Photographic References

There’s no question about it.  Drawing from life is best.  Not only can you see the subject clearly, but there, in the moment, you can’t help but communicate the emotion of time and place.  Simply lose yourself in drawing and the experience comes through.

Unfortunately it’s not always possible to draw on location.  Sometimes there is a time and place to use photographs.  Whether to help clarify details, or to assist in designing an image that may be more fine art than reportage drawing, photographic references will always be useful.   My art started with plein air watercolor painting in the Midwest.  Once I moved to the Northwest, with all the rain and dampness,  I quickly learned that painting outside was a challenge.   That’s when I started taking photographs to help in the studio.

As I have moved into doing  more drawings, I find that I generally do two types of drawings:  quick studies in my sketchbooks, almost exclusively on location, and larger, more detailed drawings where I focus on composition and design.   These larger works I use in galleries and exhibitions.  They often start as a location sketch; occasionally they are completed at the site.  More often they are finished in the studio.  Do I copy photos?  No.   But I’ve learned they can be valuable reference material.

Here’s an example:


This is a photograph I took at the northern end of Vancouver Island. I was standing on a boardwalk over a bog.  I saw this decaying old building in the trees and thought it had some possibilities.   In this case I was a little hesitant to stand on the boardwalk to do a quick sketch.  I was by myself away from my companions. Bears, cougars, and wolves were prevalent in the area and it simply seemed smart to take a few quick photos and rejoin my friends.


This is the drawing I did.  Not so much a record of time and place, It’s more of design and color (the photo is a little pale).  One of the reasons I draw is to explore pattern, line work and washes.  I like being able to maximize the qualities of a subject in a creative presentation.  Sometimes that simply takes more time and attention than I can give the subject on location.




  1. I have had the same issues in FL regarding completing a sketch on site. Your article gives merit to the use of a photo reference. You still captured your subject beautifully and created an original work of art. i will share this with my painting students.

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