Before cameras and smart phones, artists had to either sit in front of their subject or commit the smallest details to memory. 

Cameras changed that, but it was still costly to develop film and photos

Digital photography and camera phones were the next step forward, but early camera phones sucked and unless you had a decent digital camera, you’d still be missing details.

Enter the Smartphone 

You take pictures all the time, right? I bet you have thousands on your phone right now. Your reference photos are probably waiting for you right now.

So take a few minutes to scroll through your photos to see if anything looks interesting enough to draw. 

Go ahead — I’ll wait. 

Your phone already sorts them by date, but it also has a little-used album feature. You’ll take advantage of that feature for your reference photos. Create an album called “Reference Photos,” or something similar, and start filling it up.

Capturing Great Reference Photos

Reference photos don’t need to be artistic masterpieces, but they do need to be lit well enough to see details. Take them from different angles, close up and some from farther away. Find interesting details to photograph more carefully. The photos below are of the same tree, but photographic it from different angles gives me a ton of different ways to draw and things to practice:

  • Practice different lighting angles
  • Foreshortening/perspective
  • Holes in trees (great for animals to peek out from in children’s illustration). 
  • Bark textures

I chose this particular tree because it had amazing details — a couple of holes where branches once existed, mossy coating on the north side, different trunks all jutting out from the base, and fantastic surface roots. 

I don’t remember exactly what type it is, except that it’s in a line of osage orange trees. Squirrels eat the large fruit they drop, but these aren’t actual “oranges.” 

Using Reference Photos

Depending on how you approach art, reference photos might be printed or just imported into your drawing app. I’ve also taken screenshots of an animal and kept my screen on while I drew on paper. 

These trees are getting some use in a children’s book I’m illustrating — “Willow’s Goodknight Lights” — available this summer. They’ll get some more use in other art, because the wind-swept look is terrific for stormy or wintery scenes and their texture is fabulous and may become a Procreate brush.

How you use them is up to you! My grandmother, Colleen Baker-Huber, kept a reference photo next to her canvas as she painted.

Reference photos often help bridge the gap between what’s in your head and getting it on paper (or digital). I use them extensively for wildlife art and for children’s illustration.

I used a gopher tortoise for my inspiration here with this guy: