If you’d asked me when I first started working as an illustrator what I thought of hiring models, I probably would have told you it seemed a little like over kill to me. At the time I was drawing a lot from my imagination, using magazine and internet reference, or very quick digital photos of friends or myself to flesh out details. I think at the time that sort of reference gathering actually suited my purposes well (it was fast and readily available), but as my ambitions and interests changed it became quickly apparent that I would need better, more specific reference. Since those days, models have become an integral part of my process. They’ve brought life and variety to my work, and allowed me to pursue a level of realism that was impossible for me otherwise. I’ve realized also over the years that the people I work with have influenced my style and visual language as much as anything else. Whom you select is a very personal and deeply creative choice.

I remember how daunting and intimidating the idea seemed to me at first, and all the misconceptions I had about what the process actually looked like. Frankly, the idea of contacting some stranger to come to my studio so I could take pictures of them sounded pretty terrifying.

It’s been a long time since then. I’ve just wrapped up an illustrated book(more on that in a few months), my biggest and most ambitious project to date, and I was recently reflecting on all the people that helped make that project possible. The models I worked with were so important, and I thought I would take some time to share some advice and thoughts on what that process looks like for me.

Try to keep your background relatively clear of any distracting detail

Photo Shoots Take Time
One of the first things I would encourage anyone interested in shooting their own reference to consider(especially if we’re talking about photographing people) is that photo shoots take time. At least an hour in my experience. Try to give yourself and your subject some room to relax and make mistakes. Often times the best photos arrive at the end, and if things are rushed, you’re much more likely to settle for mediocre reference(one of the most common problems I see in my own students).

Use Your Friends
Using your friends and the people around you is really the best place to start. You’re already comfortable around each other, and chances are you probably don’t have to pay them(and if you do, probably less than a professional). I love painting my friends into my work whenever possible, and if we’re talking about building a portfolio or getting started as an illustrator, you’ve probably got more leeway in who you get to represent in your work than someone who’s trying to visually describe a specific character from a novel or text. If you’re a young or new artist, take advantage of this. Infuse your images with the world around you. It’s an effective way to make the work feel more personal and real.

Thank you to all my long suffering friends. . .

Where To Search For Professionals
Inevitably there will be images and projects that require something a friend or family member can’t provide. There are three websites that I use regularly to find professional models. I live in New York City, so I’m a little spoiled as far as choice goes. Living within easy reach of a major metropolitan area definitely has it’s advantages, but my guess is that these work quite well in other regions.

modelmayhem.com – great for young and conventionally attractive people. Interface allows you to search based on a wide range of criteria which can be helpful if you’re looking for something very specific. You can also put out casting calls.


castingnetworks.com – This site hosts a lot of actors looking for work in film and television. It’s especially great for finding older models, or people with unconventional looks. The only real way to use this place in my experience is by putting out a casting call, so you end up sifting through a lot of submissions, but I’ve found some truly wonderful models here, often with a lot of acting experience(always a plus).

craigslist.org – still not a bad place, at least here in NYC. Just be prepared to sift through some weirdos.

What To Pay
If you’re working with a client, often times you can ask to have a model fee added to the budget, don’t be afraid to ask your art director(remember, it’s not their money. . .  it’s okay to talk about money with art directors). It isn’t always available, but I feel it’s often worth absorbing the cost because I know it will make the work that much better. I typically pay around $100-200 an hour. Some models have specific rates, although I would say most of the time I’m approaching them with a budget. If you’re putting up a casting call, just offer what you are comfortable with and able to pay. There’s nothing wrong with offering a job for less as long as you’re polite and respectful when people decline.

This is what a casting call would appear like on modelmayhem

A casting call is a call for submissions. People that are interested in being considered for your project will respond to your casting call by leaving you a message(on one of the above sites) or sending you an email. It’s best to put as much information as possible into your casting call, ad or email inquiry. What you are paying(per hour is standard), how long the shoot will take, where you are shooting, and a general description of the project is all important information you should include. I save the specific details for later, once I’ve chose someone; remember, the casting call is there just to find out who is interested in the job. I’ve found in general it’s best to only contact the person you want to hire. Models and actors apply to a lot of opportunities and I’ve been told it’s distracting to receive rejection messages, so just contact people you are interested in working with and don’t worry about the rest. People use these websites to find jobs, not socialize. There’s nothing wrong with becoming friends with the people you work with, of course, but casting isn’t the time for that, so keep it professional and to the point. Once you’ve found someone you think is a good fit, write them a more specific email explaining the project and shoot in more detail. Tell them a little about yourself and send them a link to your website so they understand what kind of work you do. This is a great time to send over your sketch as well, so that everyone involved understands what you’re looking for.


Not everyone is comfortable being touched or spitting out fake blood. Be clear and upfront.

The Sketch
And speaking of the sketch, that is one of your greatest assets in this whole process. Unlike a photographer, you’ve got a great visual representation of what you are looking for. It helps put people at ease, manage expectations, and allows you to have a specific conversation about what you’re hoping to get out of a photo shoot. The sketch is also super helpful when it comes to the actual shoot, since it gives you a great starting point and helps the model get an idea of the mood and action you’re looking to achieve.

The Shoot
If you’re anything like me, meeting strangers and trying to do something creative with them, in a limited amount of time no less, is a stressful situation. Anything you can do to make things more comfortable and relaxed for everyone involved is worth pursuing. Have your lights and props ready(check out Dave’s great post on studio lighting or Dan’s very thorough process video), go over the sketch again and have them sign a model release(see below). I like to take breaks every fifteen minutes or so, which is a great time to take a closer look at the photos in photoshop or lightroom and see if there’s anything I’m missing. If I’m struggling to get what I need, it’s also a good opportunity to show them the photos and explain what they could do to improve them.

I’ve also found it helpful to make a list of all the important elements I’ll need for my painting. It’s easy to forget to get some great shots of their shoes, when you’ve been struggling for twenty minutes to get a great shot of a seemingly more important element like their face. Faces are of course important, but getting beautiful lighting and form in secondary elements like shoes, hands, drapery etc is part of the whole reason you are even doing this, so don’t miss out on that opportunity(I mention this mainly because it still happens to me quite regularly). Pay your model in cash, unless otherwise requested, and round up to the nearest hour.

Try to take as many photos as you comfortably can. I will take, literally hundreds, varying the lighting and pose throughout.

This is what my model release looks like. Feel free to use or amend.

You Must Be a Director
Very rarely do I immediately get what I need from a photoshoot. Your sketch is a great starting point, but you need to be actively directing the model during the entire shoot. Be polite and constructive, but don’t shy away from being direct and specific. I’m constantly telling the people I work with to tilt their heads, open or close their hands, twist and turn in various directions, shift their weight from one leg to another, yell at the camera, open their mouths, close their eyes, inhale, etc. Once I’ve got the camera in my hand, I’m actually pretty chatty since I think it makes things a little less weird. Tell your model when things look great so they know what is working. In my experience, the more comfortable someone is, the better the photos look, so be constructive and positive. I’ve also found costumes and props to be a huge help. There’s something about putting on a costume, or holding a cardboard sword that says “we are playing pretend, it’s okay to feel a little silly, let’s have fun.” Even if I’m just shooting a portrait or painting something contemporary, I try to have some sort of small costume element to get people in the right mindset. Plus it’s usually sort of funny, and humor is a great way to alleviate tension.


A lot of good art has an element of the unexpected introduced somewhere within its creation. Bringing another human being into the process, with all the wonderful and annoying things that come with that can be so inspiring. It doesn’t always go well, but at it’s best it can be a fantastic collaboration. Stay open to being surprised. Give yourself the time and space to get the best out of the people you work with. Be respectful and generous. If working with models is something you’ve been thinking about, I sincerely hope you give it a try.

I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments, thanks so much to Dan and Co. for giving me the opportunity to write this.