Recently a couple of different students have mentioned to me that “they don’t get a chance to see artists’ reference side-by-side with their finals all that often.” Hmmmmm.

Now, there is a literal shitstorm of posts and articles out there featuring this theme, but I think the root of these comments is that we can all sense a little…falseness in these posts, from time to time. I’ve seen articles where the artist is obviously sharing a picture from the same shoot, but not THE shot; not the shot they actually used to paint from – and keen students sense this as well. 

Of course, it feels rather vulnerable to share one’s exact reference; I myself have shied away from it for a long time, particularly in settings (like the internet) that feel “permanent” or “public.” That said; we’re not doing each other any favors by holding this stuff back, so let’s just get over it. Photo-reference can be an astoundingly powerful part of the modern illustrator’s repertoire, and just like drawing, painting, and composing, it’s a skillset that takes time and practice to develop and integrate into one’s art, so we need good examples of how it’s done, and good dialogue around it.


Herald of Faith, M19 – Sketch. © Wizards of the Coast.


Herald of Faith, M19 – Reference © Wizards of the Coast.


Herald of Faith, M19 – Final. © Wizards of the Coast.

Today’s post is simple: it’s an uncomfortably clear look at my reference, with nothing hidden. I’m not going to defend myself as an artist, or explain what I changed and “how it was all very complicated and technical, and not anyone could do it.” I’m sharing this stuff because I think with the right tools and knowledge anyone could do it! Welcome to the abattoir; this is how we make the meat.


Touch of Iron, 2016 – Sketch.


Touch of Iron, 2016 – Reference.


Touch of Iron, 2016 – Final.

Each reference picture is exactly what’s sitting in my PSD file. I keep my reference all in a group at the top of my file, along with other helpful things like callouts, perspective grids, and background items so I can flicker it on and off to check for accuracy. This is a lot like the “onion-skin” method of examining drawings for animation: by flickering between my reference and my painting, I create the illusion of motion anywhere there’s an inaccuracy, and can hone in on those spots for correction if they’re different in ways I haven’t chosen. This also happens to be an EXCELLENT technique for training your eye to see accurately, by the way.


The Unbroken, 2020 – Sketch.


The Unbroken, 2020 – Reference.


The Unbroken, 2020 – Final.

If you want to give it a try, download these images and stack them one atop the other in Photoshop, and flicker the REF layer on and off, and you’ll see basically exactly what I see as I’m painting.

You may notice that there are seams in some of the reference; I definitely do a bit of drawing with the reference before it gets into the file. Sometimes the body is perfect but you need a different head; sometimes there isn’t a single good, holistic photo of the pose and you have to build the whole thing out of parts. I’m happy to answer any technique questions in the comments, and if you like seeing this, let me know and maybe I’ll do another post like it sometime!