The Importance of Reference Pictures

I often get asked if I can do commissioned drawings for people of their loved ones and pets. Most of the time I’m more than happy to oblige. However, sometimes getting the right picture to work from can be a challenge in itself! So I’ve decided to write this blog explaining the importance of finding the right reference picture and the kind of things you should look out for.

So let’s start at the very beginning by explaining what a reference picture is; it is quite simply the picture that you’ll be copying and working from to create a drawing or tattoo. Some artists use several pictures from different angles, I however just use one, and copy it as accurately as I can.

As I explained in my previous blog, It’s vital that you draw what is actually on your reference picture and not what you think is there. If your reference image is blurry, grainy or the size of a postage stamp, you’re not going to be able to see the details that will make it look real. Making these details up could result in the finished product looking not quite right – and if it’s a client’s family member or beloved pet, they’re going to notice this tenfold!


The best reference pictures have good levels of contrast. I’ve found the pictures with black shadows and white highlights look the most eye-catching and impressive, and hold up best over time. This can be achieved through editing and adjusting the contrast levels but having the right picture to begin with is a good starting point. You can’t polish a turd! (Pardon the expression!)

Having a high definition, large sized image is also beneficial as it means you can zoom in to those tiny details such as creases around eyes and hairs on a face; these will all help in getting your drawing looking as realistic as possible. I have previously been asked to work from an image the size of a passport photo but had to decline. Scaling up an image that small to an A4 drawing would never have worked as the reference image isn’t big enough or clear enough to be able put the details into a larger scale drawing.

Ultimately, your end product is only ever going to be as good as the reference image provided, so it’s important to take the time to scout around for the right one!

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