General / 16 July 2018

8 good reasons to use references for your art

Hello you free artist

This article is essentially for the beginner artists and the ones who don’t want to use references to create art. I will give you 8 good reasons to use references for your art. I will cover this subject mainly writing about learning and getting inspired. By the end of this article, leave a comment to share with other artists if you feel like you have other reasons to use references or on the contrary if you don’t use them.

1) You don't know everything

As a matter of fact, pros use a lot of references. They use them to learn from them. In French there is a famous rap punchline that says “Le Savoir est une arme” which means “Knowledge is a weapon”. We could translate that into “the more you see (and understand) the better you’ll get as an artist”.

You probably are fans of some artists and these people gave you the will to become great. Just so you know, these artists are that great because they are constantly learning. A good master is a good student.

So, be humble and study so you can inspire when your time will come.

2) Art 101

If you want to create an artwork like a pro you must know the art basics. That is what makes the difference between a “Wanna be” and a “Be”. I’ve met some “Wanna be” (like I was) during my Game art studies and some of them had the misconception that if you want to put your soul into your art, you have to only use what’s on your mind. 




However, first when you do not master the basics you HAVE TO use references. Not only for inspiration (I have no doubt that your imagination is full of creative energy), but for harmony in proportions, perspective, color schemes etc. 

In a nutshell, to make sure that your art is coherent.

There is no shame into using references. I see art references as tools. Tools make cars but they are not cars.

The more skilled you’ll get, the less standard references you’ll need and you will tend to use references more for inspiration and assets.


You are aware that Leonardo Da Vinci used a model to paint “La Joconde” right ?

3) Proportions

Whether it is for human beings or animals, you can’t guess the shapes, muscles or articulations. And this works for creatures, stylized art or anything that doesn’t exist in our world. You always need a reference point to make it believable.

Stylization is an refining process where you capture the essential. You start from what is real/raw and you simplify, remove what you consider unecessary and/or you adjust the proportions and shapes to convey an implicit message through the form of your character. I insist on the word “adjust” because “proportion” doesn’t mean “reality measures”, it means “harmony”, but before mastering “harmony”, you have to understand how “reality measures” work.

If you like digital paint or character design you probably know Ross Trann or at least his style. He is known for his stylized portraits and a good example how he uses reference to adapt them into his own style is his work about the Bayonetta expressions with the real actress Pamela Horton.

Proportion are also about an harmony in the World Scales, when you create an environment for instance. You must ask yourself questions like: “how big is this element compared to this another one ?“. You artwork will mean something different according to the scale of the elements.

Are your characters this small ?                                                  Or that big ? 


There are a few rules about perspective and the basics are really simple to follow. I suggest you to start by analyzing man-made environments because the perspective is more obvious since we tend to build geometrical things. 

If you want to learn more about that I let Sagi Rechter give you some tips about perspective and composition.

One of the pro level of anatomy is the “shortcut“. Because it combines perspective + anatomy. The best practice is a real life model but a 3D model can do the job or even a wooden mannequin model.


For realistic rendering, lighting is the key. Have you ever wonder why your 3D scene doesn’t look good although your modeling, composition and materials are great ?

Here is a good example of how to study lighting in a 3D scene inside UE4. Especially if you are a beginner in this domain. Work in grayscale, no color, so you can focus on the lights and don’t get confused by the color of the environment or subjects.

This principle works as well for a 2D lighting study. To make your materials look believable for example.

When a reference becomes an asset

I am talking about Photobashing here. This is a technique to create a concept art quickly (at least faster than just painting) while keeping a high quality. For that, artists use a bunch of photos, edit them and cutout most of them to illustrate an idea/concept.

Others use a 3D blockout for composition and then paintover it and/or use photos.

Do not use other people's work as references

I Do not recommend to use other people’s work as references. Or at least not as your main one.

Because their work has already been processed through their vision, and the risk it to copy instead of getting inspired. Especially if you don’t have developed your own style yet.

However, If you really like someone’s style and if you do so in a learning mindset to understand the techniques so you can adapt them to your own style and process and not just to copy/paste, in this case I’m all for it. Remember, the importance is to learn.

For instance, with Fanny Vergne’s workflow (Artist at Blizzard) I learned her techniques to create stylized hand-painted look textures. 

Because I took some time to understand the process, I could adapt it to our production pipeline and create my own workflow at Gameloft Montreal. It would have been stupid to just copy/past the technique under real working conditions because we didn’t have the same goals. Whether it is about deadlines, artistic direction, levels of details, game style etc. 

You see, you have to keep in mind that an artist have his/her own objective(s) just like you, and that is why he/she ends up with this style and workflow, so be smart and adapt.

But you can take some freedom in some cases

I’d like to finish this article where it started. In the beginning of this article I said that “Simply because you don’t know everything“. Well, you could use this at your advantage

Since you don’t know everything, other people don’t either. So if you are creating something that we are not used to see (which means that we don’t really have a reference in our mind of the subject), you don’t have to be 100% thorough about it.

For instance, Trolls don’t exist, I think. So, who cares if this one have 3 or 4 fingers or where the rocks should exactly be displayed over its body ? And yet, the final image looks good, it looks like it could exist.

One last time, this is just about HARMONY.

I hope you learned a thing or two in this article and since I don’t know everything, tell me in the comments if you have other reasons to use or not to use references for your art.

Ibrahim out !