Having access to high-quality drawing references can help inform your work and inspire your creativity.
There are many different kinds of reference tools available online, from photo databases and stock photography sites to interactive 3D models. In this guide, find the recommendations for the best drawing reference tools, websites, databases and ideas for how to take your own unique reference images.
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Mannequins and figure drawing references
Mannequins are among the most popular choices for artists, as these tools allow you to study anatomy and human proportions in detail.
There are many different types of mannequin available for this purpose, including poseable models that you can bend into various positions and anatomical figures that include muscle groups and skin layers detailed right down to the bones.
Check out our review of the best artists’ mannequins for more information on these tools and where to find them online.
3D software drawing references
Magic Poser is one of the best apps to use for creating your own custom figure drawing poses and references. It also has a free web version, that allows you to use the tool to create an unlimited amount of realistic poses with the drag and drop feature. With the mobile app, you can use this tool to alter the lighting, type of model, perspective, angle and move the hands and head.
Stock image sites
Here are some of the best stock image sites:
Adobe Stock: Adobe Stock is a great resource for high-quality stock photos. It has a huge library of licensed photos that are easy to search and filter by keyword, colour, license type and more.
Pexels: Pexels offers thousands of high-quality stock photos that are totally free to use without attribution.
Unsplash: Unsplash is another great site for royalty-free stock photography, featuring a wide range of styles and subjects. You can download or share any image you want without attribution.
Make sure to look up the licenses for each photo you plan on using. Some stock image sites will allow you to use images and share them online without attribution and some will require that you give the proper attribution to the photographer when sharing copies of their image online. There are some stock image sites that don’t allow you to use their images for commercial purposes either, so make sure to check before using the image.
Best drawing reference photo websites
There are also many creative drawing websites and online communities where artists share their work and get feedback from others. These can be a great way to get inspired, learn new techniques, and connect with other artists from around the world.
For portrait and figure drawing, Posemaniacs is a royalty free resource for artists who want to study poses of all different kinds, from sports to standing and sitting poses. All figures show the basic anatomy of the human body, showing the muscle groups so you can represent the contours of the form realistically.
Line of Action is another great site that provides hundreds of practice tools for artists. Choose the type of model you want to draw then set the timer for each pose. This is a great way to practice gesture drawing at speed.
Life drawing references
Another great resource for artists is life drawing classes, where you can get hands-on experience working from real models and observing the nuances of human anatomy in action. Life drawing classes often take place at art schools or sometimes even cafes! Look up life drawing classes in your local area and take a sketchbook to track your progress.
Plein air drawing
Plein air drawing is a great way to get out and paint landscapes. It’s difficult, but rewarding capturing the scene before the light changes. Artists can achieve a brilliant sense of atmosphere when drawing plein air, that drawing in the studio from a photo just can’t match.
Some recommended tools for plein air drawing include:
Sketchbooks: A sketchbook is essential for capturing your ideas, thoughts, and sketches quickly on the go. Look for small, lightweight sketchbooks that won’t weigh down your backpack or make it difficult to carry around.
A pencil wrap: A pencil wrap is a great way to organise your drawing tools while you’re out and about. Look for one with plenty of pockets or compartments to hold all your essentials, including erasers, sharpener, pens, and brushes.
Graphite pencils: Graphite is a versatile medium that’s easy to work with and produces beautiful, velvety black lines. Recommended brands include Faber-Castell and Caran d’Ache. Check out our guide of drawing tools for more supplies recommendations.
Take your own drawing reference photos
Get a camera, or use your phone and take your own reference images. This is the best way to ensure that the images you use for drawing references are as unique as possible.
Whether you’re photographing your own still life setups or capturing scenes outdoors, make sure that you have enough light and are using a high-resolution camera. Avoid shaky or blurry photos, as this can make it difficult to work with your reference material in the future.
Some great tips for taking reference pictures include:
• Use natural lighting whenever possible. Natural light gives your images more atmosphere and depth than artificial light, which can produce harsh shadows and unflattering lighting.
• Capture a variety of different subjects, and scenes and photograph the same scene with different angles and compositions. This will give you plenty of options for both figure drawing and landscape drawing reference materials.
• Use a tripod to steady your camera and avoid shaky images that might be difficult to work with in the future.
Create a still life set up
One excellent and inventive way to put together your own drawing references, is to create a still life set up. Arrange fruits, flowers, vases or whatever you find around your house that sparks your inspiration. You can spend as much or as little time as you like creating a set up, but make sure to configure the lighting so that it stays consistent throughout your drawing session. Bright, daylight lamps work best to illuminate your reference, so you can see all the colours and details properly.
For the most part, it’s best to avoid looking for drawing references on social media, whether that’s Pinterest or Instagram. This is because there are copyright issues involved with creating art that looks similar to other artists’ work, which includes photos, videos and artwork. Instagram is a great source of inspiration, but sharing work that has too much of a likeness with another artist’s work is a no go.
If you don’t have the opportunity to take your own photos to use as drawing references, look on sites that offer downloadable public domain images, get a mannequin, or mannequin software.
Wikiart for old master studies
Wikiart is a great source for finding historic paintings and drawings by old masters. Search their library of thousands of paintings and drawings and use them as references for your own studies. Grab a sketchbook, choose your favourite artist’s work and try to recreate it. It’s a great way to learn the techniques of the masters and improve your skills. All paintings that were made by an artist that has passed more than 90 years ago will be in the public domain, so there’s no problem with sharing your studies on social media. Wikiart has thousands of artworks by artists spanning centuries of different art movements, who use various different art media, from ink to graphite, charcoal and more. It’s the ultimate encyclopedia.
Edit your drawing references
When working from reference images, you have the option of editing your photos so that they look closer to the composition of what you want your artwork to look like. This means that it’ll feel easier when it comes to starting the drawing. This can involve editing the image to remove distracting elements or tweaking certain aspects of the image so that they match your own style and preferences.
Here are some ideas for how you can edit your reference photos to help realise your artistic vision.
If you plan for your drawing to be a combination of different elements that you haven’t managed to capture or find in a single photo, the next best thing is to stitch multiple references together. This can be done using the selection tool in Photoshop which works to isolate, cut and place sections of the image.
Use this technique to add an image from one reference into another, to change a background, or to swap the sky.
Colour grading or filter effects
Using a range of different filters and colour grading effects can really help to transform your reference image. You can choose from basic adjustments like contrast, brightness and saturation, or go for more advanced effects that simulate weather conditions like fog.
This will allow you to edit shadows and highlights that match the types of lighting you want to work with, and add a mood or atmosphere to your drawing.
Best tools for editing drawing references
Adobe Photoshop: Adobe Photoshop is one of the most popular image editing software programs on the market. It offers powerful photo-editing features that allow you to easily create high-quality designs from your reference images.
GIMP: GIMP is a free and open source image editor that is packed with powerful tools for editing photos and creating original graphics. It’s particularly useful if you’re working with limited resources or on a tight budget.
How to plan a composition from a drawing reference
You don’t have to copy your drawing reference down to every detail. The composition of your artwork will likely be much more successful if you plan it first, and trial several different compositions with thumbnail sketches.
To plan your composition from a drawing reference, start by choosing a focal point for your artwork. This could be the eye of a person, or the centre of an object. From there, draw simple sketches in small squares to map out how you want the different elements in your artwork to be arranged.
With so many websites offering downloadable images and sketches, you’re sure to find what you need. If you’re looking for something more specific, try searching online art communities or public domain image sites. And don’t forget that you can also edit your references to better suit your needs. Try using different filters and colour grades to change the mood of the image or remove distractions. With a little bit of practice, you’ll be able to create beautiful drawings from even the simplest references! If you’re looking to improve your drawing skills, read our guide on how to get better at drawing.