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How to Draw Creatively Using Photo References

This post is part of a series called Learn How to Draw.
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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Drawing from imagination sounds cool, but we rarely know enough about the subject to draw it perfectly. You could try and guess, just to impress others with your guessing skills, but is it really worth it? Using a reference to support your memory isn't cheating. It's just getting know what you're trying to draw!

There are three main ways of using a reference:

  • Visual tracing: you look at a reference and try to copy every line and every shade.
  • Inspiration: you look at a reference to induce some kind of visual idea.
  • Support: you look at a reference, but you copy only a chosen part of it.

That first way, indeed, looks like cheating, because it's not really your creation. You can only impress people with your manual skills this way. The other two ways, however, are a recipe for success!

Let's say you want to draw a wolfish bull with ruby horns. You can't find a direct reference for this creature, but you can easily find photos of wolves, bulls, and rubies. If you don't copy them, but rather use a part of each to incorporate into your artwork, you'll get something completely new without guessing. And the end result will look as if you knew what you were doing!

In this tutorial I'll show you how you can use photo references to achieve the right perspective, pose, proportions, silhouette, anatomy, and details of your imagined creature. You don't need to follow my actions strictly—rather, you should understand why I do them. Each case is different—sometimes you'll only need one reference, and sometimes you'll work with them from start to finish. I'll show you the most complete way, so that you know all the options.

Tutorial Assets (Optional)

These are all the materials I will be using in this tutorial. Feel free to find your own, depending on what creature you want to create.

1. Find the Right Pose

Step 1

When the idea in your mind is so huge, it's hard to limit it to that first line, especially when the first lines become a base for everything later! That's why it's good to start with nothing spectacular but a pose of the creature.

But posing isn't easy, either. You need to know perspective, anatomy, and proportions even for a seemingly simple sketch. However, if you find a good reference, all these are taken care of.

My goal is to draw a deer, but not an ordinary deer. I want it to look royal and powerful, like a beast that doesn't flee when approached, but rather proudly stands its ground. The elk in this photo looks nothing like this, but I really like its pose. Let's use it!

If you draw digitally, feel free to place the reference somewhere in the canvas, with a lower Opacity. If you draw traditionally, you may find it useful to print your reference, even if it's small and in black and white.

how to use pose reference

Step 2

Let's copy the pose and the pose only, because that's all that interests us. First, imagine (or draw) points on the reference that define an outline of the body.

how to draw from reference accurately

Draw them exactly the same way in your preferred scale.

how to copy reference precisely

Step 3

Use the dots to copy a few lines that will make the body outline clear. Again, you don't need to draw directly on the reference—these should be the lines you can see without making them 100% obvious.

how to draw animal body from reference
body outline sketched

Step 4

Use a set of points to measure and copy the length of the limbs.

how to copy proportions
propoertions drawn properly

Step 5

Connect the dots to create a simplified version of limbs.

how to draw animals legs from reference
sketchy animal legs

Step 6

Add the head and neck using other lines as points of reference.

how to draw animal from reference head and neck
head and neck sketched

Step 7

Establish the perspective of the head with as few lines as possible.

how to draw animal head in perspective
head in perspective sketched

Step 8

Take a closer look at the joints in the legs and the hooves, leaving nothing to guesswork.

how to draw legs and hooves from reference
legs and hooves sketched

Step 9

Your sketch should now have enough lines to recreate perspective lines from them. They will be useful as a reference for further modifications.

how to create perspective from reference
perspective in animal drawing

2. Adjust the Proportions

Step 1

We have the pose now, but the proportions are not necessarily what I wanted. This may happen if you take a pose from a completely different animal than you want in the end. But that's the power of using multiple references—they're flexible!

Elks have a stocky body with thin legs, which gives it all an unbalanced look. I want my deer to have the elegance of a horse, so I looked for a reference presenting the side view clearly.

horse side view

Step 2

Imagine or draw the basic pose lines. You can add some new ones, if they're important for defining the silhouette.

how to copy pose of animal

Step 3

Adjust the pose to the new proportions. If you draw traditionally, you may need to use another sheet of paper for it.

how to change pose of animal

3. Add the Body Shape

Step 1

This was like a skeleton, so now we need to add some body to it. I want my deer to look powerful and strong, so I'm going to use a bull's body for this purpose.

Start by defining the clearest forms:

how to use a muscle reference
big muscle masses added

Step 2

Adjust the hooves.

how to draw hooves from reference
hooves added

Step 3

Carefully analyze the legs. Try to convert them to simple shapes and to recreate them in your sketch.

how to draw legs from reference
legs sketched

Step 4

Adjust the torso, staying faithful to the "horse" silhouette you have established before.

how to draw animal silhouette from reference
bull silhouette established

Step 5

Add the neck.

how to draw bull neck
neck sketched

4. Create the Head

Step 1

To create a powerful version of a deer, I decided to mix its head with a lion's.

You need to place both references next to each other to clearly see the difference and similarity. Analyze them to understand what makes deer a deer and a lion a lion. You may also need more references to understand certain structures.

how to dreate animal head from imagination

Step 2

Create the head, copying most features from the deer's head (it must stay a deer!), and adding some from the lion's.

how to mix animal features to create new

5. Add the Details

Step 1

Most of the body is well defined now, so let's add the "skeletons" of the details.

Use the first reference once again to create the antlers. If you rotated the head in the process, you'll need to find another reference for them.

how to draw deer antlers from reference
antlers partially drawn
how to draw deer antlers
deer antlers drawing tutorial

Step 2

To stress the fact that my deer isn't a normal deer, I have modified the antlers using the "real" ones as a reference.

magical deer antlers

Step 3

Add all the other details. You can draw them from imagination, or use a lot of other references, for example for the deer mane.

how to draw deer mane furry

Step 4

Time to make it all more detailed. Make the anatomy clearer and sketch everything you want to see in the final version.

Whatever animals you base your creature on, chances are I've already written a tutorial about them! Check them out to find a reference for anatomy. Besides cows and horses, we've got tutorials about:

how to draw deer cow bull anatomy
imaginitive creative anatomy

6. Finish the Picture

Step 1

Finally, you can start drawing the final version. Most of the body is clearly established, but you still may need some references for details, for example for the exact shape of the hooves or nose. Even the flow of fur shouldn't be guessed!

how to draw a magical mighty deer tutorial

Step 2

The last way to use a reference is as a so-called "lighting reference". Find a creature with a similar pose to yours, shaded in a way you'd like to apply to your picture.

horse lighting reference

Step 3

Edit it in Photoshop or another program to first convert it to black and white...

convert reference to black white

... increase its contrast...

increase contrast reference

... and limit the number of shades (for example by using Filter > Filter Gallery > Artistic > Cutout).

how to limit number of shades

Step 4

Shade your creature using the previous picture as a reference.

how to shade light animal from reference

Your Creation Is Finished!

We have created a mighty deer creature using references as a support for our imagination. Photos of an elk, horse, bull, and lion have been combined to create a new kind of creature. I hope I managed to convince you that using references isn't cheating, and that forcing yourself to draw from memory only is pointless. It takes many years to achieve mastery at drawing, but you don't need to wait this long to be proud of your work!

how to create a new creature from reference
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