one. If you’re advanced enough, you might be able to imagine what facial feature needs a sharper edge and what softer, however that’s not something you should keep on doing. You might end up picking up a bad habit, which is going to be tough to break later on.

Remember you have to draw what you SEE and not what you THINK is there.

Blurry example

Flat images and extreme, dramatic exposures

By “flat images”, I’m referring to photos that have a really small difference between the darkest shadow and the lightest light. These images just don’t work, they don’t look good as photos and they will not look good as drawings/paintings either.
Extreme, dramatic shadows are the photographs that are the opposite of the flat photos. They are kind of like the baby of underexposed and overexposed photos. Their darkest shadows are absolute black and their lightest light are absolute whites. The only situation where these might sort of help you is if you’re drawing manga or an old-school comic style illustration. However even for that these types of photos aren’t ideal. It would be a better idea for you to just reference from a photograph that’s just in the sweet spot.


If you were to imagine an artist, probably you see a painter in front of a canvas looking at something. Although most likely the artist is out in the wild or looking at a real person.
Using a reference picture you’ve found on the internet isn’t that much different

Overall I hope that I’ve managed to convince the people who thought that using references in art is basically cheating. It’s not cheating, it’s a way to learn how to draw or paint properly.
On the other hand, I hope I haven’t discouraged people from searching for the right reference given how many things there are to consider. It is a pain in the grass to be looking for the right photo but it’s necessary.

If you don’t have time to be looking for the perfect references, you could consider snapping a picture of yourself in the pose and lighting you need. Smartphones have fairly descent cameras with timers and they will make a good high-quality photo. Once you snap the photo make sure that you haven’t stepped on any of the points I’ve mentioned above.

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