Photo reference

When drawing or painting a portrait, the photographs I’ll work from are a substitute for someone sitting right in front of me, and so they need to be large and clear enough to provide the same amount of detail. This page will give you lots of information about what sort of photo I’ll need.

How many photos I need

In order to create a portrait of someone I haven’t met and still produce a very accurate likeness, I will make a fairly exact copy of one particular photograph. However a single photo can sometimes be slightly misleading and so to make sure I get a full impression of the subject’s appearance, it’s useful to see one or two more photos – even for an animal portrait. These can be fairly basic snaps, and don’t need to have the quality of the main ‘key’ image.

What to take the photos with

We tend to take most of our photos on our phones today, and I’m no exception – they are just so handy. Unfortunately though photos taken on a phone camera – even the latest iPhone – are unlikely to be suitable for me, so I’ll probably ask you to take some more on a camera and find a new favourite. This certainly doesn’t have to be a good camera and you honestly don’t need any photography skills! Even the cheapest ‘point and snap’ digital camera will be fine as it will take larger and sharper photos than a phone camera. My drawing method in particular is quite detailed and I need to be able to print the image out really large and see the finer detail of the subject’s features. For this reason photographs downloaded from social media are NOT suitable either as they have been resized and compressed.


  • School photos are a great option because they are large, close-up and sharp. You can usually request an original digital file from the photographer.
  • Professionally taken photos are also ideal. Sometimes people get some taken specifically for the portrait.

Go for a close-up

The most important thing is that the subject of the photo is in the foreground, nice and large, and not blurry. Working from a photo where the subject appears very small or is blurred is like trying to draw or paint someone who’s half way down the road, instead of sitting right in front of you! Don’t be afraid to zoom in – unless I’m doing a full body portrait I won’t need to see further down than their waist. Just remember not to cut off the top of their hair. Here are some examples of ideal photos which all fill the frame nicely.

Suitable school photo
Suitable  photo
Suitable photo for pet portrait

Here are some tips to help you take good photos for a portrait:

  • Natural light is best. Artificial light can often cause a grainy image, so aim for daylight to take your snaps
  • Taking photos out of doors is ideal, but preferably avoid very bright sunlight which will make people squint and produce strong shadows
  • Don’t worry about the background, as I will just ignore this (unless you want it to be included)
  • For a pet photo, remember to remove the collar if you don’t want it to be included in the portrait

Having a small child myself I know it isn’t easy to get them to pose and they quickly tire of co-operating or pull silly faces! If you don’t get lucky with a nice picture right away just keep your camera handy for a few days and keep on taking the odd snap, especially when they aren’t expecting it. You can get some nice relaxed images that way. The original photo reference really is key to how the final portrait will turn out, so getting the right image really is worth the effort. Feel free to email any number of images over to me and I can let you know which I think would be the best options.

What I can change from your original photo

You’re never likely to get an absolutely perfect photograph, and there are certainly small aspects I can change when I create your portrait from it. I can easily do the following: tidy up hair (or fur) a bit, remove dribble/eczema/food from around a child’s mouth or sunburn from their cheeks, and smooth down a collar. In fact I’ll probably do all of these without you needing to ask! However we’ll have a good discussion about your key photo before I start, because although I’m happy to make amendments when you see the scan of the portrait, it’s always preferable to know exactly what you’d like before I begin.

WHAT I CAN’T DO:  It’s not possible for me to take a head from one photo and put it onto a body from another one. I can’t completely change someone’s expression – for example I can slightly turn up the corners of someone’s mouth but I can’t turn a solemn expression into a wide smile, whilst trying to maintain a good likeness at the same time. I’m also not able to make drastic alterations to clothing (such as inventing new garments) Taking new photos specifically for the portrait is a great opportunity to put a child in the clothes you’d like them to appear in, so keep this in mind when doing a photoshoot. Likewise if you decide once you see the final scan that you’d actually have preferred a different hairstyle I probably won’t be able to change this, not least because what’s already been drawn will leave dark lines on a paper when rubbed out.

Joint or pair portraits

Joint portrait
Joint dog portrait

I’m often asked if I can assemble two subjects on the same page, drawn from two different photos. However this really doesn’t result in a satisfactory portrait, because when working from photos taken at different times the lighting and tones will not match and it’s hard to unify them to produce a coherent and convincing image. To get a nice joint portrait I’d therefore strongly advise taking a new photo of the two subjects together.

Even if you are having two separate ‘companion portraits’ drawn or painted they will look much nicer if created from photos taken at the same time and in the same setting so that their shadows and tonal qualities will complement each other and not have noticeably different looks. However, if you are doing a photo shoot specifically for your portrait and have taken photos of two people (or pets) together it may sometimes be possible to ‘mix and match’ the subjects from different pictures if the angles are very are similar, because the lighting and picture quality will be the same in both photos.

Next: select your medium. Read more about pencil portraits or watercolour portraits

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This