2019 Drawing Reference Photos

If you want to create realistic drawings, you'll need to use drawing reference photos in your workflow to create accurate work.

Drawing objects, people and animals that are constantly in motion is difficult task for even the most accomplished artist! Very few artists can simply grab a pencil and draw from memory.

Using a photographic drawing reference as you work will help you become a better artist and perhaps after a lot of practice, you can draw completely from memory without using drawing reference photos. Until then, I highly recommend that you use a drawing reference as you work. There's no better way to learn to draw than by working from a drawing reference photo.

If you are serious about creating realistic drawings, photography will be one of your most important tools. Photography preserves a moment in great detail and gives you a lot more information to work from.

Where to Find References for Pencil Drawing

 Your own photo collection is your best source of reference photos! Practically everyone has a camera nowadays, so put it to good use! Photograph the anything and everything that looks fun to draw and use those photos as a reference for your artwork. Don't forget to photograph from multiple angles and using different light sources or times of the day.

Generous photographers have made a wonderful collection of animal and wildlife photos for artists at wildlifereferencephotos.com. There is a small fee for each download, however, these reference photos are high resolution and high quality, which is just what you need for creating amazing pencil drawings.

Be careful to only use photographs that you have permission to use as you create artwork. Sources such as public domain photos from Pixabay.com or Pexels.com are invaluable to artists.

Respect Other Artist's Copyrights

All photographs are copyrighted (unless the artist has placed them in the public domain) and you certainly don't want to infringe on another artist's work without their permission.

There are many wonderful books filled with beautiful photography, however you can't use photos from books as your primary drawing reference, especially if you are planning to sell your art. Those photos are another artist's copyrighted work. They are a good source of information, and it's ok to use them for practice sketching, but you'll want to come up with your own unique references for your finished drawings.

How to Use Reference Photos in Pencil Drawing

There are as many ways to create a pencil drawing as there are artists! I'll share my favorite reference photo techniques and workflow.

Make sure that you're using high quality photos with as much detail as possible. Your reference photos can make or break your drawing. Try to avoid awkward lighting and poses.

If you are drawing an animal, look for animal drawing reference photos that show the animal in a natural-looking position, with no body parts hidden by other elements in the photo. 

When creating a graphite drawing, I'll first convert my selected photo into a black and white grayscale with Photoshop. I'll also spend a few minutes doing minor adjustments to the brightness and contrast of the photo.

Combining Multiple Drawing Reference Photos

Sometimes your selected photo reference won't contain all the information that you need for your drawing. The beauty of drawing vs photography is the fact that you can combine multiple photos as you draw!

For example, perhaps your tiger in your reference photo has a paw hidden behind a rock. Just find a similar tiger photo with the paw visible and use that paw as a reference as you complete your drawing.

Tools for Reference Drawing

There are tools and techniques available for artists to create drawings with reference photos more effectively. Drawing completely freehand is commendable, yet also extremely time consuming, and not at all necessary. 

Some people argue that using such tools for drawing is cheating. However, to me, such arguments are as ridiculous as telling a carpenter that using a power saw and nail gun instead of a hand saw and hammer is cheating!

Compare drawing tools to walking to work instead of driving in a car. While walking is fine and recommended for your health and exercise, when you drive a car to work you can go much farther and faster than you ever could by walking. On the same note, using art tools with your drawing reference photos will help you create better art.

Grid Method for Drawing with a Reference

The most common way to use a drawing reference photo is the grid drawing method. This technique has been used by artists for centuries. The grid breaks images down into smaller work areas so that you can focus on the abstract lines and shapes within each square, rather than trying to draw the whole picture at once. This method is extremely effective for creating accurate drawings from a reference.

Draw a grid over your printed reference photo, and draw a corresponding grid of equal ratio lightly over your paper or art board. Then, focusing on each square individually, draw what is within the squares, one at a time, until your drawing is complete! Erase the grid lines when you're finished.

You can save a lot of time in drawing by using a phone grid app for viewing your reference photo on your tablet or phone as you draw. There are some cool apps available to lay a grid over your photo while you draw your picture.

  • CopyIt is a great app for iPhone and iPad users.
  • Drawing Grid Maker is great for Android devices.

The grid method is a good way to increase your observation skills and increase accuracy in your drawings.

Draw with Tracing Paper

Tracing paper can be an invaluable tool as you draw with a reference. Place it over the top of your reference photographs to get accurate outlines of your subject.

Drawing Projectors

My preferred tool for creating realistic drawings is the Artograph projector. This is a projector that enlarges (or decreases) and projects a digital photograph onto your art board or surface of choice. You then trace your outlines to get extremely accurate proportions and outlines. You can also mark out your shading while you're working. 


A lightbox is an excellent tool for drawing with references. It is simply a brightly lit surface that is placed underneath your reference that illuminates the layer. You then place your paper over the reference and trace the outlines onto your art paper. 

The lightbox is especially useful for combining and transferring your initial sketches to a new surface.

Using photography for drawing reference is an invaluable tool that will take your artwork to the next level.