Using reference is essential when sculpting, but how do you actually use reference correctly? In this article, we’ll cover 5 really handy ways of using reference which can dramatically improve the quality of your art.


Reference vs final sculpt

1 – Find Good Reference Images

The quality of your sculpt is often directly tied to the quality of your reference images, so make sure you spend some time early on finding high quality reference. How many references I collect depends entirely on the scope of the project. If it’s a more involved piece, often commercial, I spend hours collecting reference, making sure that I have images to back up every single element I have to create. Make sure the images are high res, have good lighting and clearly gives you the information you need.

The model used in this article is a pretty quick 2-hour concept sculpt and for that, I only needed a few images. I found a few pictures of Prince Philip from different angles and in various lighting scenarios. I also found two images of older people with incredibly rough skin.

2 -Don’t Use Contradicting Images

Collecting too many reference images can be problematic, as they can easily contradict each other. If you want to sculpt a ‘generic old man’ and you find reference images of 10 different people, chances are that they will contract each other. Some will have long noses, others short ones. Some will be tall, others short. It’s important that the reference you collect works in harmony with each other instead of against it.

Good – 50 images of the same person from different angles, like a photoscan session. These images shows the same subject, but each image gives you more information.

Bad – 50 images of completely different people. You’ll end up frustrated and confused as you don’t have a clear direction.

While they are all all ‘old men’ their facial features are completely different. If you were to make an ‘old man’, stick to one of the people above and find a lot of images from different angles

3 – Observe and Analyse Your Reference

It’s extremely important to analyse your reference properly instead of simply glancing at it. Count each wrinkle, look at the specific shape of the nose – really analyse. Nature has solved most of your design issues, so if you observe what you’ve been provided, your art will feel more natural. The skill of truly observing is one of the most useful skills an artist can have and it will serve you throughout your entire career. It will set your work apart from the artists who simply glance at their reference and will dramatically increase your chances of getting hired.

4 – Use Different Reference for Different Parts of the Model

If you’re doing an imaginary character or creature, there’s no way to find one piece of reference which fits your every need, so this is where you have to get creative. I often collect reference for different parts of the project:

  • Overall feeling
  • General body shape
  • Specific facial features
  • Skin treatment
  • Texture color

5 – Start a Reference Library Today

Every artist should have a reference library they can source from. It makes starting projects so much easier, instead of having to search for unique reference every time. I’ve collected mine for almost a decade and I have images in a lot of categories, such as: Anatomy, Animals & Creatures, Character Design, Cute, Beauty, Environment, Lighting, Composition ++. When I start a new project I tend to first spend some time going over the images I’ve already collected and then I branch once I need new reference. Every time I find an interesting image online or when working, I add it to my collection.

Tip: Put your reference library on Dropbox and share it with artists you trust. They can then add their own images and your collective library will keep on growing.

YouTube Video – The Right Way to Use Reference when Sculpting

We recommend that you check out our video on using reference, which shows you how we use reference in a practical way when sculpting.

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Henning Sanden

About the author: I'm the Co-Founder of FlippedNormals. I used to work as a character modeller and texture artist in VFX, having worked on films like Alien Covenant, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Batman V Superman - and more.