The dangers of "cherry-picking" from photo references


I often see beginner/intermediate artists make this common mistake when working from photo references, and I want to address this problem here by posting a short excerpt from the workshop I teach (“Becoming A Better Artist,” linked below in my signature), to elaborate on why it’s bad to cherry-pick from references:

Common mistakes that inexperienced artists make

One very common mistake I see inexperienced artists make all the time, is to piece together a figure by using photo references from different sources, all taken by different photographers, of different models, in different poses, under different lighting, and so on. The result is almost always a very unnatural looking “Frankenstein” character that just looks wrong.

The reason this almost never works is because you cannot pull apart a figure like that and source individual body parts. A body is a closed network of skeleton, muscles, and central nervous system, all controlled by a single brain. It has to function together like a system to achieve proper balance. When you piece together unrelated photos, those body parts you are sourcing are not related at all and do not belong to the same person, so they cannot work together to achieve proper balance. Also, how one body part is placed/posed will affect other body parts by offsetting their balance, pull on their muscles/tendons, or change the way the skin creases.

It’s also a bad idea to take a reference and only use parts of it you need, then try to change/fake the rest on your own. Unless you have an advanced understanding of anatomy/figure, you will almost always be wrong when you start making changes, and if you try to supplement the changes by looking at other references to “fill in” those areas of change, you are again committing the sin of creating a “Frankenstein.”

Another similar problem I see is when artists use posable mannequins like action figures, wooden figures, dolls, or 3D characters. It is a problem because these inanimate figures don’t have brains, muscles, central nervous system, or emotions. They cannot express themselves or respond to any stimuli physiologically and psychologically. When you try to pose these inanimate objects, you cannot emulate how a human brain really balance the body by gauging the needs of its own center of gravity, or how it will react physiologically to emotions. Whatever you do, will only be a guess, and for most inexperienced artists, the guess will be incorrect.

The only solution is to do the following:

-Restrict your usage of references to just one photo, where the person is complete system acting/reacting according to its own physiological and psychological stimuli. Do not mix in other photo references and try to create a Frankenstein, unless you are ABSOLUTELY sure the different photos CAN work together seamlessly and not appear awkward. In my estimation, beginner artists cannot do this at all, and most intermediate artists often fail at it too, so my advice is to NOT do it, period.

-If you are using a reference, follow it faithfully. Unless you have advanced understanding of anatomy/figure, any changes you make on your own will likely be incorrect. If you can’t find a reference you can use exactly as is, then shoot your own.

-Don’t use inanimate posable figures as reference, unless it’s strictly for proportions, instead of for poses. For poses, use real people (see below).

-Shoot your own photo references. This is by far, the best solution possible. Have family or friends model for you, or use yourself as a model. By using a camera, a tripod, a large mirror, and household lamps, you can do so much. It’s a total no-brainer, and I cannot understand why beginner and intermediate artists don’t do it for every single image they work on. Just by doing this alone, their work will improve dramatically, yet very few of them realize how important this is. It doesn’t matter what style you work in, this is absolutely critical.

By shooting your own references, you are acting almost like the director of your own movie–you can direct the models to emote a certain way, pose a certain way, choose what angle to shoot, what focal length to use (to create the foreshortening you want, or minimize distortion), set up the lighting exactly as you want it. You can also do take afer take and make endless changes until you have exactly the photo reference you need. You can also pick the clothes and props you need to ensure you get exactly the reference you want. Often, even if you don’t have the model you want (the right body type, sex, or age), you can still gain a lot from just having a living and breathing person pose for you, because what you get is a complete physiological and psychologial system built into a single figure, with the ability to emote and take directions from you.

If you have special needs (such as needing a muscular model, or a very pretty face), you can always find people to help you. Visit your local gym and talk to people who fit the look you want, and explain to them you are an artist and need a model who looks a certain way, and they fit the profile. Explain what the image is about (the narrative), and ask them if they are willing to pose for you. Bring a sketch of the layout/composition to show them what you’re trying to achieve. You can also go to the mall or park and people watch, and talk to people who look like the characters you’re trying to depict.

There’s also the option of hiring professional models. Search for local modeling agencies online (or local yellow pages)–they often cost a lot less than most people realize (anywhere from $20 an hour and up). There are models that mainly do fashion work, and there are models that do fine art modeling (nude or clothed poses, different body types), as well as those that do commercial work (all ages and all body types). You can also contact nearby art schools or colleges and ask their art departments for modeling agencies or models that they use.

You can rent costumes and props from costume stores, if you need specific styles of clothing to help you get the form/wrinkles right. You can also get clever and use what’s available at home too (for example, make a makeshift cloak out of a curtain).

If you are serious about your art, then you cannot be lazy about any of this.


What is your advice for using references for people with background references? Is this okay to do or a bad thing? I cannot drawing backgrounds from my imagination at all and always need some sort of reference.


It’s fine to use references for anything–you just need to understand the structural arrangement of your scene and the references so that you aren’t just blindly copying the references. The danger of using references without understanding of the foundations of visual art is that you’ll create mistakes in your scene because you have disparate elements in your scene that don’t match up in terms of perspective. This is also a common mistake, where someone will take various photos and copy different parts from different photos, forming an incoherent scene because the perspective doesn’t match between the photos, and the person doesn’t understand anything about perspective to correct the mistakes.

Using references isn’t about mindless copying. If you have a strong foundation in the essential basics of visual art (composition, perspective, values, lighting, color theory, anatomy/figure, etc), then you can simply use the references only as guides, and then make any changes you need to the references, including completely changing their perspective and angle, and still make things look right.


thank you, this is really helpful,answers a lot of questions i had about the use of reference.


Very informative and thought provoking thread.

  I've just recently realized the importance of using references, this after a life of shying away from practicing to copy things as much as possible. Now, though, I've realized that no matter how much I wish for it, there are no shortcuts and by using references, my pictures get better (not good though, but better - I still have so much to learn).
  I think I may be trying to cut out the boring part yet again, even when it comes to using references. I do as you warn us newbies not to - I cherry-pick. First, I make a sketch and draw whatever it is that I'm drawing, [i]then[/i] I'll go online and try to find stock photos that come as close as possible to the image I have in mind. Okay, that's a lie, that's what I plan to do and have only done with two pictures so far (one of them being the horse portrait I'm uploading in the WIP-section). What I have discovered so far, is that someone as new and inexperienced as me can't really pull it off.
  On the other hand, I think I'll stick to it now until I get too frustrated  with my lack of progress again. I need that motivation to make myself get off my lazy ass and do something about it.


Thank you Robert, this will help me a lot. Actually all your threads are amazing and full with useful information!


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