How to View Your Photo Reference for Accurate Drawings

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One of the most common statements I hear in my classroom is, “Something’s not right, Lee! Why does my drawing look “off?”  Immediately, I’ll have an idea of what the problem is, often before I even see the student’s work. Sometimes it’s because she has misjudged a shape while drawing, but more often than not, she has an angle off and has drawn something out of alignment when referring to the photo reference.

Much of drawing is psychology. It’s all about the way we think, and how we perceive what we’re looking at. It takes years to train the eye to see things accurately. We rely on our memories way too much.

We have clear definitions in our mind, stored much like a computer. When we think of an eye, for instance, instantly a preconceived image pops into our head. The same goes for all of the facial features. So as we draw, rather than really looking at our reference, we have a tendency to draw what we “think,” instead of what we “see.”

Our photo reference gives us all the information we really need. But often, we lack the focus to truly analyze it properly. What we end up with in our drawing is usually a composite; a blend of what we’re actually looking at and what we’re recalling from our minds.

Even when someone is focusing on their photo reference, I’ve found that the placement of their photo is usually all wrong. Often it’ll be off to the side, at a completely different angle than their artwork. So they look at the photo, then look away to work on their art. Again, they’re drawing from memory this way. There’s no way to be accurate doing this.

The solution for all of this is proper placement of your photo reference while you are drawing. Here are some good tips to follow.

  • Tilt your work. When drawing, it’s very important to tilt your work towards you. Your face and your drawing paper should be parallel one another. This prevents any distortion. (This is why they created drafting and drawing tables that tilt towards you.) Yes, it may feel good to draw flat, like we did as kids, but that’s what creates errors and distortions. Drawing flat elongates your work. It may look great flat, but tilt it towards you, and whoops! You may end up with a huge, stretched out forehead like Herman Munster!
  • Keep your photo close. Tape your photo right next to your artwork. This makes it easier to keep your eyes going back and forth from one to another for accuracy while you draw.
  • Concentrate. As you are drawing, place your index finger on your photo, in the exact place you’re placing your pencil on your drawing. Go slowly and move your finger to match what you draw. This keeps your hand and eyes working together. You’ll be much more accurate this way.
  • Use straight lines to see angles. Use a grid if you have a hard time seeing angles. The straight vertical and horizontal lines of the grid will break down the shapes into increments, making the tilts and angles much easier to see. Sometimes just dividing your photo into four equal squares with one vertical and one horizontal line is enough to help you see it properly.
  • This is the most important tip! Check your alignment!  Be sure your photo AND your drawing are at the exact same angle. Look at the references provided. This is one of my drawings in progress. In the first example, the photo is close to the art, but it’s NOT at the same angle as the drawing. Can you see how the tilt of the little girl does not match? This will lead to inaccuracy as you draw.

In the second example, the photo is straight up and down, which matches the paper. But the drawing itself is tilted more to the left than the image in the photo. While subtle, this too will lead to inaccuracy.

The third example is the correct way to draw. The photo has been tilted a bit more to the left to match the slight tilt of the drawing. If I had allowed the photo to be viewed straight up and down, it wouldn’t have matched and the angles would be slightly off. These small inaccuracies lead to problems when it comes to capturing a likeness.

These are just a few of the tricks I use when I draw teach to keep students on track. You’ll be amazed at how just a little piece of tape and holding your photo in the right place can help make your work improve in a big way!

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