Good reference photos for portraits is crucial when it comes to painting. I assume that you can’t afford having a living model just for you, and that you’re working from reference photos.
For this article, I’ll be using photos from the Sktchy app.
Copyright free is best!
First, I think it’s important if your reference photo is copyright free. You’ll never know what you’ll do with your art, sell it, make prints or whatever, so it’s safer to take copyright free images from the beginning. So forget about taking a random image from Pinterest, Instagram or Facebook.
Disclaimer: this is my point of view, I give you some general rules, and as always rules can be broken!
What is a good portrait reference photo?
No matter what you’ll do with the photo, paint, draw, digital or traditional, you need:
- good lighting
- good contrast
- items and surroundings
I place it first, as it’s the most important to me. Let’s see some examples.
Looking at those 6 photos, you can see what I mean by good lighting. I don’t want to have to guess details in the shadow, and harsh light is quite hard to handle when it comes to painting. Which gives the second point:
Meaning, a large range of values, from white to dark, with mid values as well
Here the difference between light and dark is extreme, this is high contrast. I personally prefer to avoid this type of photo because it will be very difficult to handle when painting.
On the other hand, you can have photo where the values are quite similar, and it will be difficult to give volume to the face. On the left photo, the face is looking like one single color. This can be perfect for an illustration style, but I’m more into semi-realism and I need more information.
I would call those well lit, with a good contrast, a good range of values. Lot of information, nice colors. I would pick them! Except for the next point
Items and surroundings
Depending on my purpose, I may want to avoid some tricky items in a photo: teeth, glasses, hands. Or take them!
Unless I really want to paint glasses, or hands, or teeth, I prefer to avoid these!
This is very personal, but I like to feel something when I look at a photo. Is the person expressing something? do you see the face properly? the eyes? smile?
The left one if funny, but lacks a bit of contrats. I could edit it, but that’s another story for another post!
The middle one is well balanced with values, the smile is appealing, there is not too much teeth, and she makes me feel good. That would be a good pick!
The right one needs a bit more lighting, I like the leaves around the face, and the distant look.
Where to find copyright free reference photos?
You have several options here:
- Sktchy: this is an iOS app, you’ll find it on the AppStore, sorry no android here! Download it and you’ll find thousands and thousands of photos posted by people who’d like to be painted. By posting their photos they agree that you use them for free. The quality is what it is, but you can find a lot of good photos here.
- Unsplash: my favorite! lots of professional photos, a search engine, all you need is here, I’m sure!
- Flickr: you can make a research with ‘woman portrait’ and look only for copyright free images, like in this search
- Pinterest: I gathered a ton of portraits photos coming from Unsplash, Pexels… that you can use, just go to this board
- Pexels and Pixabay are options too.
- and more… I have gathered nine valuable websites on the pdf below, check it out!
I hope this long article about good reference photos for portraits is helpful for your art journey!