Photo Reference

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Related terms: fanart, publicity still, screenshot redraw
See also: portrait, landscape, Still Life (art), Imitation
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Photo-referencing is a common artistic technique wherein an artist bases their art on a photograph.

Like other artists, fanartists use any and all types of photographic images for reference. Publicity stills and screenshots are useful when drawing television and film characters (or settings or objects). But fanartists also use nonfannish photos for reference as well.

Although a common practice in the creation of both professional and fannish art, the use of photo-referencing sometimes results in a great deal of discussion within fandom about the nature of originality, the legitimacy of copying, and the degree to which pieces of fanart are transformative.

For the artistic technique where artists use existing art in transformative ways, see Imitation.

Fan Comments


WANTED: Good photos of LN as Spock: Also any photo of T'Pring from the Amok Time episode are needed for drawing purposes & will be returned to owner. Send to Elizabeth. [1]


Pixel Manipulation vs. Fan Art.

It's clear to me that fans are looking for different things from a nude drawing of an actor/character that from a nude photograph of an actor/character. (I will be using Mr. David Duchovny as an example... Fan artists have long used photographs as source material for fan art. This nude Playgirl layout with a change of head becomes Mr. Ray Doyle nude. This advertisement becomes Skinner and Mulder in a playful moment. This is accepted, acceptable, and does not interfere with the viewers enjoyment of the art, or, in many cases, the willingness to bid high at auction. The transformation into drawing doesn't affect its appreciation by fans. Now take that same Playgirl layout and through the means of pixel manipulation take the nude torso and attached head of Mr. David Duchovny and combine it with the nude crotch and legs of the nameless male model. The result: a created representation of Mr. D in the nude.

The fan does not respond with "Oh! Nice job!" the way they would for a piece of fan art. No, the fan responds by studying the picture to determine if it is "really" David. Clearly it is "really" David - parts of him at least. What the fan really wants to determine is "Is that really David Duchovny's penis?" In fan art one presumes that the artist, unless she got very lucky, did not have the real Duchovny penis as her model, but this never seems to interfere with the fan's enjoyment of the art. So what's the problem with enjoying the pixel manipulation the same way? Apparently, fans look for truth, evidence, facts in photographs — well, nude photographs anyway, and something else in fan art. It can't just be a representation of an emotional relationship, because fan art also contains examples of single figures posed no differently than the guys do for Playgirl, or gay skin magazines. [2]


Hate to burst anyone’s bubble but almost all artists, professional or not, work from reference photos. Refs can be found from the actual promo photos and screen captures of course but it’s a lot of fun (and help) to use refs from magazines, romance novel covers, and things found on the internet. There could be a copyright issue there but changing several things in a ref makes it more ‘original’ and I really don’t think anyone is paying much attention to our little universe here but us. ; ) I’ve looked for good possible B&B refs for 20+ years now and don’t even have to think about it anymore. I see a great couple pose or something that would make a great Vincent and automatically save them for my files. I’ve been known to “take, not steal” pages out of magazines in the doctors office etc. Also, even though I use to I don’t usually freehand the basic lines in a ref anymore. I can do it but it takes a lot more time and I wouldn’t get much done in a year. I usually scan a ref and enlarge it to the size I need and then use graphite paper (sort of like carbon paper) and put down a few preliminary lines on the paper. I don’t need a lot of lines but it gives me a jumping off point so I can at least quickly, get all the proportions right. Photos usually have some distortion though so I almost always have to change some lines. Of course I change lines when I do C & V faces and also I usually have to “beef up” the Vincent’s body or make him taller etc. I have to keep my drawing board upright pretty much when doing this since a flat picture will be shorter when you raise it up vertical. Very disturbing when you think you’ve got it just right and find it doesn’t look so good when held up.[3]

The Limitations of Technology

See Telepix, see Film Clips.

In a 2005 interview, a fan tells of the challenges of getting images from the television itself and VCR stills:

In the early years, we artists were mostly dependent on a very limited number of publicity stills for our reference. In order to paint the beautiful scenes that had inspired me from the show, I had to depend on very poor quality photographs taken off of the TV screen. I had help from other fans who took photos for me... Each of us had video taped from the broadcasts (there were no commercial tapes yet) on different VCRs. We were using different TVs and different cameras, so we all captured slightly different versions of the same shots which provided me with more visual information that way. What I couldn't see in one photo, I could in another. But the reference I had to work from still stunk! Oh to have high quality screen captures from commercial DVDs!! [4]

The 2007 article Dribbling Scribbling Women: The History of Our Art discusses at great length the importance of photo references for artists and the difficulties, before the internet, of finding them:

Source material has certainly evolved over the years. I know I’ve said this before, and it sounds like that saying that parents tell their kids (‘I used to walk 20 miles through a snowstorm to get to school’), but when I first started drawing K/S, all we had were clippings from magazines or publicity photos to draw from. And the best material was tiny film clips that were yellowing and sepia-colored with age that I would get printed at the local photo shop. That was sometimes a bit testy because of copyright, so it was never easy. For the bodies, I would scour the gay porn shops for magazines and calendars. That was real fun—marching into a gay porn shop and trying to look nonchalant while you leaf through these horrible gay porn magazines and try to act unconcerned when you buy them. But even now with digital everything it’s always difficult coming up with the right source material.” Today, we can enjoy the sophisticated reproduction of art in zines and so the modern K/S illustrator can use almost any medium she fancies from paints to computers, from pencils to elephant dung! But in the early days this was far from the case...[5]

Reactions from Non-artists

A 2001 comment published in the letterzine Discovered in a Letterbox expressed surprise and displeasure that some fan artists used gay porn as photo references instead of drawing something more original. Several fans replied in the following issue, including an artist who pointed out,

In professional illustration, it is normal to use already existing images. One of the first things you learn at school is to start cutting pictures from magazines, to collect old photographs, to build up your own archive of images for future reference. There is no time to practise live drawing at leisure, like artists used to do in the past, in the illustration business - unless you manage to convince Mr Shaw to pose for us![6]

Plagiarism or Copyright Violation? Or Neither?

While the use of photo references is common in the art community, many fans (including fan artists) feel that it is a form of art plagiarism, even when proper credit is given.

From a fan in 1995:

Slash fandom per se actually does a lot of copying of ideas (like the characters and plots from the tv shows), so maybe it's a moot point to complain about people copying things. However, it annoys me to find:

- plots that have clearly been copied from other contexts (like just recently I found a K/S story in a new zine that had more or less exactly the plot of the Greek legend of Amor and Psyche - and the author gave no indication that she had used the plot of this story)
- artwork that is exact replicas of artwork of other contexts (I've seen several pieces by Suzy Lovett for instance that are exact copies of gay artistic photographs that I have in my collection, with just the heads changed a bit to look like slash characters - none of these drawings acknowledged the sources).

Am I just a nitpick to be annoyed by this? I think I could cope if the artist/author gave credit to her sources, but without the acknowledgements it feels like they are passing something for their own invention which isn't. To people who don't happen to know the original work, it looks like the author/artist put a lot more know-how and art into her work than she actually did, and that doesn't seem right to me.

A while ago I heard of the case of a slash author who had copied a gay novel and just edited the names of the characters to be slash characters and turned it in to a zine. When this was found out, the story was not accepted by the editor, and everyone scorned the author. I'm just wondering what's so different about it when it's artwork. Sure, it's a lot of work to sit down and copy a picture, but so is retyping an original novel and editing the names and some references... what's the difference? Why is the story rejected but the artwork accepted? In both cases I can simply go to a normal store and buy the original for less money

Gayle F: Well, I'm guilty of using photos all the time. Although I usually get the poses just from Gay porn zines, I have used drawing of gay artists like Tom of Finland. And I've done things "in the style" of other people occasionally. I consider it an homage, and often a way to have something in the style of artists that I like, but can't afford. I didn't acknowledge the sources to everyone, but certainly to individuals, zine editors, people who bought them. As for photos - well, you're moving to a different medium, not taking a photo of a photo. I am not an artist who can draw all that well out of my head. I need a model or a photo, and I can't afford models. Few artists can. Believe me, it's a great hunt to find feasible body types. If you go too far afield from the builds of the characters, they will never look right. I'm not saying you don't have a point, but I don't think using a photograph as a model for a drawing is the same thing at all as stealing a novel and sticking the slash characters names in. [7]

From a fan in 2009:

" plagiarism is taking the basic composition of a piece of art and using that as basis to make your own image. Many examples I've seen of art plagiarism are really just tracings with minimal self-effort thrown in. You may not have a print-out of the "reference work" directly beneath your paper, and you may even be changing which character(s) are portrayed, but that still doesn't change the fact that the composition of a piece of art is the intellectual property of the original owner..[ [And what about parodies, homages and appropriation art? In those cases] One makes allusions, references, homages, and parodies by mimicking the original piece. This is the only acceptable reason and way to copy the original inspiration detail-for-detail, because the mere act of alluding to another work denounces your ownership of that idea. If you wanted to draw a picture of Sephiroth doing the pose for "The Vitruvian Man" as a parody of daVinci's original masterpiece, you would need to have the exact pose and style of composition in order for your audience to make that connection. Without these clues, your audience would not connect the two ideas you are attempting to link together. It's something akin to iconography in its workings. It does NOT excuse your theft just to say that "referencing" the entirety of one picture for your own picture is "an homage to the original," or that the original "inspired you" to make the exact same piece, "only different." (More on identical reproductions later.)[8]

An example of a "call to action" against suspected art plagiarism. The original drawing is on the right, and the new drawing is on the left. The original artist and friends felt that the different setting, additional characters, a different background and color scheme, a new theme and an alteration in the hand position as well as the change in what the hand is holding was not sufficiently transformative.[9]

The majority of the examples below would fail this type of "plagiarism" test. Even if the 'copying' artist makes changes to the picture or combines multiple elements from multiple pictures to create something new, some fans feel they need to "call out" the artist and force them to remove their art or terminate their online accounts. Likewise, new artists following an art tutorial and then posting the results could also face accusations of plagiarism.[10] The concepts of transformative and fair use are rarely discussed or considered in fannish circles.[11]

"Guess what princess, copying the composition and removing the hair/clothes and turning it into a base is fucking plagiarism. You’re not claiming it as your own, eh? See that little piece of text that says ©2012 *username*? That’s a copyright. That’s you taking already copyrighted material, tracing over it, and copyrighting it to yourself. So yes. You are claiming it as your own."[12]

Other fans disagree, citing photo, or live references, as a well-used and necessary tool used to create art.

From an October 2015 discussion on Tumblr:

Why do artists refuse to use references why why why.

It’s not a contest to see who can get by without them. It’s not cheating to look at a thing in order to know what the thing looks like.

You don’t get stronger or better by pretending. Nobody is impressed by the awkward whatever-it-is you just drew. Use references. [13]

I don’t think a lot of people know that it’s not cheating. I recall seeing so many piece of art called out because they referenced a pose, someone recognized it, and then proceeded to shame them for it. There’s this belief, both by creators and the audience, that artists should just be able to translate the ideas from their head to paper, and if they don’t, it’s plagiarism, or not true originality (spoiler alert: there’s no such thing). I myself didn’t start using references until very recently, because even I was under the impression that it was frowned upon. And that belief has seriously crippled and stalled my ability to improve as an artist. [14]

I am going to say this again, loud and clear for everyone:

USING REFERENCES FOR ART IS NOT ‘CHEATING’!!! If you can draw/paint without references, great! But if you need to use them, and feel that your art can be bettered by using references, please, use them! This is one of the biggest tips I can give to artists, is USE REFERENCES!

Anyone who would dare to attack someone for using references after ‘recognizing a pose’ is a dipshit, who doesn’t know a thing about art.

Do you know who else used references for their art?

[see post for a list of eleven artists and examples] [15]

....this is so needs to be said. I sometimes wonder if it’s a product of the availability of the internet for people to see or stumble upon the references, and if they just imagined that artists didn’t use them before. I honestly never once in my life sat down and drew something out with a reference right next to me and had anyone tell me I’m “cheating.” But now I see it said to people on Tumblr all the time. For Chrissakes, people, what do you even think is taught in formalized art classes? Among other things, they teach you a buttload of techniques for how to work from references. [16]

The original poster wrote later:

"#literally one of the biggest fears I have #is for some douchefuck to dig out my reference #and point at it and say that I’m not a real artist #I don’t want you to dig out my references to prove that I didn’t make up a realistic picture out of fucking thin air #that’s not how art works #but especially on this site it happens CONSTANTLY #it’s so fucking scary #when people who’ve never touched a pen in their lives think they’re qualified to judge you #and ‘reveal’ how you’ve ‘scammed’ people Soooo. I made this post originally on my personal blog (I’m eliciaforever), and it was nothing more than a little rant about a specific incident that I deleted after five minutes. But before I could delete it, it took the hell off on me, and now it has all these notes. And LOTS OF AMAZING INPUT. And I just wanted to add in response to the above tags in particular, that shaming people for using references is something that happens to so many of us SO OFTEN. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are. People think art is supposed to be magical or whatever, and anything else is a crime. The reality of course is that art is a thousand times more deliberate than a lot of people think it is. So yeah. Good info to pass along. Use references, kids. <3" [17]

Photorealism As Its Own Distinct Style

Some fan artists have come under criticisms for using photos as reference, especially in the context of contests or challenges. In 2012, fan artist euclase won second place in the studio sponsored art contest for the movie remake of Dark Shadows. The contest specified a modern updated portrait of Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins using a set of photos from the movie as a reference:

"...Entrant must submit: an original portrait (the "Work") of Johnny Depp in character as Barnabas from the motion picture, Dark Shadows, as inspired by the materials provided for download at the Contest Site."[18]

side by side comparison: Euclase's art is on the left, the screencap from the movie is in the middle, and on the right the two images are overlayed with 80% opacity showing the similarity. Click for a larger version.

Euclase's submission can be seen at right. Additional submissions can be found here[19] and the winners can be found here, Archived version.

While the majority of comments on eculase's Deviantart page were positive and focused on the realism of the digital image,[20] others took issue with the similarity between the photograph and the final drawing:

"Sorry but It looks like you are just painting over photos."[21]

"It is unfortunate that photo-realistic painters are so limited to, well, photos."[22]

" can even see where the folds in the cloth line up completely. Blatant photo manipulation.

Lightening up the shadows and changing the color is not making an original portrait. Sorry, nice photomanipulation, but unless the artist can prove he/she created an actual digital painting using the photo as a reference (with like layers and stuff) I'm protesting this decision.

Almost everyone can tweak a picture on photoshop. Cutting/copy/pasting a picture onto a painted background shouldn't count as making a portrait."[23]

"Sorry, but [see side by side comparison in the gallery below] is just too much proof for me. Even if she has talent, which she does, it is still a blatant copy of the photograph. Our community on DA should not support this sort of thing -- This painting represents what DA expects the rest of us to aspire to, which is just terrible.

There is just no way that you could duplicate every line, shadow, etc. perfectly, exactly, without laying your work directly over the original and lining stuff up first. Which is copying.

If you use a reference picture in its purist intent, to work off of as a reference only, you will not match up completely. It may come close, depending on the skill of the artist, but it would be virtually impossible for an exact copy. It just isn't feasible.

This is literally a perfect recreation of the photo, not just something that is similiar and close to being the same, which was not the point of the contest. Even the best artists cannot do this, and do not do this because artist integrity means they add to the picture with their own personality, interpretation, and style.

There is a difference between drawing from a reference and copying a reference exactly.

Now, I admit that this is a good quality copy that is executed masterfully. But a copy nonetheless. Even putting this aside, simply recreating a photo exactly without adding anything further to it counts as a form of plagarism, just in the same way as copying a passage out of a book and resubmitting as your own work counts.

Even changing a few words is still considered plagarism unless something significantly different is applied and reworded. You should remember this from school. Teachers stressed it all the time.

Something like this would get you fired/failed/fined if you were to submit it to any other venue. It should not be admitted as part of a national contest."[24]

Both the artist and her supporters spent considerable time attempting to explain the artist's technique and photo-realism style in general:

[from euclase]: "Everything I draw is freehand from scratch. I use a lot of references, but I don't trace anything."[25]

[from a supporter]:"She's a photorealist. Wikipedia, photorealist's style: "Photorealist painting cannot exist without the photograph. In Photorealism, change and movement must be frozen in time which must then be accurately represented by the artist." "a style of painting flourishing in the 1970s, especially in the U.S., England, and France, and depicting commonplace scenes or ordinary people, with a meticulously detailed realism, flat images, and barely discernible brushwork that suggests and often is based on or incorporates an actual photograph."

You're basically yelling at a mountain for having the audacity to be too motherfucking tall and full of trees and nature and shit. How dare that mountain act like a mountain. Grrr! Makes me mad!"[26]

[from a supporter]:"I'd say that the difference between referencing a photo for something and just creating it out of your head is the difference between composing a song and playing a song that has already been composed.

Honestly, I don't think it's cheating.

It's not copying, really either, in my mentality."[27]

"The level of skill it took to paint this classically lit and composed portrait from a screencap ref is MINDBLOWING. It is literally fucking flawless execution, no wonder people are shitting themselves and squinting to see the trick behind the curtain. There is no trick."[28]

And one fan even attempted to draw a parallel between the movie, which was essentially a remake of the original Dark Shadows TV series and the art contest:

"This whole contest is built on the idea of borrowed work, Tim Burton had a template with Dark Shadows and made it his own...this girl and many other artists have done the same, each of them has a unique piece of art that contributes to the derivative nature of this contest. Euclase and many others have done a fine job with what they were given. Her piece is, like it or not, her own original piece of art based on the Dark Shadows movie as presented to us all."[29]

Examples of Photo-Referenced Fanart

Meta/Further Reading


  1. ^ from Leonard Nimoy Association of Fans Bulletin (September 1968)
  2. ^ from Strange Bedfellows (APA) #16 (February 1997)
  3. ^ from Winterfest Interview with Sandy Tew
  4. ^ from Winterfest Interview with Clare Sieffert
  5. ^ from Dribbling Scribbling Women: The History of Our Art
  6. ^ From Discovered in a Letterbox #20, Winter 2001.
  7. ^ from a discussion at Virgule-L, quoted with permission (Sep 4, 1995)
  8. ^ What *Is* Art Plagiarism? (READ THIS), Archived version post by sacredflamingheart on Deviantart dated July 11, 2009F.
  9. ^ Art Plagiarism Alert. Please report on Deviant Art[Dead link] post on tumblr dated Dec 27, 2012. The artist's account was, as of April 2013, deactivated.
  10. ^ Plagiarism and FanArt, Archived version thread at the Buffy forum SlayAlive dated March 6, 2011.
  11. ^ In the professional art world, read William M. Landes, Copyright Protection and Appropriation Art, Archived version and Drawing the Line – Inspiration or Plagiarism?, Archived version by Karen Liez.
  12. ^ Another rant on artistic plagiarism. Please pardon my language, Archived version[Dead link] post on tumblr dated 2012;
  13. ^ the original question was asked at eliciaforever.tumblr, but is now gone. It can be seen in the reposts: bonearenaofmyskull.tumblr, Archived version
  14. ^ paint me the colors of sky and rain — eliciaforever: Why do artists refuse to use..., Archived version
  15. ^ Grell Sutcliff's Crimson Reverie, stooby-doo: pridetothefall: wolveswithhats:..., Archived version
  16. ^ endlessly fascinated, Archived version
  17. ^ eliciaforever's comment see at fuckyeahbadfursuits.tumblr, Archived version
  18. ^ Dark Shadows The Barnabas Portrait Project, Archived version dated April 2012.
  19. ^ [Dead link] but some old entries can still be found by DeviantArt search tool, Archived version
  20. ^ "You should have gotten first! This is awesome. Looks like a photograph." Comment by *Ayahana-Manami on eculase's Deviantart page, Archived version. Posted May 11, 2012.
  21. ^ comment by !helfox on euclase's Deviantart page, Archived version. Posted Aug 21, 2012.
  22. ^ comment on by =daChaosKitty on euclase's Deviantart page, Archived version. Posted May 12, 2012.
  23. ^ comment on euclase's Deviantart page, Archived version.
  24. ^ comment on euclase's Deviantart page, Archived version.
  25. ^ comment on euclase's Deviantart page, Archived version.
  26. ^ comment on euclase's Deviantart page, Archived version.
  27. ^ comment on euclase's Deviantart page, Archived version.
  28. ^ comment on euclase's Deviantart page, Archived version.
  29. ^ comment on euclase's Deviantart page, Archived version.
  30. ^ a link to a larger version here, The Circuit Archive, accessed September 5.2012
  31. ^ ]]original here, Archived version
  32. ^ from My Summer Art, Archived version, November 8, 2011
  33. ^ See also [1], [2], and [3] from Deviantart for non-zine art.
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