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A young woman using Goldfaber Aqua markers to draw blue teacups using an appropriate reference photo.
Creative Studio: Empowering Your Creativity

How to Find and Use Reference Photos

As an artist, one of the most critical factors that can bring your artwork to new heights is the choice of a reference photo. The right reference can act as your source of inspiration while guiding your hand and imagination across the canvas to create something truly remarkable. From Goldfaber Colour Pencils to Goldfaber Aqua Dual Watercolour Markers, appropriate references can also prompt ideas for mixed media techniques and creative experimentation. 

But what exactly is a reference photo and how do you find one that empowers you to create your next masterpiece?
An example of a blue floral teacup reference photo and studying its shapes.

What's a reference photo?

Reference photos can be an essential tool for artists as they serve as a visual blueprint for your artwork. It acts as a guide to help kick-start the creative juices while providing you with a tangible starting point. 

A reference photo can also be used no matter your artistry experience. For beginners, it helps develop basic painting or drawing skills, while for someone with intermediate experience, it can help evolve your skills and develop your artistic eye.

To truly use a photo as a reference, you’d use it to learn about the characteristics of your subject, like the shape of an object or certain colour palettes. So, whether you're working on a realistic portrait, a fantastical creature, or a scenic landscape, reference photos can be invaluable in delivering the authenticity and visual impact of your work.

Tips for finding the perfect reference photo

A good quality reference photo can help you figure out the structure, lighting setups and textures for your artwork. But it isn’t as simple as grabbing any image you come across on the internet or social media and using it as your guide. 

When it comes to choosing the right image for your artistic needs, there are many things to consider during your research phase. These include the points referenced below.
A simple line drawing of an icon representing a 4K high res image.

Clarity & Resolution

The photo you choose needs to be high-resolution, as it will allow you to zoom in on the finer details and capture complex features accurately. If the image you pick is blurry or pixelated, it can hinder your overall creative process.
A simple line drawing of a landscape image showing the rule of thirds.


Look for photos with compelling compositions that align with your artistic vision. Consider the rule of thirds, leading lines, and focal points to create dynamic and visually engaging pieces of art.
A simple line drawing of a stage light with shutters from the side.


This is one of the most important aspects that make a perfect reference photo. Natural lighting often creates beautiful shadows and highlights that can add depth and realism to your artwork. So, experiment with different lighting conditions to see how they affect your subject.

A simple line drawing of a 3D cube with arrows pointing out from it in all directions.

Angle & Perspective

The angle from which a subject is photographed can significantly impact the mood and narrative of your artwork. Play around with various angles to find the one that resonates with your artistic intent and helps bring your vision to life.

A simple line drawing of two drama masks showing happiness & sadness.

Emotion & Storytelling

Choose reference photos that evoke emotions or tell a story. A compelling narrative can draw viewers into your artwork and make it more memorable.

A simple line drawing of an artist's painting palette.

Colour Palette

Always consider the colour scheme of your reference photo. Whether you're working with a limited palette or exploring vibrant hues, the colours in your reference should align with your artistic goals and themes.

A simple line drawing of a pencil, paint tube and paint brush.


Specific mediums lend themselves to certain reference images more than others. A reference photo of a flower, for example, might suit watercolour more than a detailed portrait would. Review your reference images with the nature of the tools you want to use in mind.

A simple line drawing of a cat, dog and woman in side profile view.

Subject Variety

Don't limit yourself to a single type of subject matter. Explore a range of subjects to help expand your artistic collection. Be sure to challenge yourself by tackling subjects that are outside your comfort zone.

A simple line drawing of a light bulb with a star inside it.


While stock photos can be convenient, try to select images that are less commonly used. This will help your artwork stand out and prevent it from looking generic.

Common mistakes to avoid

Choosing the right reference photo for your artwork comes with its own set of challenges. And it’s common to make one, or more, of the following mistakes when deciding on the right one for your needs.

A simple line drawing of 4 sliders that represent image filters.

Overreliance on Filters

While filters and image editing can enhance a reference photo, try not to rely on them excessively. This is because it's essential to understand the fundamentals of art, like form, shading, and perspective, rather than relying solely on digital enhancements.

A simple line drawing of three ? marks.

Copying Without Understanding

Using a reference photo shouldn’t mean copying it directly. Take the time to understand the subject's structure, proportions, and composition, as this will help you to create more authentic and dynamic artwork.

A simple line drawing of a copyrighted image being copied and unfairly claimed as original.

Ignoring Copyright & Licensing

Always respect the rights of photographers and artists when using their work as a reference. If an image is copyrighted, get permission, or purchase the appropriate licence needed.

A simple line drawing of a poorly constructed and inappropriate reference image.

Selecting Inappropriate References

Your reference photo needs to align with your skill level, artistic objectives, and personal brand. If you’re a beginner, make sure you avoid overly complex subjects, as frustration may hinder your progress.

A simple line drawing of a bar graph showing no signs of growth or improvement.

Neglecting Personal Growth

While reference photos are excellent tools for learning and improving, make sure you don't rely on them exclusively. Continue to challenge yourself by drawing from life, exploring new subjects, and experimenting with your ideas.

Where to find good reference photos

Knowing where to find the right reference photo for your specific needs can sometimes be a difficult task in itself. So, when it comes to finding a good reference photo consider using the options listed below.


Personal Photography
This allows you to capture unique subjects, angles, and lighting that speak to your artistic vision. And with today's smartphones readily available, you don't need an expensive camera to take high-quality imagery.


Stock Photo Websites
Numerous stock photo websites offer a range of high-resolution images for free or a fee. These platforms often categorise images, making it easier to find what you need. The most commonly used websites include:



Social Media
Platforms like Instagram and Pinterest are filled with inspirational imagery. If you do seek imagery from these platforms, remember to get permission or give credit if you decide to use someone else's work—even as a reference.


Books & Magazines
Traditional print media can be a great source of reference material, especially for historical or vintage subjects. Collecting magazines, art books, or even field guides can provide a wealth of visual inspiration.

Two watercolour blue floral teacup images with copyright credit text included.

Understanding copyright law

Choosing a reference photo isn’t as simple as finding one on the internet and claiming it as your own. In many cases, the majority of pieces of work found online, and also in traditional media, are covered by copyright laws. 


Copyright protects an artist’s work and prevents others from using it without their permission. In Australia, copyright is automatically applied from the moment an idea or creative concept is documented on paper or electronically.


Copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the original source, but timings can differ depending on the type of copyright material and if it’s been made public. Once the copyright has expired, the creative asset becomes public domain and may be used freely.


To avoid falling victim to the copyright laws, always:

  • Use reference images with creative licences from the sites listed above.
  • Always ask permission to use a photo beforehand.
  • Credit the original creator of the photo in some form on your artwork.

Enhancing your artistic journey

Finding and using exceptional reference photos is a skill that every artist can develop. It's not just about finding a pretty picture; it's about selecting images that resonate with your creative vision and help you express your unique voice. 


With practice, you'll become skilled at finding and using reference photos that help elevate your artwork and brand. So, explore the internet and your surroundings and unleash your imagination as you bring to life your next masterpiece—with the help of a high-quality reference photo & exceptional artistic tools like the ones below.