How Reference Photos Fit Into My Process

Everyone uses reference photos. Whether you’re an artist, influencer, blogger, stay-at-home-mom, even an accountant, we all use them. There’s no real right way to use them, well, other than thou shall not plagiarize (duh!) but everyone has their own way of utilizing them to craft a new image or reality based on something that already exists.

For me, it all starts with proportions. My favorite part of using reference images is using them to get my anatomy exactly right. I’ll start by asking for a high resolution image, and then scale it to the size that it will be on the canvas in Photoshop. I convert it to black and white and then hit print! Next, I cut around the outline of the dog or kitty I’m about to paint and position it where I like. This allows me to visualize my composition before putting any pencil down on the wood… which is extremely important since I use a ton of acrylic washes in the background of my paintings. I can’t have any leftover pencil marks showing through and ruining my final image. (Sidenote: I’ve learned the hard way that even when something looks like it’s completely erased, the graphite will come up and out of the wood grain once you lay the wash down, leaving you with a big ugly grey spot in the middle of where some pretty flowers were supposed to go. Not cool.)


Once I have the cute fur baby positioned where I like, hold on to your brushes for this one, I trace around the outline. Whaaat the fluff? Tracing is cheating, you say! Well, I say, nope! (Another side note, here.) There definitely is a fine line between when it’s okay and when it’s not. This however falls under A-OKAY, for a few reasons. 1. I either take my own reference photos or my clients do. 2. I’m not copying someone else’s composition.


Okay, outline traced.. Check! Now it’s time for the fun part, sketching in the features, the eyes, the little wet nose, the value differences in the face, changes in coloration, lighting and contrast. Now is my chance to work in little bits of caricature, maybe I draw the eyes a bit larger or exaggerate a long snout. Keeping the outline true to life allows me to play and experiment inside the portrait.. To find the features that make that pet truly themselves and capitalize on those details. Since the portrait part of my paintings in done in opaque layers (spoiler!!) I don’t have to worry about the pencil marks and can erase and re-draw as many times as I want. Which is usually a ton of times.


Some artists prefer to work with their ideas in a sketchbook and have hundreds of old books laying around with sketch after sketch decorating the pages. I am not a sketch-y person. Back when I was in college, I would dread the assignments where a million preliminary sketches or a sketch per day was required. That’s just not my jam and a serious buzzkill for my own process. I don’t want to spend hours sketching when I can jump right in and work on the details right away, figure things out on the fly, when I feel they can best be compared to the rest of the composition. To each their own, isn’t that why blogs like this exist?

Alright, so it’s all sketched onto my panel. What happens to the reference now? Well, now it’s the photo’s turn to call the shots. And by that I mean, I let it tell me what colors and patterns to use. Do I want the portrait to pop and contrast or do I want the figure to blend more? Do I want my patterning to be reminiscent of the texture of the fur or illustrate a real life scene? All of these choices stem from how I want the painting to read. If the reference pictures a dog on a boat ride, them partaking in their absolute favorite activity I can choose to focus on that, letting their surroundings help tell the story of what makes them unique. If the reference is more neutral, say, a kitty on a plain couch, it’s begging me to draw from the fur, the eyes, the words of their owner, to tell that story. I try to pull subtle pieces of inspiration from what the reference is saying to pull together a rich and layered composition that will make the client say oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh! (Yes, I aim for three times.)

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From here, it’s all about creating life. Making something out of some paint and water. I try my hardest to make the painting “beat” the reference at this point. (That’s the whole point of what I do, to create something a step above a photograph, something that tells a story better and quicker, which in turn makes it more meaningful.) Sure, there’s a story behind a photograph. A very special one. There’s nothing that can compare to a photograph, as it’s taken in the heat of a moment in the thick of all the action. But there’s something super special about when someone chooses to commission a painted portrait. (And let’s be honest, most those reference photos are grainy and low res, it’s no wonder why my clients are searching for something that better matches their vision of their beloved fur baby.) That custom, one of a kind piece of art can personify your pet so much better than a photo and, rightfully, draw a much more emotional reaction.


So, here’s my question.. How do you use reference photos? Drop it below! :)

XOXO, Fur Mama