Reference Photos

Choosing a reference photo is a critical step in creating a great portrait.  The right reference photo can be the difference between a clear, detailed, artistic work of art and a basic drawing.  Clarity, pose, framing, and lighting are some factors that you should keep in mind when choosing a reference photo.


The clarity of a photo determines how much detail and accuracy I will be able to draw into your picture.   When selecting your photo, please make sure that all the features and details that you want drawn are clear in the photograph.  Remember that I don’t know what the subject looks like and have only the photograph to draw an accurate representation of that subject.  Choose a photo the clearly represents what the subject looks like in real life.
Baby Judah is too blurry in this picture to enable me to draw much detail into the artwork.
In this picture, Judah's features are all clearly defined, and there is plenty of detail in his hair for a realistic portrait.


The subject’s pose is partially a matter of your preference, but here are some posing tips that make a portrait more artistic.
  1. Avoid profiles.  Profiles tend to be boring and do not capture likeness and emotion as well as angles that expose more face.
  2. Find ways to avoid having the subject face the camera straight-on and smile, such as using three-quarter views, having the subject looking up or down, have the subject tilt his/her head, or having the subject turn his/her eyes away from the camera.
  3. If you want to use a straight-on photo, make it more interesting my trying different expressions or striking lighting.
  4. Use different expressions.  While smiles are nice to draw, having the subject make a different expression can often bring out the artistic nature of a piece in different ways.  Try small smiles, no smiles, serious expressions, laughing faces, or anything that is not a regular picture-taking smile for greatest artistic expression.
  5. Taking a picture from above or below can add interest and artistry to a photograph, which will translate into a more interesting portrait
This straight-on shot of my sister Ellie is cute, but it doesn't have the artistry I look for in a reference photo. It could make for a boring portrait.
This picture of sister Emily is clear and vibrant, but the post is not interesting, and it wouldn't make a very good piece of art.
By having Ellie turn to a three-quarter face view, the image becomes more interesting and artistic for a drawing and makes for better perspective and shading.
By taking the picture from above and having Emily turn to the three-quarter view, this picture became much more interesting and artistic.


I am a portrait artist, so when you select your picture, don’t select one that is mostly landscape with a small human figure in the middle.  Look for an up-close of a face or body, but avoid pictures that are so up-close that the sides of the face are cropped out.

This is a neat picture of my sister Elisabeth at the Grand Canyon, but she's small and the landscape around her is so big that this wouldn't make a good portrait.
This portrait of Elisabeth in a slight three-quarter angle is close enough to show the detail in her face and would make a better portrait.


A more minor detail to consider when choosing a reference photo is lighting.  Be sure to avoid pictures in which the lighting is dim or artificial-looking.  When ever possible, avoid reference photos that were taken with a harsh flash.  The best lighting for portraits is natural light from the outdoors or from windows.

This picture of my brother Judah is so dark on his face that I cannot make out many of the details.
In this photo, Judah is lit with natural light from both sides, creating shadows and soft highlights on his face.

Of course, not every great reference photo will follow these rules.  I use some reference photos that break some of my posing guidelines and still come out with a great portrait.  If you have a photo that does not follow these guidelines but that you think would make a great painting, please feel free to ask about it.  I’m eager to help you find the perfect picture for your beautiful portrait.