How to draw figures from photo reference

When using photo reference, be mindful of your purpose. It is easy to sit down and mechanically copy something, but not necessarily productive, or fun. Are you looking to emulate a life drawing class? Are you trying to work on that next big painting or just trying to study something specific, such as hands? It doesn't matter what, but it helps to have a purpose when you sit down.


These general tips for picking reference are aimed at figure and portrait work, but are not rules. If you want to get a certain effect, break them!

- Have plenty of light, ideally with a dominant source to create shadows. At home, natural light is great, and a strong lamp will do in a pinch.

- When you can, use a tripod to reduce blurring. If you have a phone and struggle with blurring, you can prop it on a surface and use a timer.

- If you have a camera, learn how to use it, even just the basics! There are often lessons available for free online, even for older cameras.

- Be mindful of your eye level. Sometimes reference shot a little too high causes noticeable foreshortening effects, such as giving a model tiny feet!

- Use a backdrop. Reference with clutter can be difficult to work from.


- Avoid flat, frontal light. This is a common lighting choice for magazines, as it disguises wrinkles and imperfections. Unfortunately, it means we lose information about anatomy, form, tone and colour.

- Watch out for overexposed light. If a large area of the light side of a subject is white, it means it is overexposed. This makes form and colour hard to discern, losing details.

- Avoid images with excessive airbrushing and other manipulations.

- Be careful with coloured light sources. Coloured light can be a way to get interesting effects for painting, so don't exclude it entirely.


- Start with an overall 'action line' to indicate the pose.

- Indicate major forms, working over the whole body.

- Start to develop details; here I incorporate ideas about gesture and anatomy. Try to work from one side of the body to the other

- Keep adding detail until you run out of time – it's OK if you don't get everything, do your best!


- As we have a little more time, block in large shapes and check proportion first. Look at the space the figure takes on the page and break it into measured sections.

- Work out the contour lines; think about how they overlap and intersect. Contour is not just a single unbroken outline.

Feeling Inspired?

While many books focus on just one aspect of figure drawing, this manual unites the skills of observation, expression and understanding in one coherent approach.

Beginning with the key principles of observation, Figure Drawing will help you to build a strong foundation of skills to make well-observed, proportionally accurate drawings.