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Do I use photographs as references to draw from?

Posted by Matthew Bell on
Do I use photographs as references to draw from? - Matthew Bell Wildlife Art

The above title is one of the most common questions I get asked about my art. I used to jokingly answer: no, I just ask the animals to please stand still for me but after the thousandth time I said this it was easier to just give the answer straight out. Yes, I use photographs as references to create my original drawings

I am very selective about the subjects I draw and the composition of these subjects in the photograph and generally look through hundreds of photographs before settling on one (or a combination of a few) to draw

Some good examples of drawings where I have combined a few different photographs to create one artwork are my elephant drawings (E9, E11 and EH)

I find it vitally important to select the right photographs to draw from and for me this process is as important as the actual creation of the artwork itself. A good composition can make or break an artwork. When combining different images in one drawing it is important that there is still a chemistry between the different animals / birds when putting them together into one drawing. In the elephant drawings this is achieved by the direction in which they are moving, the direction in which they are looking, the placement either closer or further away from the observer, and insuring that the lighting all falls on the subject from the same direction

When using a single photograph as a references to draw from I will normally just 'scroll and scroll' until something really catches my eye (which after the tens of thousands of images I have looked through has become very well trained in selecting the right ones). Certain characteristics do tend to jump out at me such as an animal / bird looking over its shoulder, an animal in a 'powerful' stance, no camera distortions, a clear dot of light in the eye, the sharpness of the photograph or just the fact that there is something unique about it like the Baboon photograph above. I will often print a few different selected photographs and then again from there select the one I believe will make the most aesthetically pleasing work of art

So where do I find these photographs? 

I will explore the internet, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest etc. in my search for the perfect photograph/s to draw. Once I have found a few various options I will get in touch with the photographer, explain that I would like to use a specific photograph of theirs or aspects of the photograph as a reference to draw from, and hope they say yes! Some are happy for me to use their images free of charge, some I will pay for, and some will not allow it. 

Isak Pretorius ( and Grant Atkinson ( are two photographers whose amazing images I have used in the past

I have recently purchased my own camera and look forward to soon using many of my own photographs to draw from as well!

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