I’ve been intending to write this post for quite some time now simply for the purpose of exploring the methods of some of my favorite artists.  Recently on Facebook, however, I saw a lively discussion on what I’d come think was a pretty dead topic: photo reference.  I was genuinely surprised to see that there are still people who argue that painting or drawing with the aid of photography is unethical or harmful.  My optimistic nature had assumed this hangup had been washed away by years of online discussion, tutorials, and process videos.

I understand we all grow up with romantic ideas about how artists create, or what makes an artist an artist in the first place.  After all, for many years it had been a very private and mysterious thing.  The insecurities that these childhood notions plant can also lead to artists feeling shy about sharing their methods for fear of being labeled “cheater” or “hack” which, unfortunately, only reinforces those insecurities in the young artists who will follow.  Since painting is a very solitary act, it is very easy to be secretive about things like this, so I have huge respect and appreciation for those who have been willing to help dispel these attitudes by revealing their own references.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that there are a number of artists who have trained themselves to work purely from memory (Kim Jung Gi is almost too good of an example here).  And there are plenty, mostly if not entirely in fine art, who dislike photography and choose instead to work from life.  That’s wonderful, and I encourage any artist to use whatever tools, materials, and process that gives them the result they need while also being satisfying and engaging.

If you hesitate or feel a pang of guilt when the subject of photo reference comes up, however, take a look through this selection of artists who were confident enough in their ability to pull back the curtain.  And if you don’t feel that pang, then simply enjoy comparing the methods of some really fantastic painters and draftsmen:

James Bama


Julie Bell (reference composite made from multiple photos)


Dean Cornwell


Dan Dos Santos


Gil Elvgren


Eric Fortune


H.R. Giger


David Grove (this was an alternate photo, as indicated by Grove’s comment: “Yes I know, I should have used this shot…” as published in his recent monograph.  Seeing that he would explore a variety of approaches with photography, not just pencil sketching, is an exceptionally rare glimpse into his conceptual process)


James Gurney


Adam Hughes


Robert Maguire


Greg Manchess


Robert McGinnis


Alphonse Mucha


David Palumbo


Maxfield Parrish


Paolo Rivera


Norman Rockwell


J. Allen St. John


Sam Weber