TIP #68: 5 Ways to Use Reference Photos in the Art Room

TIP #68 5 Ways to Use Reference Photos in the Art Room

Creating artwork from reference photos often gets a bad rap. This is largely due to concerns about copyright, originality, and creativity. But these concerns don’t need to be an issue when reference photos are used correctly and for the right reasons.

Here are 5 ways to use reference photos in the Art Room. Read to the end for some things to avoid!

1. Use reference photos to INSPIRE

Reference photos can be helpful when students get stuck or have trouble getting started. Photos used for inspiration can be collected once students have a good start on their work to avoid copying too closely.

Using reference photos can give kids a starting point from which to add their own unique interpretation. Asking questions while students work, like, “What will you add or change to make this your own?” will keep them thinking creatively. 

To ensure a unique perspective, students can also combine several photos to create something entirely new. Creativity often begins where inspiration leaves off!

2. Use reference photos to IMPROVE ACCURACY

Reference photos improve accuracy by providing important information about how things look. When realism is desired, a reference photo can be an invaluable aid.

Accurately identifying the basic shapes and proportions that make up any subject can be challenging for students. Tracing these basic shapes right on top of a reference photo can help kids learn to “see” them. Then they can use their creativity to interpret that information in their artwork in whatever way they want.

Grid drawing is another way students can use a photograph for accuracy. With a grid overlaid on top of a photo, they can precisely transfer that image to another grid on a smaller or larger scale. 

This technique is often used by muralists and others who need to get a design approved before re-creating it elsewhere. It’s a useful skill and so much fun for kids to see the realism they can achieve this way.

3. Use reference photos to PRACTICE OBSERVATION SKILLS

Good observation skills are vital to any artist’s development. By studying a reference photo, students can often observe details they might miss in real life.

A reference photo is like having your subject frozen in time, making it easier to carefully observe it. A photo of an animal that would not have held still for kids to draw it is just one example! 

Also, students can find it difficult to translate what they see in three dimensions to a two dimensional drawing or painting. A reference photo simplifies this task, enabling them to work from 2D to 2D. 

Determining the best composition for a drawing or painting is easier when working from a photo, too. Choosing what to include from the unlimited possibilities of real life can feel overwhelming, especially if the subject is challenging. 

4. Use reference photos to AID MEMORY

A reference photo can be a game changer when students are working on a painting or drawing over multiple days. 

When still life objects are moved or rearranged between sessions, it can be almost impossible to place them back exactly as they were. Having a photo of the original setup will be a great help with that. 

A reference photo is also useful for outdoor scenes when the light changes faster than students can capture it. A photo of how the light and shadows looked could make all the difference to a student trying to recreate that later. 

5. Use reference photos to GET FEEDBACK

Sometimes students can tell an area in their work needs improvement, but are unsure of what to do about it. With a reference photo, they can compare their art to the photo to identify problems and determine what’s needed.

Photos can help students check their values (lights and darks), too. Just take a photo of a student’s artwork and apply a black and white filter. Then let the student decide if they have a good range of lights and darks, or if that needs improvement. It’s so much easier to see value contrast in black and white.

Finally, here are some things to avoid when using reference photos…

– Avoid copying without giving credit

When students copy a photo they didn’t take themselves, they need to give proper credit to whoever took the photo. This might involve asking permission, paying a fee, or simply acknowledging the origin of the photograph. 

This does create an extra step, and sadly it’s often overlooked because of that. But giving credit where credit is due is an important habit (and life skill) for kids to develop.

– Avoid stifling originality & creativity

Sometimes using reference photos can result in art that lacks originality and creativity. This can happen if a photo is copied without the student adding their own ideas and changing it in some way.

This can be a legitimate concern, but it doesn’t have to be a problem. With encouragement to use some “artistic license”, a reference photo can simply be a place to start from.

When the purpose of a reference photo is for practicing photo-realism, like with grid drawing, skill development (not originality), is the goal. Just note the source of the copied photo and appreciate it for the learning it provided.

While some people may think that being able to draw from imagination or memory makes you a better artist, that’s simply not true. Artists of ALL skill levels can benefit from using reference photos occasionally, and so can your students!

an inspiring quote

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”  ~ H.D. Thoreau

What do your students “see” when they look at something? Do they see a specific object or do they see lines, shapes, values (lights and darks), and relationships? The latter is what “seeing like an artist” is all about.

Learning to see like an artist can take a student’s art to a whole new level. Whether they’re drawing from life or from a reference photo, this skill may help them more than any other. 

Translating what they see into the language of lines, shapes, values, and relationships is the key. Seeing like an artist will help kids ‘crack the code’ of creating the art they imagine.

a question to consider…

Where could a reference photo help your students in one of the five ways mentioned above?