Digital Painting 101: A Beginner's Guide to Photo References

Doesn't seem so easy now, does it?
Without referring to a photograph, illustrating anything seems impossible for most artists. So today we'll cover the different types of references that are out there, what to avoid, and how to make the most out of what you've got.
Photographs are the modern-day model. Since the invention of the original camera, traditional artists have always used photographs as an aid to improve their drawing technique. And with digital art, photographs have become an essential tool that adds incredible convenience to the creative process.
I suggest that you take full advantage of any reference you can get your hands on. Here are some different types of imagery artists use:
  1. Nature, landscape, and cityscape photography 
  2. Male and female portraits, young and old
  3. Still life, and photos of objects
  4. Texture references (fabric, grunge, etc)
  5. Sculptures and monuments
  6. Diagrams and anatomical references
  7. Video screenshots
We all use them at some point or another. Here are some tips for making the most out of your photo references:
First things first, know what you want to paint. You can spend ages looking for the perfect reference, or instead, create a small list of the features you absolutely need to know. Search out each individual detail until you have a small collection of photos for future use. 

Take Notes for Which Stock Photos to Use

There are sites literally dedicated to helping you in your search for great stocks. Always search the free ones first. Secretly, they are gold mines to resources you can use without the worry of copyright issues. For the best results, get familiar with the language used for tagging photos. "Flower on a white background" versus "flower vector" are two examples that are similar but garner completely different search results.  
Sometimes you'll just want to reference photos in a more generalized sense. In this case, it's better to gather as many photos as possible for one detail. That way you can take elements from each to create your own unique interpretation best suited for your piece. 

Source Multiple Stock References for Your Painting Ideas

Some details will always be harder to paint than others. Fire, for instance, is a commonly known detail that is pretty tricky to replicate. In these instances, it's perfectly fine for beginners and even advanced painters to utilize stocks to manipulate into the painting. 
Never feel as if you are less of an artist by using photos in this manner, because traditional artists have been using collage techniques for centuries. 
When all else fails, create your own stocks. After all, your paintings are your own personal vision, and there's no better way to add meaning to your pieces than to reference yourself or objects you own. Enlist the help of others, or invest in a good tripod to capture the best photo possible. 
Check out how Monika Zagrobelna makes the most out of her inspiration in Draw Your Mind Out: How to Create Without Thinking. 

Creature Design Without Reference by Monika Zagrobelna

The appropriate use of certain photo references is often a touchy subject. Here are some ideas you definitely want to avoid before selecting your stocks:
As tempting as it is, Google is not your friend in the stock world. Search results are according to SEO and not necessarily what works best for you. Expect to see lots of generic photos and stocks that aren't as creative as you might've hoped.  
Because people fail to label their photos with the appropriate tags, you will have to go digging for the perfect one. Be patient and as descriptive as possible in order to strike stock oil. 
Blurred and pixelated photos are only going to make your life harder. Make sure you utilize images that are clear enough to read and understand details. And as I previously mentioned, grabbing several examples of the same thing can help you reference multiple shots that read better than others. 

Choose Stock Photos with Great Quality

We've all seen them. The stock photos that don't really make any sense. Odd props and awkward expressions can make for horrible references for your digital paintings. In order to illustrate a concept to the best of your ability, study things like body language and the power of symbols in your work. Getting to know these essentials early on will prove incredibly useful while seeking stocks in the future. 
It's very important that all artists study up on their rights. The best way to avoid legal trouble is to know your stocks inside and out, and to choose them wisely. If you're unsure about the origins or legal status of a photo, move on to one that has them clearly laid out. Obtain the appropriate permissions if need be, and never feel entitled to someone else's work. We must all respect our fellow artists' craft. There are serious repercussions for stolen work, and no one is immune. 
For my Ariel Inspired Mermaid Painting, check out how I used alternative resources like Pinterest to inspire my own interpretation of this well-known Disney princess. 

Little Mermaid Inspired Ariel Painting Art by Melody Nieves

Never underestimate the power of photography. It's a great resource you can refer to even as an aid to improve your digital painting skills over time. I hope you've enjoyed learning a little more about the dos and don'ts for selecting the perfect stock photography for your next painting.
Continue to follow our Digital Painting 101 series for more tips to assist you throughout your journey as a beginner. Good luck!


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