Reference – Going All the Way


A question every young artist asks is “Should I use reference?” The very short answer is “YES!” It worked for Michelangelo and Norman Rockwell. If you’ve figured out how to be better than those dudes, then you don’t need my advice. If, on the other hand, you’re wondering, “How did Sam go from being a crappy artist to a good one in just a few years?” Then this is the post for you.

Hopefully you’ve already gotten over the idea that reference is bad, or that it’s cheating somehow. If not, work on it. Chances are your art would be better if you learned how to use reference. That said, reference can be bad if you don’t know how to use it. For that reason I plan to do a series of posts on getting good reference.

The first tip I’d offer is to GO ALL THE WAY. You can never have too much information. You can choose to ignore stuff during painting, but the more costuming, the better the lighting, and the closer the photo is to your subject, the better your painting will be.

Another part of GOING ALL THE WAY is shooting your own reference. Sure, there is lots of good stuff on the internet these days, but the more you use your own photography, the more your work will stand out. I think of it as visual style—everyone has access to the internet, but no one but you can access your photos.

Take the time to think about your work and the things you like to paint. Then keep a camera on you, and seek those things out. I love to paint old trees, so I often take photos when on walks with my family (see tree photo up top). I also tend to paint zombies and dead things, so I collect skulls and take photos of dead animals I come across.

The ultimate example of this was Thanksgiving 2011. My wife’s family often roasts a pig. I came prepared with my camera, and got some great shots. Once the meal was done, I asked to keep the head. I cleaned it myself, and have added it to my skull collection.

Before we cooked it!

Before we cooked it!

After we ate!

After we ate!

Cleaned by my own hands!

Cleaned by my own hands!

Basically, don’t be lazy. Step up and become one with your art. You’ll find that your new eye towards reference will bring about some great opportunities for you.

To see more of my work or to contact me for availability to help with your project please visit:


2 thoughts on “Reference – Going All the Way

  1. One of the best things about our local natural science museum is their collection of skulls! They will let you study them if you ask in advance, you just can’t let them leave the building. They are great about putting out a selection with new exhibits, or having some out with a volunteer on weekends for kids to handle and examine. Obviously, the ones kids get to handle are common ones, but that’s what they want to see anyway – mouse, raccoon, pig, dog, cat, etc.

    I suppose what I’m saying here is that skulls are awesome. If you’re collecting now, I will be happy to help. I’m good at cleaning and finding the things.

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