The Ultimate Guide to Good Figure Drawing Reference
Yes it is and it is long overdue. I’ve been asked countless times by students, friends and artists in training about getting good reference for figure drawing and head drawing studies. With the unfortunate lack of a centralized and well organized image gallery, it’s about damn time this issue is settled once and for all.
I’ve posted some of my personal reference collection here in one place, also known as The Official Freshdesigner Good Reference Gallery (GRG). There’s a ton of great reference I’ve personally gathered and hand-picked from various sources.
In the section ‘Where To Find Good Reference‘, I’ve listed the best photographers, websites and books that I know of. These sources produce ideal reference and stock photos for artists. The GRG and the list should be more than enough to keep a hungry and motivated artist busy for a while .
If you want learn how to find your own good reference, read on…
What exactly is “good” reference?
There is a difference between good and bad reference. When I say “good” reference, I really mean “useful”. The number one quality of a useful reference image is the light. The light should be simple with a single, dominant light source being the preferred scenario. This type of lighting (which is also ideal for life drawing models in studio) is what produces the clearest light and shadow patterns and a clear distinction, or border, between light and shadow. It’s this clarity that is vital when studying figure drawing, head drawing & painting. This is especially important for beginners, young artists and artists in training.
This image is a perfect example of good reference. It has all the hallmarks: single, dominant light source (1); clear light and shadow shapes (2); and a clear and distinct border between light and shadow (3). Original photo by G_S_H.
Why is good reference important?
Good reference is important for a many reasons. As an artist and educator, I value good reference simply because figure drawing is hard. Yes, figure drawing is hard, and since it is hard, it’s best to choose reference and lighting scenarios that can help simplify the drawing process and smooth out the learning curve. Why fight and struggle and swim upstream? Get good reference and lighting which will help you get the skills.
Speaking of skills, one of the most important skills to learn in figure drawing is the ability to accurately observe light and shadow patterns. If the light is flat or ambient, there won’t be any shadow shapes to observe. Working with poor reference or poor lighting scenarios will lead to frustration, slowed growth and ineffective use of practice time.
Another critical skill is learning how to observe and control edges. Edges are what artists use to create the illusion of form. Edge is how our minds make the distinction between rounded forms, square forms and everything in between. The mind’s eye sees form most at the intersection of light and shadow. Because the mind works this way, having an ideal light scenario is an absolute must for learning and mastering edge.
Single source lighting produces a full range of edges on the model. Soft halftone transitions, firm core shadows AND hard cast shadows. It’s these hard edges on shadows that 99% of photographers want to avoid. But it’s these hard edges that allow artists to design shadow patterns. An experienced draftsman can also use hard edge shadows to create powerful contrasts and heighten the sense of drama and mood.
If you’re familiar with West Coast Atelier Style, Reilly Method, or Classical/Academic drawing, you are already aware of the value of useful lighting and excellent reference images. You are a part of this minority of draftsmen that truly know and appreciate good lighting and will insist on proper lighting at all times. If you’re reading this and have become exposed to my work or this unique style of drawing for the first time, then I want to personally welcome you the light side. To paraphrase Morpheus from the Matrix movie, “Welcome to the real world Neo” .
What to avoid (aka “bad” figure drawing reference)
If you do a google search for “figure drawing reference” you will get millions of results. Unfortunately, 99% of them will be unusable. Unusable for the purpose of effectively studying the core principles of figure or head drawing. My students, colleagues and Reilly Method practitioners know how to practice effectively and they also know what to look for in reference images and what to avoid.
Let’s look at some examples of what not to use as reference.
What to avoid #1: Flat, ambient light.
This is probably the #1 problem with most reference images. The light is flat, meaning there are little to no shadows, which means no form and a even wash of a single, uniform tone.
The reason most photographs are flat is because hard shadows are not very flattering. Because defined shadows are not flattening, most photographers will do everything in their power to soften or eliminate them. Obviously, this lighting is fine for most situations, but it was clearly not intended for figurative artists, and thus should be avoided.
Another reason why so many figure models and reference photos are lit so poorly is because of a lack of understanding. Most people just aren’t aware of the value of proper lighting, and are quite frankly ignorant or just don’t care. This is all too common in live figure drawing sessions or uninstructed workshops. I’ve experienced this personally many times in the recent past, and it was extremely irritating. It’s probably this irritation that spurred me to set up my own figure drawing groups and to write this post.
What to avoid #2: Multiple light sources
To soften shadows, photographers will often use 2, 3 or more lights on a subject. This will either wash out (brighten) the shadows, or create unecessary and overly complex shadow patterns. Either one will kill your practice time and send you to a world of pain and frustration. Look at the image above for example. Can you tell where the light ends and shadow begins? I sure can’t. Good luck trying to design that shadow pattern.
It’s hard enough to draw when there is only 1 light source, producing only 1 shadow pattern. That in itself is hard enough. When you add 2, 3 or more shadow patterns that are unnecessary and don’t add any value to an image you’re just swimming upstream and making life more difficult.
Rim lighting, or ‘kicker’ light, creates cool visual effects and can be quite useful at times because it can often separate the subject from the background. If the rim lighting is well done and expertly placed, meaning the artist understands the value of having shadows, but may want extra ‘kick’ of visual appeal, then I say it’s fair game. Unfortunately rim lighting is easy to abuse and is often done in poor taste, so I would generally avoid these images as well.
What to avoid #3: Flat, dominant shadow
The light has been softened here. The pose doesn’t help much either. It basically creates a flat,dark toned image with no form.
There are several common lighting schemes that produce large patches of shadows that tend to be uniform in value and tone. These lighting schemes can work great in pictures but are useless in drawing and painting studies.
One example is backlighting. Just like when you take a picture of a friend outdoors and the sun is behind him or her, they will be completely in shadow. This is the same problem as Problem #1, ambient light, but in reverse. The result is the same: a flat image with no form.
To soften shadows, photographers will use either a soft filter on a light or use a less intense light. This soft look also occurs if the light is further away from the subject. This light will still produce shadows, but there will definitely be no clear border between light and shadow. Edges will be extremely soft and subtle. Subtleties like that take expert skill and years of practice, which is why it is a logistical nightmare for a new student and should be avoided.
What to avoid #4: Anything 3D, CG or computer modeled
Drawing from a 3d model? Are you serious? I should probably expand on this point, but it’s not worth it. Just don’t do it. I get irritated when I hear people suggesting using 3D models as “reference” for drawing or study. No. Just say No. This is a trend that was to be expected but should be avoided.
What do I look for in reference images?
My students, colleagues and anyone that follows my work knows that I insist on the ideal lighting scenario in my reference and studio shots. Especially when working with students.
The first and most important thing I look for is the clear and distinct shadow pattern. For example:
Notice the beautiful shadow pattern created by the single dominant light source in the upper right. This is what I would call excellent reference. Even in full color, the shapes and values read extremely well.
The second thing I look for is a simple value structure. Value structure refers to how many values can be observed and how are they arranged. A good, basic value structure that anyone can understand is the simple three value structure of dark, mid-tone and light. That’s it. Three values at the most, with two being ideal. I’ll get into understanding values in another post, but let’s see an example of good value structure.
See how there is a clear light side (1), clear shadow side (2) and an obvious highlight (3). In this example, if I were to sketch from this image, the shadow will be dark, the flesh in light will be mid-tone and the highlights will be the light value. Simple, simple, simple. This simple value structure is not only easy to understand, but it also keeps your drawings clean, organized and can create a lot of visual impact.
That’s it. Simple, clean and specific. It’s not too much to ask for. Look for these conditions when browsing for reference, and especially at a live figure model session.
Now that you know what to look for, let’s go find some photographers, books and websites that do it right.
Where can I find good reference?
I’ve been collecting reference for many years now. I’ve spent hundreds of hours trolling through flickr, instagram, google images, getty images, you name it. This list below is the short list of photographers and websites I recommend. These artists consistently generate useful reference images.
1. Sudoksa (Flickr)
Sudoksa is probably my favorite photographer on Flickr. He takes very compelling portraits and various subjects and his lighting is excellent. His best work is his street photography of random strangers in Korea. Go to his ‘My Faves‘ Set for a quick overview of his work.
2. Mjranum (DeviantArt)
I just discovered Mjranum’s work on Deviant Art, and I am blown away. Not only does he have hundreds of great images with good lighting, but he is very generous with the use of his work.
3. Danny St (Flickr)
Danny St is one of my favorite portrait photographers. Like Sudoksa, Danny takes compelling, candid ‘street’ photos with Singapore being his location of choice. Look to his Urban Portraits set and 5 Sec Faces for a wide variety of faces in beautiful lighting.
Characterdesigns.com is a website created by Concept Artist Hong Ly. Hong has hundreds of reference photos in a wide variety of settings, costumes and lighting schemes. Not all of his ‘Photosets’ have ideal lighting but the variety and his generosity definitely deserve some props. Look to Photoset 002, 004 and 016 as good starting points.
Posespace.com is a website designed for figurative artists. They offer hundreds of beautiful, high res stock images of figure models. Each pose is even shot in full 360 degree rotation so you can see virtually every angle of any pose.
There is a fee to download the full resolution, 360 degree image sets, but the price is reasonable and the quality is very good. Posespace is by far the best web site I have seen for high quality and useful figure model stock photos.
6. G_S_H (Flickr)
G_S_H is an excellent studio photographer that focuses on male figure and portrait shots. His lighting is EXCELLENT. Probably the best I’ve seen. Even in color, the values read really well. His photos are used in the ‘good reference examples’ above. As a note, his images can be homo-erotic in nature so tread with caution if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing.
7. cleanshvr (DeviantArt)
I recently discovered cleanshvr on DeviantArt. The gallery dedicated to one male model with a sprinkling of couples shots with various females. Not all of the photos are lit well, and there are some erotic tones in his images so you may want to tread with caution.
If you’re feeling too lazy to search, or just want to get to some drawing, I’ve posted some of my personal stash (gathered from these and other sources) in the Good Reference Gallery.
The BEST figure drawing reference book of all time
There are many books out that feature figure model images. They are supposedly for artists, but unfortunately the images are not very useful and suffer from many of the problems mentioned above.
There is however one excellent book that is head and shoulders above the rest. It is so good in fact, and so superior to anything I have ever seen, that I would not even bother with any other book.
That book is Pose File 7.
My personal copy of Pose File 7. It’s gotten a lot of use and mileage in the last 12 years or so.
Pose File is a series of Japanese photo reference books. All the books in the series are excellent. No. 7 is special though. No. 7 is the light and shadow theme, and No. 7 gets it right.
Interior shot from my personal copy of Pose File 7.
Pose File 7 is full of gorgeous, well lit images. Almost every page, with a few exceptions, is ideal for figure drawing practice.
Unfortunately, Pose File is out of print, but is still available on Amazon. You will pay a premium for this used little gem, but trust me it’s worth every penny. I’ve had my copy for over 10 years now and still refer to it. It’s been an especially great tool for teaching and creating notes and hand outs.
If you like the book but can’t get a copy, you can also sign up for the free newsletter and you’ll get access to my private reference folder that has beautiful high res scans of Pose File 7. I only share this book with students and newsletter subscribers.
Cool I get it. Now what?
Now that you know what to look for and have a pretty good list of resources to start with, you can start your own library of useful reference images. Of course, I’ve got you covered too with The Official Freshdesigner Good Reference Gallery (GRG). Go there and get your drawing on.
If you like this post or like the GRG, you can always join the hungry and motivated artists that ‘get it’ by signing up for the FreshTips Newsletter. You’ll get the latest updates and more great content, and by the way, subscribers also get exclusive access to my private reference library.
There are hundreds of excellent figure and head reference images all hand picked by me. No fluff and no time wasted. I’ve also included high-res scans of Pose File 7 and premium images purchased from Posespace.com.
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If you like this post or have any thoughts about good figure drawing reference, leave a comment below. If you have done any figure or head studies from the reference images in the GRG, drop me a line. I’d love to see your drawings, paintings and sketches.