Cool Portrait Reference for Beginners – Everything You Wanted to Know

portrait reference for beginners

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When starting out in portraiture, finding a good quality portrait reference for beginners can be a daunting task. References are key when learning to draw or paint from life. Without them, you’re working purely from your imagination which is often not accurate and will limit your progress as an artist.

I have compiled just for you a list of the best free portrait reference websites that have high-quality images that you can use for practice plus answering some of the more common portrait-related questions you may have.

What are portrait references?

A portrait reference is simply an image of a person that you can use as a starting point for your drawings or paintings. It’s important to use high-quality portrait references if you want to improve your skills as an artist.

As a beginner artist, it is easy to be tempted to draw famous people using stock photos online or on Instagram. The problem with using these reference photos for portraits is that you will end up becoming a copy artist who produces photo realist portraits and not actual original art or portraits that can be commissioned by real customers.

The best portrait reference for beginners is from real life or by studying portrait paintings or portrait reference photos produced specifically for beginner artists.

The reason these are better than stock photos is that they are usually produced using lighting that one would use for portraits. They also tend to provide photos of the model from various angles so that you can study the reference photos from different sides.

multi angle portrait reference
A multi angle portrait reference for beginners

The best way to find portrait reference is to take your own photos using multiple angles and lighting or find someone willing to sit for you while you draw or paint them.

There are many benefits of using portrait references from real life:

1) You can control the lighting and composition of the reference photo.

2) You can use a variety of poses and angles to practice different portrait styles.

3) You can get to know your subject matter better by spending time with them and observing their features up close.

So if you’re a beginner artist looking for portrait reference, make sure to look for high-quality photos from real life instead of relying on stock images of faces and heads. It will make a world of difference in your artwork!

I have found a few good multi angle portrait reference for beginners on Pinterest. When you click on this link it will open Pinterest in a new tab so that you can keep reading here.

Why do beginners need a portrait reference?

Using portrait references is a great way to improve your portraiture skills. When I was starting out with portraits I would draw and paint famous faces like Marilyn Monroe or other movie stars and singers but I struggled to achieve good results with everyday people because I was learning to draw familiar faces with familiar features but I was not pushing the limit of my skills with doing something different.

I started drawing faces of people I knew, I would draw my dad’s portrait, my own one over and over, and then the portraits of girls I liked at school and friends.

These were great but before the advent of phone cameras, I had no way to practice these portraits once I was home alone.

I needed to practice and study the features or real people but had no references. That was when my mother bought me a book of reference photos for poses and faces and it was a revelation to me.

I could finally practice drawing real people and people who were not famous or familiar to me.

By studying the features of real people, you can learn how to better capture a likeness in your own drawings and paintings. Additionally, using reference photos can help you to understand the construction of the human face, which is essential knowledge for any portrait artist as no two faces are exactly the same and it is learning how a face is constructed that will help you to better understand how to draw one.

There are countless reasons why portrait references are important for beginners. Here are just a few:

1) It’s difficult to know where to start when drawing or painting a portrait from scratch. A purpose-made portrait reference photo can provide a helpful starting point.

2) You can learn a lot about facial proportions and features by studying a real person’s face. This knowledge will be invaluable in your own artwork.

3) Seeing how light and shadow fall on a real face can teach you a lot about lighting techniques. This is information that you simply can’t get from looking at drawings or paintings.

4) And lastly, portrait references can help you to practice your skills and improve your technique.

How to use a portrait reference in your artwork

Now that you know the reasons for using portrait references, let’s talk about how to actually use them in your artwork. Here are a few tips:

1) Don’t copy the reference photo exactly. Use it as a starting point, but make sure to put your own spin on things. Remember, you’re an artist and not a copycat artist!

2) Try to capture the essence of the person in your portrait, rather than just their physical appearance. What kind of emotions are they conveying? What kind of personality do they have?

3) Pay attention to the lighting in the reference photo, and try to recreate it in your painting or drawing. This can be tricky, but it’s worth taking the time to get it right.

4) By focusing on the lighting you will learn how to apply shadows and shading which is the foundation to getting a portrait likeness correct.

5) Attempt to draw the same portrait but from different angles. This will allow you to see how the same face may look different depending on the angle of the light. It will also teach you how perspective comes into play when you look at features such as ears and hair that can make or break a portrait.

Remember, a portrait’s aim is to obtain a likeness of the person and not an exact copy, otherwise, just take a photo of them and don’t bother with a portrait painting or drawing.

Tips for working from a portrait reference

1) Try to find a portrait reference that is as close to the angle you want to paint or draw from. This will make things much easier for you and will reduce the amount of guesswork involved.

2) If you’re using a photograph as your reference, use one that has good lighting. This will help you see the different tones and shadows on the face which are essential for creating a realistic portrait.

3) Take your time. Don’t try to rush your portrait just because you’re working from a reference. A portrait is still a piece of art and should be treated as such.

4) Study your reference material thoroughly before starting your portrait. Look at everything from the shape of the eyes to the direction of the hair

5) Try using a variety of portrait reference photos, like old people, young people, different nationalities, beards, babies, etc. Push the limits of what you are comfortable with.

How do you get a reference for portraits?

There are many ways to find portrait references. One way is to do a search on Google Images or another search engine. You can also visit websites that specialize in providing reference photos, such as stock photo websites.

A few of my favorite stock photo sites are and With either just search for ‘portrait reference’ and see if you like the results. My own experience tells me has a better selection of portrait reference photos for beginners.

Another unique site is the Creative Commons site owned by WordPress. It has a lot of original portrait reference photos you may like.

Personally, I prefer to use portrait reference photo books. With purpose-made and professionally produced portrait reference books you will find books that cover:

  • portrait lighting references
  • portrait poses
  • facial expressions
  • portraits that are made using different media such as charcoal or watercolors
  • old master portraits and new master portraits

Here are some portrait reference books I found that you may be interested in.

q? encoding=UTF8&ASIN=0823096157&Format= SL250 &ID=AsinImage&MarketPlace=US&ServiceVersion=20070822&WS=1&tag=wastedtalenti 20&language=en USir?t=wastedtalenti 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=0823096157 q? encoding=UTF8&ASIN=1631596926&Format= SL250 &ID=AsinImage&MarketPlace=US&ServiceVersion=20070822&WS=1&tag=wastedtalenti 20&language=en USir?t=wastedtalenti 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=1631596926 q? encoding=UTF8&ASIN=0823016714&Format= SL250 &ID=AsinImage&MarketPlace=US&ServiceVersion=20070822&WS=1&tag=wastedtalenti 20&language=en USir?t=wastedtalenti 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=0823016714 q? encoding=UTF8&ASIN=1608955206&Format= SL250 &ID=AsinImage&MarketPlace=US&ServiceVersion=20070822&WS=1&tag=wastedtalenti 20&language=en USir?t=wastedtalenti 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=1608955206 q? encoding=UTF8&ASIN=1624650317&Format= SL250 &ID=AsinImage&MarketPlace=US&ServiceVersion=20070822&WS=1&tag=wastedtalenti 20&language=en USir?t=wastedtalenti 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=1624650317

Lastly you can visit a museum or art gallery. This is what many traditional art schools do. Students are sent to make copies or busts or heads of statues using pencil or charcoal. The aim is not to copy a statue but to learn to draw a likeness using a model that will be happy to sit there for hours and never move.

Naming art

Are there free reference photos for artists?

The best portrait reference photos are the ones that you pay for. But there are some sites that offer good quality portrait reference photos for free. Here is a list of portrait reference photo sites that don’t charge:

Reference Image Library – This site has a great selection of high-resolution portrait reference photos.

Pixabay – This site has a large selection of free stock photos, including portrait reference photos.

Unsplash – This site offers a wide variety of free stock photos, including portrait reference photos.

Pinterest – This site is a great place to find portrait reference photos, as well as inspiration for your art. The only issue I have with Pinterest is that you will probably need to click to a few sites before you find one that is useful.

Can I use a Portrait reference generator?

Yes and No. A portrait reference generator is not really recommended. The quality of the portrait reference photo is not as good as it would be if you paid for a portrait reference photo. From my own experience, you tend to get more full-body reference photos rather than a portrait reference photo or you get a simple stock photo that you could have found on your own online.

Here are some that I found if you are interested in having a look:

ReferenceAngle – This one is actually not bad. You enter the values needed and it produces a series of reference photos for you based on your search criteria.

What I found useful was the computer generated head that you can enlarge and rotate with a mouse. This was a pretty cool reference image for portraits.

The other two sites below just produce photos based on your search criteria.

SketchDaily References

Line of Action

Do I need a model release form to use someone’s portrait?

If you plan on using someone’s portrait in your artwork, you will need to get a model release form signed by the person in the portrait. A model release form is a legal document that gives you permission to use the person’s likeness in your artwork. In the majority of cases, you do not need one of these.

You would only need the release if you hired a model for the purposes of making a portrait study or selling a portrait study.

You can find portrait reference photos on stock photo sites like Shutterstock and iStockPhoto. However, these sites require you to purchase photos, which can get expensive. I wouldn’t even bother with these.

Portrait Reference for Beginners – Wrap up!

I hope this article has helped you understand portrait references for beginners a little better. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below!

Remember, a portrait reference is a photo that artists can use to help them paint or draw a portrait. There are many places where you can find portrait references, but the best place to find them is on the internet or in books.

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Joe Colella - Chief Wasted Talent
Joe Colella – Chief Wasted Talent

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